The Big Tent on the Digital Frontier: An Interview with Spencer Keralis

Spencer D. C. Keralis is Research Associate Professor and Digital Humanities Coordinator with the Public Services Division of the University of North Texas (UNT) Libraries. He is also the Founding Director of Digital Frontiers, an annual conference and THATCamp that brings together the makers and users of digital resources for humanities research, teaching, and learning. Digital Frontiers celebrates its fifth anniversary in September at Rice University in Houston, Texas. Spencer was interviewed by Courtney Jacobs, Special Collections Librarian at UNT.

Courtney: You are a Research Associate Professor with UNT Libraries, not a librarian. How does your unique background and your particular research interests facilitate digital humanities (DH) and libraries?

Spencer: I came into the library as a Council on Library and Information Resources Fellow back in 2011. That program places humanities graduates in academic libraries as a way of both helping humanists learn more about the way libraries operate within the academy, and also to enrich the culture of libraries with the deep subject knowledge and practical experience that those humanities scholars bring. DH is a logical place for CLIR fellows to intervene in the libraries because you can’t do DH without libraries and you also can’t do DH without the deep subject knowledge that scholars bring. For me it seems like a logical point of intervention for a person like me in libraries, especially because my background is mainly in book history and early American literature. That’s an area where digital archives in particular have a real opportunity to enrich the field. The knowledge that book historians bring can be valuable for collection development and interpretation of archival materials as they’re being digitized. For me it just seems like a natural outgrowth of the kind of work that I have done and that I want to do in the future.

Courtney: So how did Digital Frontiers develop during this time?

Spencer: It actually started as a question when I was still a post-doc here. I had a meeting with some of the folks that run the Portal to Texas History and asked if they had ever had a conference that highlighted scholarship that had been done based on the materials in the portal. The answer was “No,” and when I asked if we wanted to they said, “Sure!” It quickly outpaced that sort of narrow definition of what our question was in relation to the Portal. The interest within libraries and at the intersection of libraries and digital humanities was so great that we realized that it could be a much more diverse and much more interesting space. Typically scholars go to MLA, librarians go to DLF, and ne’er the twain connect. Although we do see a lot more librarians now at MLA, I don’t think you see as much cross-pollination into the library conferences.

Digital Frontiers provides a space where the librarians, archivists, and technologists from the information sciences are able to get together with the people who are using the materials that they build to ask important questions about what is being done with these materials and what the future of this field is. I think it’s unique in that it is derived from a research question, and it’s driven by the community. It’s not so huge that the thematics and messaging gets lost, but it’s not so little that it’s just an echo chamber. We get a really good diversity of students, scholars, early-career professionals from both the teaching and research side of the house and libraries and also people from the community who may not necessarily feel welcome at other kinds of conferences.

Courtney: Digital Frontiers is an innovative collaborative and cross-disciplinary conference that is coming up on its 5th year. What are some of the most surprising things you’ve learned in that time?

Spencer: One of the things that’s actually been a surprise in a negative way is how invested some DH scholars are in gatekeeping in the field. That some of the new things that are being attempted in terms of creative dissertations in media studies and such aren’t necessarily welcome in digital humanities as its been established through other conferences and professional organizations. That’s a disappointment to me. I think that as more and more of our scholarship moves both into the digital realm in terms of scholarly publications and our ability to reach wider publics, and also as more and more of the primary source materials that we are working with are available digitally, it’s really important for us to be limber and open to new kinds of interventions in the field. The digital humanities has proven over and over again that there is a definite in-crowd mentality that wants to exclude certain types of things that are maybe challenging to a certain kind of status quo in the digital humanities and that bothers me.

I see Digital Frontiers as being a real intervention in that we will highlight that kind of work and we will call it digital humanities. We welcome folks like our keynote speaker from last year, Carolyn Guertin, who works on new media and games. We have an opportunity to bring humanistic understanding and digital research methods into the study of games and game culture. I think that the big tent DH that we advocate for is super important.

On the positive side I’ve been really impressed and delighted to learn how eager the community that’s grown up around Digital Frontiers is to learn and grow. For me the community is as much a product of this project as the conference itself is because we make these human connections that are so important not just to the conference but to the social networks that emerge out of the conference and endure beyond it. I know there are collaborations and projects that have emerged from the conversations we have at DF that wouldn’t happen at other conferences because they’re either too expensive or too exclusive for certain people to feel welcome. So that’s, for me, one of the great joys of doing this project: that it brings together people who may not otherwise have the opportunity to engage with each other and produce really fruitful results.

Courtney: Speaking of big tent DH and inclusion, you have written about undergraduate research in the digital humanities, and are invested in empowering undergrads in this field. Why is this important to you?

Spencer: I teach in the English department and the Information Sciences department here at UNT, and as a teacher it is really important for me that students are empowered to use what they learn in the classroom and that they are given the opportunity to really be treated as a potential peers and colleagues in this area. There are some really great examples of student research that we’ve been able to feature at Digital Frontiers, from folks at Texas Tech and UT Dallas, and we’ve gotten to hear about really pioneering stuff that is going on at Southern Methodist University library with their digital projects practicum. For me it’s really important that we think about these things in terms of what is in it for the students, not so much what’s in it for the scholars and the schools. So it’s a point that I think is going to become more and more important as this field develops and as it injects itself more and more into our pedagogy.

Digital Frontiers is an opportunity to both model ethical behavior towards students and to give students a professionalization opportunity as early as possible in their careers. It’s a way to give students the opportunity to fall in love with the humanities and the digital humanities, and to learn about what it means to be a librarian now, and to do technology in the humanities in an environment that is really welcoming and isn’t talking down to them. When an undergrad can share the stage with a tenured professor and be given equal attention and be treated with as much respect and credibility as the tenured professor, it really can change their perspective on what we do.

Courtney: What’s the most significant thing libraries and other cultural institutions can be doing right now to facilitate the digital humanities and research being done by digital humanists?

Spencer: A lot of the groundwork that’s been done in the last 15-20 years around digitization has been really important, but what needs to happen now is that we shift our focus away from the canonical, nationalistic stuff that has been typically funded through projects like the Chronicling America Project and others, and start looking at making sure that we can provide access to works by people of color, works from the LGBT community, and the documentary and historical records of those marginalized communities. There has been a big push recently to diversify DH in the #PocoDH movement, through the volumes like the Disrupting DH collection that Jesse Stommel and Dorothy Kim are editing, and through the #TransformDH conversation. These interventions are really important to draw attention to the gaps in what is the digital record now and in how scholars have used it.

There’s a really great activist tradition in librarianship, like in cataloging where they are challenging how Library of Congress subject heading are sexist, and racist, and trans- and homophobic. We need to bring those up to date with contemporary usage so that people can find stuff about themselves. But also I think there’s been a really great activist tradition in archives. Our colleagues at Texas Southern with the Barbara Jordan archives are working to make sure those materials are available; and Marvin Taylor at NYU is working to ensure that magnetic media is digitized before more durable stuff. So I think we need to be making more spaces like Digital Frontiers where conversations can happen between scholars, archivists, librarians, and the technologists that facilitate all this so that we can be better at prioritizing at-risk media, and the historical and documentary record of marginalized communities.

The canonical stuff is always going to be there. Even American newspapers are already reasonably well digitized and paper will still be paper in 40 years, but there is a lot of stuff, especially in contemporary history that is at risk now that we need to be making more efforts to preserve

Courtney: You sort of talked about some of these already, but what do you think some of the biggest challenges the future of Digital Humanities faces today?

Spencer: I think that the biggest challenge that digital humanities has in general is that it is expensive to do, and that is only going to be exacerbated. We have very quickly moved into a sphere where there is a separation between the haves and the have-nots. The DH in-crowd generally comes from well-resourced institutions; institutions that have infrastructure to support these kind of projects. Those who don’t have access to those resources are marginalized because they’re not making and developing tools. They’re just using the tools that other people have developed. I think that kind of divisiveness needs to end. Because it’s not going to harm just the digital humanities, but humanities in general.

I also think labor ethics are going to be an ongoing challenge for digital humanities, especially in terms of using student labor in the classroom, but also in adequately representing librarians and technologists as equal partners in the research and as collaborators rather than just service providers. That’s a conversation that’s been going on for a while but there’s not been much resolution. But I think there is hope in those areas because there are people that are calling out that kind of stuff. My recent work about the use of student labor in the classroom is going to be appearing in the Disrupting the Digital Humanities collection. Students shouldn’t be paying for the privilege of working on a faculty member’s project. There is a place for students to be able to do durable work and to produce durable products out of the classroom, but they need to be given credit for it. And if they’re doing technical labor, it needs to be compensated.  A grade is not, I think, compensation. Miriam Posner and a team of her students at UCLA recently published the Student Collaborators’ Bill of Rights, which is a great soft solution for getting the conversation started. But at some point there is going to need to be some sort of intervention in terms of policy, both at the university level and from funding agencies, that makes it clear that these kinds of practices aren’t tolerated by the community at large. I think that adopting our Statement of Inclusion for Digital Frontiers last year is really important for making people feeling welcome in the discipline and in the field. But we need to do more to make sure that people are protected in terms of being able to take credit for their labor, and be compensated for the work that they do.

Talk to us on Twitter: @hauntologist & @courtneyejacobs; and follow @DigiFront and #DF16RU for information on this year’s Digital Frontiers conference. Thanks to UNT Libraries Major Programs Student Assistant Laura Schadt for help transcribing the interview!

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