In the fifth installment of the special interview feature series “The Digital in the Humanities,” in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Melissa Dinsman (University of Notre Dame) interviews Bethany Nowviskie (Digital Library Foundation) about her background in digital work, its role inside universities and beyond them, and the role of libraries and librarians in the digital humanities.
[D]o you think there are any digital or media subfields in particular that yield the most benefit to the humanities and why?
Oh, it’s library and information science all the way, especially in terms of broad benefit to the humanities and helping it intersect with other fields. This is increasingly evident now that there’s such crucial work to be done in interdisciplinary, data-rich areas with deep implications for human lives, like the environmental humanities. And now we’ve moved into an era in which the library itself — which has always been a kind of laboratory for the liberal arts — takes on that function in new ways and at a vastly greater, networked scale. This potential and centrality and need is part of what attracted me to my new role at the Digital Library Federation. And by library science I’m talking about work in digitization, data curation and digital stewardship, metadata and description, search and discovery interfaces, visualization and analysis, embodied interaction like augmented reality and physical computing, leveraging linked open data so as to help scholars make meaning across a variety of disparate datasets — all the things that libraries are and do today — plus the ways they interact with and serve the communities (and not just academic research communities, but also larger publics) that they’re embedded in.
The interview goes on to cover many topics, touching on issues of representation, space, labor, and history in the digital humanities. Librarians, archivists, and others in GLAM institutions will be interested in Nowviskie’s remarks about successful physical spaces for DH work:
There’s a lot to be said for the academic research library as an interdisciplinary corporeal space as well as a conceptual one, a virtual lab. It’s a place where everybody on campus is welcome, so a lot of fruitful interchange and cross-pollination can happen there. I know I’ve been involved in a number of projects over the years that would not have gotten started but for serendipitous hallway conversations in a library. The funny thing is that it’s not always the most slick and beautiful, well-designed open spaces that attract people to the degree that they want to stay and put down roots and get in the position to have those conversations. Dedicated office space for interprofessional DH project teams has the desired effect. It’s probably easy to think that a shift to digital work means that place and space matter less. But even if many of the resources they use are online, digital humanities scholars still need to live alongside physical library collections — especially rare and unique materials, but the “medium-rare” books, too — and in easy, regular contact with librarians and programmers. They need to get comfortable and settle in physically so they can open up intellectually, particularly when the work itself crosses boundaries.
Readers can find the full interview here.