What are some challenges to doing DH in the library?

You may be familiar with the scenario: the faculty member groaning (often justifiably) that it’s taken so long to get one simple project off the ground that she’s given up on trying to work with librarians. Or the administrator who wonders why librarians aren’t trying harder to learn new skills.

Having actually done some digital humanities in the library, this attitude frustrates me, though I understand where it comes from. In my experience, many of the barriers to completing digital humanities projects in the library arise not from librarians themselves, but from a set of institutional and administrative factors that will be familiar to most people in Libraryland.

This is not to say that DH isn’t done in the library. It is, and well (though, as my colleagues and I found, it’s often being done in a pretty piecemeal fashion that relies more on individual librarians’ persistence than on institutional support). And it’s important to note that DH was being done in the library (and in the archive) well before it made its way into academic departments.

But I’m thinking of the libraries where DH hasn’t really found a foothold, where a faculty member or administrator is starting to wonder what’s wrong with their librarians that they can’t seem to marshall the resources and expertise to collaborate on DH projects.

I’m writing an article for the Journal of Library Administration on some of the barriers to getting DH done in the library, and I could use your help making my list. I think that these challenges all have solutions, and that there are really excellent reasons to persist in doing DH in the library. But as Bethany Nowviskie has said, librarians’ vaunted service ethic sometimes prevents them from being candid with faculty and administrators about the challenges they face and the resources they need. I promise to offer solutions, too, but I think it’s important for us all to be on the same page about what we need in order to do DH well.

I have a number of ideas, based on experience, discussions, and research, but I would really appreciate your additions and corrections to my list in the comments. Or perhaps you’d prefer to email me at miriam.posner@gmail.com. Continue reading “What are some challenges to doing DH in the library?”

Research tools redux: What I use

Photo of archival binders
Photo by pixelhut

I posted recently about tools for managing a research workflow, and one of the points I made is that no set of tools will be right for everyone. I’ve tried and failed to foist my favorite tools on enough people to know that this is true.

Still, after I wrote the post, a few people asked me which tools I use. I do indeed have a number of favored tools, and since I find myself endlessly fascinating, I enjoyed the chance to consider why I use them and what it says about me as a researcher. I’d also really love to hear what you use and why!

Here’s what I use in a nutshell:

I haven’t used DEVONthink much in the past, but after giving it a more concentrated trial for my last post, I suspect it will make its way into my workflow, too.

Here’s why these tools work for me:

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Anatomy on film: the imaginary archive

Frame from Circulatory System (1924)
Frame from Sarnoff's Circulatory System (1924)

A lot of my research is on medical filmmaking: films that physicians and other medical professionals made for each other. It turns out that there are a lot of these. Doctors have been making movies since the invention of the medium.

I’m fascinated by a strain of thought that recurs frequently in discussions of anatomical films. Here’s an example from 1919:

The films of the Surgeon General’s Library will be available to teachers in the army and medical schools and the profession, just as the books in the Surgeon General’s Library are for study and reference.¹

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Opposite sides of the cafetorium: notes from a THATCamp Southeast session on librarian-scholar collaboration

"Will You Go to the Dance with Me?" by wireheadinc
"Will You Go to the Dance with Me?" by wireheadinc

I attended a session at THATCamp Southeast (which Shawn Averkamp proposed) on ways to promote collaboration between librarians and scholars (a subject close to my heart). We took notes together using a collaborative Google doc, and here’s my attempt to summarize.

“We get paid to be interrupted!”

The academics in the room started out by saying that they weren’t sure when it was appropriate to ask for assistance from a librarian. At what point, they wondered, are we impinging on the librarian’s time? Librarians responded that it sounded as though they needed to give out better information about the specific services librarians offer, like research interviews. In general, they said, they welcome any kind of consultation. “We get paid to be interrupted!” one librarian said.

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The deal with the Google Book Search settlement

google_logoGoogle Book Search has been in the news lately for a settlement it made with the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers over Google’s plan to scan books. You may have heard that  people are pretty worked up about the settlement.

It matters for academics because the settlement will in large part dictate the terms under which many books are available online.

If you’re confused about the settlement, you’re not alone. I’ve been wading through blog posts and news items trying to get my head around what’s in the agreement. Here’s my best effort at a description of what’s going on, for us non-insiders. I can’t promise all the details are 100% accurate, and please correct me if I’m mistaken, but this is my understanding.

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I do not understand the point of curated databases

Photo by Nesster.
Photo by Nesster.

Lately I’ve been volunteering to do usability testing for Yale’s library. Well, “volunteering” is probably too generous a word, since Yale pays pretty well, in the form of iTunes and Barnes & Noble gift cards. I like the gift cards, but I love the excuse to rant about what I do and don’t like about the library interface.

I have no idea how much of my ranting is actually relevant to the subject of the tests, but I enjoy it anyway. Most recently, I enjoyed ranting about what I’ve been calling “curated” databases, since I don’t know the technical term for them.

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Blogging the Beinecke

Room 26 Cabinet of Curiosities is a blog featuring amazing finds from Yale’s phenomenal Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. I like the lesbian pulp novels, the Revolutionary War-era lottery tickets, and the WPA textbooks from the 1940s. The blog is maintained by Tim Young (curator of the Modern Books and Manuscripts collection) and Nancy Kuhl (curator of poetry for the Yale Collection of American Literature).

Riding a moon bat to Saturn (obviously), from Voyage dans la Lune, a 1900 book about lunar travel in the Beineckes collection.
Riding a moon bat to Saturn (obviously), from Voyage dans la Lune, a 1900 book about lunar travel in the Beinecke's collection.

I think a blog is a great way of showcasing a collection, since it portions out awesome finds in manageable chunks. I often feel overwhelmed by the number of digital collections out there, and a blog helps me to process things at a reasonable pace.

Also awesome: the Beinecke produces podcasts about its events and exhibitions. To be honest, I’m not likely to listen to a podcast of an event (although maybe others are?), because an event is an event — designed for the people who are there in person, and not necessarily suited for recording. I’d really like to see them spotlight individual items in the collection, the way they do in the blog, and explore them from a bunch of different angles.

Libraries I like: Brown’s Friedman Study Center

Bright colors make a big difference. Photo by the Brown University Class of 60.
Bright colors make a big difference. Photo by the Brown University Class of '60.

I liked Yale’s Mudd Library for its endearing obsolescence, but for the Study Space of the Future, you can’t beat the Friedman Study Center in Brown University’s Science Library.

The Friedman Study Center, which opened in 2007, is a 24-hour study space designed by the Architecture Research Office. It’s in the basement of Brown’s Science Library, a Brutalist monster that’s about as inviting as a prison. The study center, though, plays against the cave-like, concrete walls of the library with exposed cables, bright colors, and an open atmosphere.

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