How Academic Librarians Are Shaping the Digital Humanities

When cutting-edge digital technologies and the humanities intersect, the possibilities for new and exciting research projects are endless. In this process, academic librarians play a pivotal role – and here’s how.

This post is part of a series that provides think pieces and resources for academic librarians.

Digitization has transformed the research landscape in the humanities. Above all, innovative modes of data-driven analysis have uncovered new research methodologies, challenging the role of articles and monographs as the primary bearers of scholarship.

But for digital humanities scholars to apply innovative technologies in their research, the source material on which they rely must first be made legible to machines. Digitizing and preserving research material in a way that benefits both present and future scholars is increasingly a central task for contemporary academic librarians.

In doing so, academic librarians play essential roles in advancing digital humanities among faculty, students, and staff at their institutions. But how exactly do they contribute? In the following, I discuss some of the key insights gained from my experience as a librarian working in the digital humanities.

From Digitization to “Datafication”

Digital humanities builds on the work of librarians in digitizing their collections. Many librarians got their start in the digital humanities by scanning and describing collections. For example, when I began my career in theological librarianship, the Lilly Endowment had just granted Princeton Theological Seminary $1.2 million to digitize, among others, the works of Karl Barth. A major product of that grant is the Digital Library of Karl Barth, a dual-language edition using the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) of nearly all published works by the Swiss German theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968). Contributing to that edition gave me a crash course in outsourcing, quality control, metadata creation, and international copyright.

“Digitizing a book requires more than scanning its pages and putting the images online.”

A takeaway from digitization is that “data matters.” As librarians know (but not all patrons understand), digitizing a book requires more than scanning its pages and putting the images online. If you want anyone to find your digital work, you need to provide structured metadata. And if you want scholars to explore the latent information in the digitized text, you have to make sure you capture the words on the page accurately; off-the-shelf optical character recognition (OCR) fails miserably when up against documents typeset during the letterpress era.

The shift from digitization to “datafication” is crucial to the digital humanities. You cannot easily carry out network analysis, data mining, or topic modeling of digital texts when they are riddled with metadata and OCR errors. By contrast, the presence of high-quality data and metadata opens up diverse opportunities and applications beyond the initial purposes of digitization.

An example of such an application is stylometry, which is, roughly speaking, the statistical analysis of authorial style. A stylometric study looks for subtle “tells” in literary corpora to identify authors, differentiate co-authors, and develop periodizations. Notably, Michał Choiński and Jan Rybicki of the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, used stylometry to analyze the work of 18th century Puritan preachers from colonial America. The Jonathan Edwards Center made this analysis possible by providing the researchers with high-quality digital texts that got even the small words right.

Lifecycle Management is Key

Librarians support the entire lifecycle of digital projects. Their experience with the digital humanities has taught them, often the hard way, that ongoing support and preservation must be planned for from the beginning. Digital projects require active maintenance: servers require updates; application programming interfaces (APIs) change; metadata standards change or, in some cases, become obsolete.

“Establishing a plan for lifecycle management before setting out on a project provides guidance on preserving a project’s intellectual contributions for the long term.”

Websites are the worst offenders. Over the past decade, web development frameworks have come and gone at a dizzying pace. The move toward simplified versions using static site generators like Jekyll has helped, but dealing with technical issues can still be a headache.

Keeping components up to date does not advance the state of scholarship, so it gets little attention from funders. At many institutions, librarians collaborating with colleagues in information technology pick up the slack. Establishing a plan for lifecycle management before setting out on a project provides guidance on preserving a project’s intellectual contributions for the long term.

Digital Humanities is a Team Sport

The connection between libraries and digital humanities runs deeper than any role or department. There are, of course, innovators who carry the title “Digital Humanities Librarians.” These staff members support faculty and students at their institutions by providing resources, training, and hands-on contributions. But a strong digital humanities program will also involve librarians from departments such as acquisitions, e-resources, cataloging and metadata, and special collections.

For example, savvy e-resources librarians negotiate text and data mining rights. Moreover, they now secure permission to train and fine-tune AI models for datasets they acquire, enabling “distant readings” with computational tools. Metadata experts play a crucial role by recommending appropriate standards and schema, fostering connections across projects and allowing them to extend beyond their original contexts. Special collections librarians and archivists collaborate with technology staff to digitize antiquarian books, personal papers, and corporate records, gaining transferable experience in database design, scripting, and cloud computing.

“Digital humanities at its best is exploratory, with faculty, librarians, staff, and students all learning from each other.”

As the field matures, digital humanities is forging stronger connections between librarians, faculty, and students. Digital humanities projects are generally team-based activities. At Vanderbilt, for example, I co-taught an extracurricular seminar on textual analysis with faculty from the department of English and the school of education. In this working group, we instructed cohorts of about ten students each semester in the computational literary analysis of 18th century British periodical literature.

Other notable collaborations include Architectura Sinica, an international effort to provide uniform English terms for architectural features of Chinese temples, and, which produces gazetteers, prosopographies, and other research tools to preserve Syriac cultural heritage.

Digital humanities at its best is exploratory, with faculty, librarians, staff, and students all learning from each other. As librarians apply their expertise in these new contexts, they become valued partners in digital humanities research. A book I co-authored on the XQuery programming language grew out of my work in the Special Collections at Princeton Seminary to digitize and make their collections accessible. In similar fashion, faculty members at Vanderbilt’s School of Engineering and I just launched a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on the Coursera platform titled “Programming for a Networked World.” This course incorporates lessons from my experience teaching textual analysis.

These collaborations help faculty and students to appreciate the contribution of librarians to fostering teaching, learning, and research in the 21st century academic landscape.

[Title image by Maksim Tkachenko/iStock/Getty Images Plus]

Clifford B. Anderson

Clifford B. Anderson is Director of Digital Research at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, NJ. He is also Chief Digital Strategist at the Vanderbilt University Library. He holds a secondary appointment as Professor of Religious Studies in the College of Arts & Science at Vanderbilt University.

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