“Deeply Embedded Subject Librarians”: An Interview with Brandon Locke and Kristen Mapes

Brandon Locke is the Director of The Lab for the Education and Advancement in Digital Research (LEADR) at Michigan State University. Kristen Mapes serves as the Digital Humanities Specialist for the College of Arts and Letters at MSU. This interview was conducted by Bobby Smiley, the Digital Scholarship and American History Librarian at Michigan State.

Bobby: While you’re both trained as librarians, you don’t work in a library. How did you arrive where you are?

Kristen: My order of operations was first libraries, then digital humanities. I was in graduate school for medieval studies at Fordham, and after a considering a Ph.D., I decided to go to library school at Rutgers. Because of my medieval studies background and experience with rare books and manuscripts, I initially wanted to focus on special collections. But in my exploration of on-going special collections work, I began to think more about digital humanities’ ability to bring something new not only to special collections work, but academic librarianship generally. This prompted me to take Chris Sula’s DH course in the library school at Pratt, which helped cement that interest in digital humanities and librarianship.

Brandon: I was an undergrad history major at Nebraska where there’s a lot of digital humanities work being done. While I was there, they offered an undergraduate digital history class, but I ran as far away from it as I could. I had already decided I’d never need to know how to program or make a website. But as I was approaching graduate school, I realized that the field was moving towards digital work, and recognized how digital humanities opened new ways to look at a larger variety of sources, and new ways of interpreting those sources, and a platform for sharing and communicating scholarship. I decided to stay at Nebraska and focus on digital history for my graduate work. As I was working on my masters, I realized I was more interested in working on digital projects, information infrastructure, and collaborative work, so I went to library school at Illinois, and continued to build on some of the digital work I started at Nebraska.

Bobby: Even though you’re not stationed in a library, I think of you—and I know you think of yourselves—as DH librarians. How does your library background influence the work you do?

Brandon: Most obviously, I wear cardigans everyday. More tangibly, I can see it come through in my emphasis on information literacy and digital literacy in the classroom. As Director of LEADR (The Lab for the Education and Advancement in Digital Research), I focus on facilitating and assisting student (especially undergraduate) research, largely by partnering with faculty in History, Anthropology, and other departments, to add digital components to their classes. For students who are History or Anthropology majors, or want to work at cultural heritage sites, developing digital projects has immediate use and value. However, for the other students from across campus, the values can be less clear. I focus on making students comfortable with digital technology, helping them develop multimodal websites, short video or documentaries, or using mapping text analysis to develop their research questions. Research and writing in digital forms are essential skills for the future, so I tend to focus on these types of base skills.

Kristen: Working at the college level, I help develop undergraduate and graduate curriculum, teach the intro DH course, build the DH study abroad program, serve as the advisor for the digital humanities undergraduate minor and graduate certificate, in addition to teaching workshops and consulting on digital projects and digital curriculum development. In effect, I act as the DH liaison for the eight departments in College of Arts and Letters (CAL), and in that sense, I think of myself as a deeply embedded subject librarian—reaching out to a number of departments is something subject librarians are very familiar with. Besides collaborating with Brandon and the Libraries (on workshops, symposia, and other DH programming), in many ways, my work is informed by outreach librarianship, and my efforts to build DH capacity across the university.

Bobby: Given the nature of your work then, who has most influenced your thinking?

Brandon & Kristen (in unison): Miriam Posner!

Kristen: In addition to being key in helping us think through issues around outreach and programming, [she’s influential] especially for her generous and thoughtful work on digital humanities curriculum development, and important because of the centrality of curricular development and support in both our work.

And in my own research on social media and medieval studies scholars on Twitter, Bonnie Stewart is another touchstone person for me. Also, Melissa Terras is awesome, and influential on my thinking about DH.

Brandon: In addition to Miriam, Jentery Sayers, Shaun Macpherson, Nina Belojevic at the Maker Lab in the Humanities at the University of Victoria, as well as Bethany Nowviskie, especially for the work she did at the Scholar’s Lab at UVA.

Bobby: And what projects you’re involved in excite you the most?

Kristen: I’m currently working with Devin Higgins, one of the Digital Library Programmers [at MSU], and we’re taking a little bit older digital humanities project, The Roman de la Rose Digital Library, and looking at ways of mapping and creating a tool for exploring information about the manuscripts in an interactive way, both for their content and codicology. I’m excited by bringing digital humanities into conversation with my own medieval studies background, and, with this project, giving back to both communities.

Brandon: I’m really interested in bringing material culture to the classroom, and I’m drawing up two new courses. First is a History Harvest course that will encourage students to engage with historical objects and the relationships people have with them. Second, I’m working on a course that focuses on museum exhibits and 3D models of objects, really modeled on Bill Turkel’s work at University of Western Ontario and the amazing stuff coming out of the UVic Maker Lab. For both of these courses, I’ve been working with the MSU Museum.

Bobby: In all your activity, how does the library fit in your work?

Kristen: Besides all the collaboration we’ve done with the library on programming and teaching workshops, in my introduction to digital humanities course, I regularly take my students to the library for class. We had a class session with Ryan Edge, the Media and Digital Preservation Librarian, on metadata and preservation. Also, Thomas Padilla was the class’s embedded librarian. In addition to teaching a session on network analysis, he came to the class several times to assist students with digital projects, and acted as the on-call help for their final projects. Basically, the library is my go-to answer for everything in my course.

Brandon: I turn to the library for you in teaching informational literacy, Thomas Padilla for teaching about data cleaning and preparation, and both of you as well as Devin Higgins for helping students with digital projects.

Bobby: Candidly, I feel like the Library gives me, Thomas, and Devin a lot of flexibility and freedom to pursue DH possibilities in our work, and I know the same applies to you both. Besides front office support, I’m wondering if there’s anything about being at Michigan State that helps facilitate the work you’re doing?

Kristen: Well, there was the organic nature of our hires; we’re in the unique position of having basically arrived as a cohort. But I also think one of the main reasons we feel so supported is we were not asked or expected to build digital humanities from the ground up. That there was the confluence of interests and activities around DH at the university level over the past several years helps explain why the library hired two digital humanities [now scholarship] librarians—with Brandon and myself hired less than a year later. And that DH support came not from the provost or university level administrators, but organically from departments and individuals, which reflects the state of digital humanities writ-large at MSU. Not being the only DH person in your college or department and knowing  you have faculty advocates across the university who can provide additional support for new projects and initiatives has allowed for my and our collective success after a relatively short period of time. Especially, the groundwork done by WIDE (Writing, Information, and Digital Experience) and MATRIX (The Center for Humane Arts, Letters, and Social Sciences), in particular on grants, helped foster that interest in DH well before we arrived.

Brandon: MATRIX was really big for me—they’ve been incredibly supportive of my work and the development of LEADR. I think, more importantly, MATRIX was critical in developing an awareness and appreciation for this kind of work on campus, so we didn’t arrive having to tell people about digital humanities for the first time. Many faculty members in my departments have already done DH projects or used DH pedagogical techniques in the classroom. MATRIX has also helped to establish MSU as a known quantity in the DH world—people come here knowing that there is appreciation in departments and support across campus for this type of work work.

Kristen: And because, in our case, that community wasn’t a single centralized unit that did all DH on campus, Brandon, you, Thomas, Devin, and I have been able to work across all units together, and that collaboration has been supported at all levels.

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