Pushing the Boundaries: DH and Libraries at MLA13

Boston, Massachusetts - cathedral

Boston, Masssachussetts – cathedral by diggin90650, on Flickr

Amanda Rust (English + Theatre Librarian at Northeastern University Libraries) writes here about her experience at MLA13, demonstrating the value of librarians venturing to conferences beyond our professional borders. Amanda also attended the THATCamp MLA unconference; her reflections on that are here.

It is, of course, impossible to summarize a meeting as large as the MLA in a single blog post. Instead, I’d like to focus just on the presence of the Digital Humanities at the MLA Convention 2013, link out to some of the copious coverage elsewhere on the Internet, and offer a few takeaways from one librarian’s perspective. (I should note that librarians may also have a lot of interest in sessions in Composition and Rhetoric, Teaching of Writing, and Pedagogy, but I won’t touch on those much here.)

As readers of dh+lib probably already know, the MLA is rapidly becoming one of the major conferences for DH. See, for example, Mark Sample’s pre-convention list of DH sessions for a sense of the robust offerings, especially as they have changed over time. In addition, my librarian audience should note that the newly-formed Libraries and Research in Languages and Literatures Discussion Group is well-populated by fellow librarians interested in DH, although the discussion group certainly focuses on topics beyond DH. Librarians may also be interested in this report at ACRLog,  A Librarian at the MLA.

Worth mentioning at the start is the major convention focus on the conditions of academic labor. This was one of the most discussed topics, with good attention and reporting outside of the convention, notably:

Howard’s last article in particular shows how larger discussions about “Alt-Ac” careers often focus on the opportunities in DH; the two topics, though not synonymous, are often deeply intertwined.

In terms of reporting outside the convention, DH seems to be the other theme that received the most attention:

To find the online traces of a particular session, you could search for presenters’ papers, attendees’ blog notes and reactions, or a Storify compilation of the Twitter discussion. Luckily, many folks have already done the work of wrangling online coverage into place. Two of the most extensive compilations that I’ve seen are from DHNow and the Alabama Digital Humanities Center:

My own reflections from the convention, particularly on what DH means for libraries, are largely centered on the new prominence DH is bringing to both collections and data. I wonder if even five years ago I would have heard the word “metadata” used so frequently, or at all, at an MLA Convention. Yet now, as new techniques allow easier analysis and visualization of large datasets, scholars of all stripes seem hungry for not just primary sources but data about those sources, their format, material, use, and change over time. While imperfect, the rich stores of book metadata in our union catalogs seem ripe for re-use. (For example, I wonder if there are interesting stories in the data analysis of Library of Congress Subject Headings changes over time — LCSH encodes an understanding of the world as surely as any other vocabulary.)

[pullquote]This focus on both the theory and practice of library and archival work gives us a new chance to invite scholars into our decision making, to be more open and transparent about the hard choices we make and have been making all along.[/pullquote]The richness of existing digital archives seems to have renewed scholarly interest in how collections and archives are created for the future: how material is selected or ignored, well-described and discoverable or lost on the shelves, elegantly usable or hidden behind poor interfaces, carefully preserved or left to decay or simply thrown away. This focus on both the theory and practice of library and archival work gives us a new chance to invite scholars into our decision making, to be more open and transparent about the hard choices we make and have been making all along. Scholars sometimes seem shocked that archivists, librarians and curators have been making so many decisions all these years, and affecting the historical record so very much. Scholars may have a bone to pick with the decisions we’ve made, and it is very easy, I think — at least, I’ve certainly done it — to be overly defensive when your longstanding professional practices are questioned.

Bethany Nowviskie’s formulation of DH work as inter-professional as well as inter-disciplinary resonates well with me here; she refers to DH as “a brand of scholarly communication that places less premium on argument and narrow, expert discourse, and more on the implicit embodiment of humanities interpretation in public production and open-source, inter-professional practice.” (That quote is just one small part of her MLA paper “Resistance in the Materials”, which is definitely worth a complete read.) In the library and the archive, we will surely have hidebound practices that will benefit from inter-professional examination by those outside or new to our day-to-day workings. However, those in other professions will perhaps be surprised at the amount of thought that librarians and archivists (and other cultural heritage folks) have already given to issues around preservation, organization, access, and education.

In other words, working with other professionals not only means opening up my own practice to constructive criticism, but also learning to take a humble approach when observing others’ practice. It means asking the question (“Why do you do it this way?”) rather than making the assumption (“You must know doing it this way is wrong!”) This is, of course, a good approach within the library as well — just think of arguments between public and technical services folks — but the Digital Humanities seem to open up discussions about collecting practices and the historical record in newer, wider ways.

So I left the MLA thinking deeply about embodiment, what I live through my own practice and work with other professionals, and what values we live as a profession. The humanities are the source of some of the most elegant and incisive criticisms of society that exist — if these critical approaches help inform my attitude to the world, how do I exhibit such an approach through my work? What do we express through our purchasing and collections decisions, approaches to student learning, relationships with other institutions, or outreach to the public? I take the “implicit embodiment of humanities interpretation” as an excellent challenge.

Amanda Rust

An English & Theatre librarian working both with very traditional information formats and experiences as well as translating those to new spaces in (hopefully!) fruitful ways. Interested in preservation of cultural artifacts, interactive design, new media, public & digital humanities, and higher ed.