dh+me

- 6 mins

I tweeted three days ago about a conversation with Anna-Sophia Zingarelli-Sweet which may later find life in some scholarly production and said the following about my relationship with the digital humanities:

Some context: Though I am a metadataist/cataloger by trade right now, I am trained primarily as a humanities scholar with the specialties of historical musicology, media and cultural criticism, Frierian education, and critical theory. I largely thought my career would take me into humanities liaison librarianship. It may still. I’m in a conundrum not over whether to get a PhD, but what discipline/program to get it in when the time is right. You’d think I would be a natural fit in the digital humanities. However, the “Digital Humanities” has always felt like this foreign language I’d never be able to speak and that people (save Ryan Randall) preach about without really making it relatable or understandable to people for whom DH would otherwise be a fit1. DH really suffers from an identity crisis, in no small part because of the intersection of the humanities’ relationship with the neoliberal academy in a time of austerity and the precariousness of digital humanities research output within the magical economy of tenure-based promotion and advancement.

While DH supposedly is a more collegial2 corner of the academic community, I get the feeling it hasn’t rooted out the structural problems that come along with interdepartmental collaboration: money, recognition, labor division, and everything else that comes along with power imbalance in the academy. One of the problems that plagues librarianship, particularly those of us who do data work, is just how understaffed, underpaid, and overworked technical services departments are3. Couple that with the fact that we’re considered a critical service infrastructure on campuses robust enough to have research occur and you have a situation in which library workers do not have the opportunity to expertly evaluate, have a say in, or refuse to participate in a project4. Some places are fortunate enough to have a person or people dedicated to working on these kinds of things. More often these roles are enveloped in already existing job descriptions, which takes time and expert resources critical to the library’s functioning–catalog and database maintenance, significant backlogs, upgrades to linked data technologies, repository administration, electronic resource management–away from the library.

Let me be clear: this is not an attack on DH as a theory, methodology, subdiscipline, or whatever else. I am a person who hopes to do some of this kind of work down the road in my career. But the disciplinary and literature-based focus focus is on the humanities practitioner and the library is still seen as a tool: it is the server host, the research repository, the publisher, the editor, the tech help. What makes me uncomfortable with this relationship stems from an inability to be seen a practitioner in my own right5. Data-driven scholarship uses digital tools much like any other scholarly practitioner uses methodology. My work uses humanities methods to think and talk about things surrounding librarianship, the Semantic Web, metadata, labor, ethics, and social justice. I don’t fit in the big tent of a discipline is that concerned with enforcing epistemological boundaries of tool-building and text-based intellectual work6. The “core community” functions as a canon of humans, conferences, journals, and projects which is used to exclude both new professionals and those who cannot make digital tools7.

That’s really unfortunate, as I think such an insular approach drives away people who would otherwise be excellent contributors. Another disclaimer: I know that not all DH practitioners are the kind I talk about above. What concerns me is that many of the “big names” are doing the academic turf war performance. That never ends well for anyone. In an upcoming piece, I hope to talk more about what it means to be a scholar-practitioner from the library side of digital humanities collaboration.

  1. Tom Scheinfeldt argues for considering an approach to digital humanities that has room for methodological and theoretical approaches to humanist inquiry as an answer to the oft asked question of purpose in humanities research. I want to address this argument in its entirety at a later date, but for this note I want to address that the question posed in this kind of disciplinary reflection feels like the wrong question. The first feedback I got in graduate school about conceptualizing humanities projects: “so what?” 

  2. Scheinfeldt again. You know who else is considered nice in the academy? You know who else is characterized by “methodology rather than theory?” Librarians. nb: Methodological questions are hardly easier resolved compared to theoretical ones & those debates are hardly nice. Ask social scientists. (No, you’re not that different.) 

  3. This is not to denigrate adjunctification, which plagues all of us. I find that most faculty know nothing about the labor relations and funding of their libraries. 

  4. In other words: we do not get license to be the experts and professionals we were trained or hired to be. 

  5. I won’t argue when someone says LIS puts out a lot of bad research because it does. But that does not negate the fact that many of us are trained at the graduate level in some other discipline and our cross-disciplinary work often touches the domain of our work inside the library. The history of librarianship is largely borne out in LIS journals and monograph publications, but is history in both the macro- and microanalytical sense. It’s still the humanities and it is just one example. 

  6. Svensson’s own words: “One central question is whether the tent can naturally be taken to include critical work construing the digital as an object of inquiry rather than as a tool.” Largely I still believe not, but I am a newcomer. In fact, some of my work would critique the languages and technologies that these tools are built on. Criticizing core epistemology has not worked out well for me yet in my young career. 

  7. Canons are often intellectual violence. #critlib struggles with this constantly as there are calls from inside and outside the community–a largely nebulous concept for how #critlib actually functions–to define epistemological and value boundaries through construction of a core text canon and official value statement. To do so would be disingenuous to something that attempts Svensson’s “meeting zone”, though critics have already enforced the epistemological bounds and core text canon (read: continental philosophers, which is so far from true) through the strawman arguments upon which their critiques are founded. 

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