Why understanding the Digital Humanities is key for libraries.

I just read a recent blog post by MITH Director Neil Fraistat, “The Questions(s) of Digital Humanities,” in which he discusses the Digital Humanities not just as a set of practices enacted by humanists, but as a field or discipline in itself. As a very sympathetic observer of the digital humanities, as a librarian working to support scholarship in the digital realm, and as a former humanities scholar, I’m drawn to this discussion for (at least) three reasons.

1. I’m interested in thinking about how the digital humanities and digital library worlds relate to each other and how we can build more bridges between the two communities.

2. I’m also intrigued because there is no equivalent, that I’m aware of, on the digital library side. Granted, there are many different ways of defining the “digital library” (it’s a collection! it’s a set of services! it’s about preservation! it’s about access!). But those of us working in digital libraries don’t typically spend much time thinking deeply about whether or not our work constitutes a distinct field or discipline. Maybe I’ll explore the reasons for this in a later post.

3. The third reason why these insightful “what is digital humanities” discussions interest me — and the reason I’m writing today — is because of the positive effect I believe they will have on the evolution of libraries.

We all know how the information landscape has evolved over the last two decades, resulting in an existential crisis for libraries. Things we’ve taken for granted for more than a century (our users, our services, our content, our “unique” value to humanity) are all called into question and need to be redefined for ourselves and re-articulated for our constituents. In an environment where more and more scholarly content is being licensed in packages from vendors, or being digitized and served from massive online collections, we can no longer measure our value as a “content store,” in numbers of volumes housed. The academic library’s value, determined by it’s capacity to support the research of its users, endures only if it evolves along with the scholarly practices of its users.

Librarians have been watching how knowledge creation and dissemination are changing in the sciences, and have been adapting our service models as a result. But we haven’t yet seen such widescale change in the humanities. Now, with the digital humanities’ recent growth and evolution into the “next big thing,” we in libraries have the opportunity to follow the maturation of this field in the academy and rethink our services within this emerging paradigm. Some libraries have long been involved in partnering with scholars on DH initiatives. But as DH becomes more and more a mainstream concept and is seen as an “option” for more humanists generally, and as digital humanities is more clearly defined as a discipline or field (with it’s own modes of knowledge creation), even libraries late to the DH game will be forced to evolve their services accordingly.

In a world where the academic library’s value will increasingly be determined by the quality of its services rather than the number of physical objects it stores, we must have a deep understanding of how knowledge production is changing in the fields we serve and partner with scholars to build new services that they actually need. A 2006 ACLR essay entitled “Changing Roles of Academic and Research Libraries” argues that libraries “must distinguish between faculty* who are essential to the library’s future and those essential to its past…” While continuing to serve the latter, we should be building strong relationships with the former because whether or not we do right by them will be the measure of our value going forward.

* Note: the ACRL essay says “faculty” because it’s focus is on advocacy for libraries within the academy, and it assumes that faculty will be powerful advocates if they experience the value of a library transformed to meet their needs. For the purposes of this post I would substitute the more inclusive term “scholar.”