Bobby L. Smiley
In the years since I became a professional librarian in 2013, my workplace identity has shifted three times. First hired as a “digital humanities librarian,” I saw my title changed within less than a year to “digital scholarship librarian,” with a subject specialty later appended (American History). Some three-plus years later at a different institution, I now find myself a digital-less “religion and theology librarian.” At the same time, in this position, my experience and expertise in digital humanities (or “digital scholarship”) are assumed, and any associated duties are already baked into the job description itself.
These title changes may seem like superficial rebranding, but it is important to pause and interrogate their plural meanings. At least for the immediate future, “digital humanities” is a term of some durability, almost as immediately intelligible to those inside the library as it is to the broader academic world. Anecdotally, the same cannot be said of “digital scholarship.” This label might mean something to my fellow librarians, but it can leave other colleagues elsewhere blinking in confusion. Considered from this librarian’s perspective, it is hard not to speculate that the “cash-value” (as William James might call it) of “digital humanities” might reserve it only for those working outside the library, while “digital scholarship” could reaffirm an implied division of labor, saddling librarians with more traditional notions of library service, such as collection development or research and reference assistance. The term “digital humanities” signals an enterprise associated with knowledge production and intellectual activity. But can the all-encompassing “digital scholarship,” which is a term that librarians almost alone embrace, have similar meaning? Does “digital scholarship” necessarily point to knowledge production, while also fostering and supporting it? And what about a title that elides the “digital” altogether? Does that change suggest a direction where library work in digital humanities is increasingly rendered invisible or buried? Or, in this context, has “digital humanities” become a set of loosely defined duties that have simply been folded into the professional expectations for humanities librarians? Am I more “librarian” or “digital humanist” or both, even if the title on my business card only reflects one role, but not the other?
The positionality that librarians inhabit inflects these questions with greater complexity. I write as a research-university–based “professional” librarian, whose credentials include a graduate library science degree from a program accredited by the American Library Association (ALA), augmented by a research-based graduate degree in the humanities. Among my colleagues at other research institutions and small liberal arts colleges, this educational background is common for those engaged in DH library work. But in this same community, there are also librarians oriented toward information technology, metadata and digital curation librarians, archivists, library programmers exclusively trained in computer science, educational technologists, alt-acs with PhDs, and postdoctoral fellows, in addition to hybrid librarians with multiple appointments requiring both a PhD and an accredited library degree (and split, for instance, between the library and the English Department). Jonathan Senchyne has written about the need to reimagine library and information science graduate education and develop its capacity to recognize, accommodate, and help train future library-based digital humanists in both computational research methods and discipline-focused humanities content (368–76). However, less attention has been paid to tracking where these digital humanities and digital scholarship librarians come from, the consequences and opportunities that arise from sourcing librarians from multiple professional and educational stations, and the more ontological issues associated with the nature of their labor—that is, what is understood as work for the digital humanist in the library and what librarians could be doing.
In the abstract, the diverse educational backgrounds of DH librarians should make little overall difference. “The character of the digital humanities as a community,” Geoffrey Rockwell stresses, “comes in part from the provision of a safe and inclusive space where having a faculty position (or not) made no difference” (250). Unfortunately, working against building that community are often university politics or structural inequalities between the library and other campus units that can routinely make that “safe and inclusive space” a little less of both. For instance, having PhD-holding librarians without a library degree working in DH centers alongside professionally trained librarians lacking doctoral degrees should seem, at first blush, unexceptional. But when libraries and digital humanities—arenas overly concerned with monitoring boundaries for who is in or who is out—are twinned professionally, what surfaces are deeply embedded and obliquely acknowledged tensions that do much to upset the generally irenic culture of digital humanities (Berry, 34).
In the past, the prevailing assumption was that professional librarians are only those with ALA-accredited library science degrees. But as Phillip J. Jones argues, “librarian” as a professional label has become more of a floating signifier than a fixed title, and the training required to claim that role is hardly a settled subject (437–38). In the first half the twentieth century, opinion among library directors and library school professors remained divided over whether academic librarians needed degrees beyond training in library science, especially discipline-specific PhDs. But in 1975, the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL), the principal professional association for university librarians, declared that the ALA-accredited master’s degree in library science should be considered terminal. Conversation about further degrees and debates about credentials were halted. In the years since, university libraries have generally followed this accredited library degree mandate in their hiring practices (437). But the anxiety among nondoctorate-holding librarians has been amplified whenever the issue of revisiting alternative credentials has been raised, often clumsily by library administrators. This clumsiness is usually exhibited around discussions about salary, possibilities for professional advancement, and politically sensitive concerns about the role of librarians in the university. In the face of these concerns, many librarians react with a defensive horror that effectively ices out any further conversation (437).
Lisa Spiro, executive director of Digital Scholarship Services at Rice University’s Fondren Library, writes of injured pride and frustration over the “institutional and cultural barriers” for digital humanists who choose to become librarians without a library science degree. “Sometimes I feel like an awkward pre-teen,” Spiro relates, “like I don’t quite fit in anywhere.” This sentiment is echoed by other nonlibrary-degree–holding librarians, including many CLIR (Council on Library and Information Resources) Postdoctoral Fellows in Academic Libraries, who bristle at the perspective held by some librarians that fellows simply “couldn’t cut it’’ on the academic market” or were out to poach the librarian positions. On the flip side, concerns about professional standing and possibilities for advancement, both in the library and across campus, stoke worry among librarians, who feel they will be crowded out by a population whom, under different circumstances, they would be serving. While concerns about job security, professional advancement, and opportunities for scholarship are genuine and sometimes justified, this anxiety can elicit from new, nontraditional librarians an opposite, defiant response that rejects the label “librarian.”
These concerns become even more complicated when libraries become the locus of DH activity, as they are in many places. Already wary of colleagues who represent potential professional competition, many librarians believe that DH librarianship does not always fit their understanding of what a librarian does. Consequently, some argue about the qualities of “real librarians”; they are often a little too quick to decide that certain colleagues are not “real” librarians, but rather are “academics working in a library,” as if this distinction would make the title holder any different from any other librarian with similar responsibilities. Such voices reify static notions about librarianship; the title “librarian”—historically determined and bureaucratically codified—speaks as much to a site as it does to a set of duties.
But, of course, that is not how the title is read. In this instance, “real librarian” simultaneously functions as a defensive badge of professional pride for some and as a term of disapprobation for others. Instead of focusing on sharing and trading digital skills and subject expertise, the digital humanist in the library confronts a shopworn and tiresome question: Who (or what) is in or out? With little time and attention given to thinking more expansively and democratically about what we mean by “librarian,” the conversation far too frequently (often sub rosa and expressed indirectly over happy hour drinks, blog posts, and myriad listservs) highlights, as Marx described the predicament of labor, the “estrangement of man from man [emphasis in original].”
And what about that labor? As I personally discovered about DH librarianship, the nature of my work is saying “yes” to almost everything. Job descriptions for DH library positions reflect this stance and range from curating institutional repositories to drafting research data management plans and open-access policies, from collaborating with faculty on grant-based digital projects to managing a digitally pitched subject specialty or overseeing emerging technologies and maker spaces, among other activities. For a library just starting to build a DH program and campus presence, the freshly appointed DH or digital scholarship librarian arrives already freighted with unrealistic expectations and presumed mastery over all matters technology driven. Because of the elastic nature of the typical DH librarian job description, there is often a desire for the DH librarian to serve as a messianic unicorn: a person who singularly can immediately bring a library up to speed and insert it into campus DH initiatives and conversations. “Much of the discussion about building a DH-friendly library environment leans too hard on individual librarians,” explains Miriam Posner (44). Beyond the responsibilities of DH library work, what enables and sustains its possibility? Should institutional support be directed more to cultivating people who build digital projects or to the products of their labor? As Posner says in a different context, we should “commit to DH People, not DH Projects.”
But complicating a focus on people rather than projects are additional sensitive, political—even existential—questions that surface for librarians building DH capacity. What is their role in that work and the meaning of the work itself? If there are librarians doing DH work, asks Dot Porter, the curator for digital research services at the University of Pennsylvania, then “what the heck is a DH academic?” In high-level discussions of digital humanities in the library, there is often invoked an implied and problematic division between “librarians” and “DH scholars/academics,” as well as an argument for understanding the role of “librarians as digital sherpas,” separating out the work of the “DH skilled-librarians” from “DH academics” (Alexander et al.; Schaffner and Erway). Such a perspective is consonant with the traditional service orientation of library work, which emphasizes the role librarians play in providing critical support and guidance for DH projects. While acknowledging the importance of providing research support and technical assistance, I also recoil at the idea that my role is only to enable scholarship, but not to produce it. As Trevor Muñoz writes, “Digital humanities in libraries isn’t a service,” and the key is to encourage librarians to develop their own digital projects. In placing people over projects, libraries need to encourage and provide librarians with opportunities to generate original scholarship and not limit their role to supporting projects initiated elsewhere on campus. And by reimagining what Bethany Nowviske calls “an organizational service mentality,” librarians should embrace their role as scholars, where our work and expertise establish us as “true intellectual partners” in any collaborative endeavor (58).
But, as CUNY Graduate Center librarian Roxanne Shirazi has asked, we need to consider whether “librarians work in service of scholarship or are . . . servile to scholars [emphasis in original].” The idea of “service” becomes doubly complicated for digital humanists in the library, especially when professional expectations and personal research require work well outside the understood province of academic librarianship. Librarianship, long considered a “semi-profession” like nursing or social work, has historically had a disproportionally female workforce, whose work was characterized as a form of affective labor (“labor that produces or manipulates affects”) and subject to the inequities directed at those jobs (Hardt and Negri, 108). Like the invisibility of certain types of digital labor, the affective labor of librarianship, in sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild’s description, gives “the appearance of working at a low level of skills,” while also, as Shirazi maintains, in a generative sense “reproduces the academy” through “service.” (84) That is, librarians help sustain the conditions that enable scholarship and learning, such as teaching information literacy or developing digital tools for citation management. Implicit here is an understanding that scholarship generated in the name of library service is not scholarship, rightly understood. But instead of jettisoning “service,” DH librarians are beginning to reimagine it in an expanded field, as scholarly labor that encompasses instruction, consultation, collaboration, and collections work. Cross-campus or institutional collaborations including librarians and faculty as peers help problematize the top-down nature of scholarly production, but there is also a need, as Shirazi underlines, for an “acknowledgement of the fact that there are different power relations at play in these collaborative relationships.” By naming that legacy of marginalization, DH librarians can begin to discern those power relations and structural inequities in greater relief and reposition themselves as collaborators and intellectual peers.
The charged valence of service can often serve to slot digital humanists working in the library into a category distinct from colleagues stationed elsewhere on campus. “It doesn’t make sense to measure the digital humanist-ness of someone,” Porter argues, “based on their current post (especially as digital humanists tend to be fairly fluid, moving between posts inside and outside of the library).” At Michigan State University, for instance, DH librarians helm a lab for digital research in the social sciences, as well as help oversee and teach digital humanities for the College of Arts and Letters (Smiley). Despite not having “librarian” included in their job titles, they self-identify as librarians and frequently collaborate with them, but are sited outside the library. The idea of “deeply embedded subject librarians” speaks not only to Porter’s claim but also suggests the manifold roles DH librarians can play in the broader university community.
Ultimately, it is the institutional location of DH librarians, however they got there or were trained, that informs their professional identity or the nature of their work. All the same, for many that job title still remains overburdened with meaning and an unclear range of presumed responsibilities. By unpacking the complicated positionality of the DH librarian, we can have more candid and fruitful conversations about our labor, our identity, and our locations. I opened this chapter by asking, among other questions, whether I am more “librarian” or “digital humanist.” Like all good binaries that beg to be transgressed, the answer is both. I am perhaps best described as a digital humanist librarian, a formulation that more aptly captures the contours of my professional life and emphasizes the complementarity of the words in that description. In my experience, if there is any sense of communion in DH work, it derives from the organic sharing of knowledge, the trading of ideas, and the complementing and augmenting of strengths—all done in a spirit of generosity and scholarly inquiry that animates projects, encourages outreach, and engenders the comity that DHers so often like to invoke. What was, to me, originally a question about job rebranding became a deeper search for meaning. I am concerned, however, that while we make an ecumenical gesture to include all disciplines, we may lose the scholarly commitments implicit in digital humanities, ceding intellectual labor for only the handling of back-end considerations. That librarians have been—and continue to be—integral participants in digital humanities as digital humanists should not be forgotten, regardless of title, degree, or academic station.
Alexander, Laurie, Beau Case, Karen Downing, Melissa Gomis, Melissa, and Eric Maslowski. “Librarians and Scholars: Partners in Digital Humanities.” Educause Review Online (June 2014), http://er.educause.edu/articles/2014/6/librarians-and-scholars-partners-in-digital-humanities. Accessed January 2017.
Berry, John N. “But Don’t Call ’em Librarians.” Library Journal 128, no. 18 (November 2003): 34–36.
Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. New York: Penguin, 2004.
Hochschild, Arlie Russell. The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.
Jones, Phillip J. “Academic Graduate Work in Academic Librarianship: Historicizing ACRL’s Terminal Degree Statement.” Journal of Academic Librarianship 24, no. 6 (November 1998): 437–48.
Marx, Karl. “Estranged Labor.” Economic and Political Manuscripts of 1844. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/labour.htm. Accessed January 2017.
Muñoz, Trevor. “Digital Humanities in the Library Isn’t a Service.” August 2012, https://gist.github.com/trevormunoz/3415438. Accessed January 2017.
Porter, Dot. “What if We Do, in Fact, Know Best? A Response to the OCLC Report on DH and Research Libraries.” dh + li. February 2014, http://acrl.ala.org/dh/2014/02/12/what-if-we-do-in-fact-know-best-a-response-to-the-oclc-report-on-dh-and-research-libraries/. Accessed January 2017.
Posner, Miriam. “No Half Measures: Overcoming Common Challenges to Doing Digital Humanities in the Library” Journal of Library Administration 53, no. 1 (2013): 44.
Rockwell, Geoffrey. “Inclusion in the Digital Humanities.” In Defining Digital Humanities: A Reader, edited by M. Terras, J. Nyhan, and E. Vanhoutte, 250. Surrey, UK: Ashgate, 2013.
Schaffner, Jennifer, and Ricky Erway. Does Every Research Library Need a Digital Humanities Center. 2014, http://www.oclc.org/content/dam/research/publications/library/2014/oclcresearch-digital-humanities-center-2014.pdf. Accessed January 2017.
Senchyne, Jonathan. “Between Knowledge and Metaknowledge: Shifting Disciplinary Borders in Digital Humanities and Library and Information Studies.” In Debates in Digital Humanities 2016, edited by Matthew K. Gold, and Laurie F. Klein, 68–76. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016.
Shirazi, Roxanne. “Reproducing the Academy: Librarians and the Question of Service in the Digital Humanities.” July 2014, http://roxanneshirazi.com/2014/07/15/reproducing-the-academy-librarians-and-the-question-of-service-in-the-digital-humanities/. Accessed January 2017.
Smiley, Bobby. “‘Deeply Embedded Subject Librarians’: An Interview with Brandon Locke and Kristen Mapes.” Scene Reports. dh + lib. February 2016, http://acrl.ala.org/dh/2016/02/10/deeply-embedded-subject-librarians-an-interview-with-brandon-locke-and-kristen-mapes/. Accessed January 2017.
Spiro, Lisa. “What Is *She* Doing Here? Crafting a Professional Identity as a Digital Humanist/Librarian.” #altacademy: a mediacommons project. May 2011, http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/alt-ac/pieces/what-she-doing-here. Accessed January 2017.