“Digital humanities in higher education” @ ITHAKA Sustainable Scholarship conference 2013,

Update: This session was videotaped and you can watch it here http://vimeo.com/album/2611239/video/79505431

Today I took part in a panel entitled “Digital humanities in higher education” at the ITHAKA Sustainable Scholarship Conference 2013. This panel included Karen Calhoun (moderator), AUL Organizational Development and Assessment, University of Pittsburgh; Mark LeBlanc, Professor of Computer Science, Meneely Chair, Wheaton College; Josh Sosin, Associate Professor of Classical Studies and History, Duke University; and myself, representing the library point of view.

Below are the questions that were asked of the panel and my answers.

1. When did you first realize you were a digital humanist? Tell us about what you are doing now, and how you first came to the work.

I’m an alt-ac professional. In 1995 I jumped from the PhD program in NYU’s French Department to a paraprofessional position at NYU libraries in order to start my career as a librarian, and I was immediately pegged as someone who was comfortable working with and learning about technology (even though I had hardly used any technology up until that point). My first assignment upon taking this job was to create the library’s first website (migrating the content from existing gopher pages). I figured if I could make it through my PhD orals in French literature, learning how to put commands in pointy brackets would be a piece of cake. In 1996 I attended the Center for Electronic Texts in the Humanities conference (lead by humanities computing leaders such as Susan Hockey and Willard McCarty). That was my first taste of what was then called humanities computing. Ever since then, I’ve been building library services for and partnering with scholars using technology for their research and teaching. Today my colleague Monica McCormick and I are involved in supporting digital humanities initiatives at NYU and are building a new library unit called Digital Scholarship Services.

2. How are your digital projects engaging audiences? How have the audiences for your work changed over time?

While there has been some interest in digital humanities at NYU over the years, there hasn’t been a groundswell like at some other institutions. Since Dean Carol Mandel arrived at NYU Libraries in 1999, NYU has invested deeply in building digital library services and infrastructure. Through the years DL has developed methods for digitizing content, preserving it, and publishing it in scalable and sustainable ways. Typically, the audience or users of more “traditional” DL output are consumers of a finished product. They go to a website to read or watch what has been digitized.

Our Digital Library has also helped some scholars create their own scholarly environments, most notably with our Media Commons initiative. But over the years more and more scholars at NYU were seeking ways to become producers of their own digital scholarly content. They want to create databases, have server space for testing software, create online journals, design interactive visualizations, produce other web-based “publications,” etc.

Two and a half years ago, we investigated how our peers were providing support for digital scholarship and we talked to local faculty about their needs. From that effort we created a new unit at NYU libraries called Digital Scholarship Services that is intended to do 3 key things: 1. Help scholars learn about available services and act as a kind of “concierge” to organize scholars’ interactions with these services based on their project needs; 2. Introduce new services where there are gaps; 3. Advise on project planning and management.

Over the past few years, some faculty have been actively seeking to engage their students with digital scholarship, introducing computer literacy and discipline-based computing into the curriculum. Thus the audience for digital scholarship services is growing. Scalability and sustainability are our watchwords. While we seek to satisfy individual scholars’ needs, to the extent possible we are designing services that do not produce one-off and impossible-to-sustain solutions.

3. What are your thoughts about how the digital humanities initiatives you lead or support are disruptive or require a break with past practices, tradition or mindsets?  On the other hand, what may need to happen to make these initiatives scalable and sustainable going forward?

Digital scholarship requires much more technology infrastructure and knowledge than traditional scholarship. For example, compare a traditional book writing project to creating a multimedia website requiring customized descriptive metadata and GIS coding for displaying the results on a map and in other visualization tools. This is not an a-typical request. Unless the scholar is unusually tech savvy, service providers are more deeply involved throughout the duration of a scholar’s project, and we can play important roles at each part of the research lifecycle: from helping her decide how to collect or create her data, identifying appropriate cataloging vocabularies and processes, selecting a hosting platform, and collecting GIS data, to teaching her students to collect and code the data as part of a course project. As well, we are well situated to help scholars think about sustainability (when it’s appropriate for them and when it isn’t), and to consider archiving or preservation at the start of a project, before decisions are made that might render the output unsustainable.

While this kind of work certainly requires some new skills and knowledge on the part of service providers, at NYU we already have a good number of service elements in place: domain matter experts (in subject librarians), metadata specialists (in catalogers), and people with deep knowledge of digital archiving and preservation, IT, and even project management. We can tap these existing areas of expertise while strategically filling in skills where needed. In NYU’s Digital Scholarship Services, for example, we think strategically about professional development to supplement existing staff skills, and we are currently hiring one additional staff member to bring in new skills and increase capacity. At the same time, we continue to partner with existing departments, involving staff when needed on a project-by-project basis.

In addition to leveraging existing staff knowledge and expertise, to create scalable and sustainable services we must also carefully select and design the services we offer. For example, rather than helping a few scholars build boutique websites, we prefer to guide many scholars toward robust, if less customizable, platforms such as an institutional WordPress service. We talk openly with scholars about the perils of over-customization and the benefits of using more standardized platforms and methods for their work. They appreciate our honesty and our concern for the long-term viability of their research.

As well, some work is not meant to be sustainable. Scholars need access to development servers to try new things that will not necessarily persist long-term. This is currently a service gap at NYU that we are eager to fill. At the same time, we have to be very clear when communicating with scholars about which services are best for temporary work, and which will provide some level of persistence. Service definitions should describe what users can expect when they engage with our services so they make informed decisions and have reasonable expectations.

4. How are teaching, learning and research changing in the academy and how are library service models changing accordingly?

Scholars frequently start off by asking us for a website, which for them could mean any number of things, including a custom-built database, a place to post links for a class, a content management system, a wiki, a folder where they can share documents with others, or an actual website. We have dubbed this indefinite but typical cry for help the “faculty website problem.”

In the summer of 2011, as we were investigating how our peers supported digital scholarship, we decided to map out how this new suite of services would fit into our existing service landscape at NYU. The high-level service model we came up is basically an equilateral triangle divided horizontally into 4 layers. Fewer and fewer people are served as you move up the triangle to the tip, so the incentive is to provide as many services in the bottom two layers as possible.

The bottom layer represents our core academic services offered at an enterprise level. These include, for example, our media streaming service, wikis, our library catalog, the LMS, Google apps for Ed – all the enterprise tools that everyone at NYU has access to.

The next layer up would be our core digital scholarship services, designed to satisfy the needs of the maximum number of scholars. Here we would put our institutional repository, an Omeka service when we had one, copyright consultation, etc.

The third layer up recognizes the need, for select clients, for a certain level of customization to the core digital scholarship services the next level down (for example, designing a custom metadata input interface to our institutional repository). Notice I said that this layer is “for select clients.” Customization requires greater staff time than enterprise, one-size-fits-all services. To keep this layer sustainable, you need to institute a selection process. Who gets customization and who doesn’t? We are still feeling our way toward this decision.

The top layer, the tip of the triangle, is where applied research and development happens. This takes a great deal of staff time, but the payoff hopefully is that this research will allow us to roll out new, sustainable services at an enterprise level. A good non-NYU example might be the CUNY Commons in a Box: a WordPress plugin designed to support online communities, that was developed at CUNY to solve a local need, which they then made available to the whole world as a free download.

This service model has helped us to articulate the relationship between standardized services and the numbers of users served. As well, it helps us to visualize service gaps and communicate more effectively about which services are designed for whom at what service level. At the end of this program you’ll find a link to an article that Monica McCormick and I wrote in 2012 about scalable and sustainable service provision.

To read more about our research, this high-level service model, and how we’re thinking about supporting digital scholarship organizationally, read the article Monica McCormick and I wrote in 2012 on “Supporting Digital Scholarship in Research Libraries: Scalability and Sustainability.”