Academic libraries have engaged increasingly in both critical librarianship and critical pedagogy, calling, for example, for “a more critical praxis for ILI [information literacy integration],” (Baer) and exploring the intersections between critical information literacy and scholarly communications (Roh). The digital humanities sit at the nexus of these various conversations, as DHers—librarians and non-librarians—cast a critical gaze toward their own practices.
Libraries can advance a vision of DH that is more inclusive and expansive, and at the same time less universal in its methods and approaches.
From this stance, the 2015 planning committee set out to organize a Forum that would explore DH practice from critical race, gender, and postcolonial perspectives. Rather than focusing on DH work as a set of varied methodological practices within which critical approaches exist, the Forum proposed these critical approaches as the starting point for a three-day conversation (to our knowledge one other conference, “Digital Diversity 2015: Writing | Feminism | Culture,” had taken a similar stance).
The Forum was our way of asking what happens when we center critiques of archival gaps and arbitrariness, digital universalisms, and DH practice more broadly. Answering this question extended beyond crafting the conference theme—peripheries, barriers, hierarchies: rethinking access, inclusivity, and infrastructure in global DH practice. We purposefully recruited speakers—both leading and emerging scholars—from traditionally underrepresented groups and countries beyond the United States to create a space where a multiplicity of voices and perspectives could come together. This approach culminated in three days of workshops, keynote talks, papers, panels, and posters that generated conversations about critical praxis within digital humanities, with implications for DH and library/archival practices around building, curating, and providing access to digital collections. Within this broader framework, several interrelated motifs rose to the fore.
Turning a critical eye towards archives and open access, many presenters highlighted questions of audience, access, and ownership in digital projects and archives that challenged prevailing trends and approaches—even seemingly progressive ones. For example, in a passionate Saturday keynote talk on her work helping indigenous communities manage digital collections of their cultural heritage, Kim Christen Withey demonstrated how our technocentric approaches to DH practice often fail to address community concerns. Metadata schemas and access models in our common digital platforms don’t take into account the significance and use of those cultural materials within indigenous contexts. Even favorite tools of librarians and open access advocates, such as Creative Commons licenses, can work against the interests of local communities, effectively taking control of their own heritage out of their hands. To help address this, Withey has been helping develop Traditional Knowledge licenses that offer more nuanced approaches to managing cultural materials. She encouraged us to beware of one-size-fits-all approaches and to “pause, reflect, slow down and bring back an emphasis on building relationships” as a central value of our practice.
Many other speakers emphasized the importance of building relationships, fostering community ownership of their archives and belongings, and engaging local communities and their histories and cultures. In her Friday evening opening keynote talk on human rights archives, T-Kay Sangwand argued that post-custodial digital archiving (in which archivists provide oversight for digital records of items that remain in the custody of the original record creators) can respond to historical inequities by empowering community ownership of their own archives to help ensure a robust historical record. Anita Say Chan’s closing keynote addressed the myth of digital universalism in corporate/government attempts to digitize education in rural Peru without engaging with local histories and knowledge.
A significant portion of the Forum focused on challenging current assumptions of archival, library, and DH practices that privilege and preserve the memory and narratives of one group of people, often by writing other groups out of the archive
This panel illustrated the importance of collaborating with scholars and practitioners on a global scale in order to understand the regional and cultural dynamics and complexities of DH.
Embedded within and intertwined throughout these ongoing conversations was another motif about intersectionality and representation in DH—who gets to speak, when and where diverse voices are heard, how credit for DH work is distributed, and who does or does not get represented in the archives and in the scholarship. Rachel Mann questioned the labor practices of DH that silence (female) (graduate) students and prevent them from getting credit for their contributions.
Who gets to speak, when and where are diverse voices heard, how is credit for DH work distributed, and who does or does not get represented in the archives and in the scholarship?
Overall, the presentations and conversations at the 2015 Forum pose important questions about how libraries and cultural institutions partner with students, faculty, and community members to build and curate digital collections. We learned many lessons from the 2015 DH Forum—lessons about DH librarianship and practice, as well as lessons about the powerful role librarians can play in creating safe, cross-disciplinary, and inclusive spaces to foster these kinds of conversations. We are proud to share this brief overview of the Forum here and encourage readers to view the video recordings of all the presentations online. The success of the 2015 Forum has inspired us to continue these conversations in the upcoming 2016 Forum on “Places, Spaces, Sites: Mapping Critical Intersections in Digital Humanities” and we look forward to sharing those conversations later this year.
Baer. A. (2013). “Critical information literacy in the college classroom: Exploring scholarly knowledge production through the digital humanities.” In Information Literacy and Social Justice: Radical Professional Praxis (An Edited Collection), eds. Lua Gregory and Shana Higgins. Library Juice Press: Los Angeles, 2013. pp. 99-120. Retrieved from http://libraryjuicepress.com/ILSJ.php
Klein, L. (2013). The image of absence: Archival silence, data visualization, and James Hemings. American Literature, 85(4), 661-688.
Roh, C (2016). Changing scholarly publishing through policy and scholarly communication education. College and Research Libraries News (February 2016): 82-85. Retrieved from http://m.crln.acrl.org/content/77/2/82.full
About the authors
Pamella Lach is Head of the Center for Faculty Initiatives and Engagement at the University of Kansas Libraries. She has a PhD in History and a MS in Information Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Brian Rosenblum is a librarian at the University of Kansas Libraries where he currently serve as co-director of KU’s Institute for Digital Research in the Humanities.
Élika Ortega is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Cultures, Societies, and Global Studies at Northeastern University. Previously, she worked as a postdoctoral researcher at KU’s Institute for Digital Research in the Humanities. She received her PhD in Literature (Hispanic Studies) in 2013 from the University of Western Ontario.
Stephanie Gamble received her PhD from Johns Hopkins University in 2014. She currently serves as a Learning Specialist at the University of Kansas Libraries.