Whether or not the humanities are in the midst of a crisis, much is changing in the humanities research landscape. Libraries and librarians have responded in a number of creative ways to the pace of change brought on by new technologies and research methodologies. Librarians have already created new “services” in response to the trends born out of the digital revolution: training patrons to use the library remotely, especially in search and discovery approaches to vendor-provided databases; highlighting our increasing collection of electronic resources; providing licensed software and hardware at digital centers; using virtual reference to supplement face time; and digitizing primary sources. Beyond what we recognize as service provision, librarians have also emerged as partners and collaborators in the research process. For many years, libraries have been the place where information technology and research intersect, to the point where it is difficult to speak of digital humanities without referring to the role that libraries and librarians have played in laying the groundwork for it, not to mention the many active researchers in digital humanities currently embedded in libraries.
Of all the changes we are experiencing, perhaps the most important is not technological at all, but social: successful digital projects need partners with different skill-sets to work closely on teams. While the role of the library in providing databases and expensive software has proven to be very valuable to individual researchers, we must now account for the fact that an increasing number of researchers are becoming interested in populating databases and building software themselves, experimenting with public and collaborative scholarship, and collecting and sharing data in new ways. This is a welcome turn of events, but one that requires some preparation on our part. A parallel development is a renewed recognition of the librarian as a researcher in his or her own right. In this sense, what we are experiencing at the library is the increasing commingling of “services” with peer collaboration.
Librarians in the Columbia University Libraries are keen to understand and support these evolving research practices. We are working to build end-to-end “services” together with spaces and opportunities for collaboration that go together with the needs of all scholars—be it faculty, students or librarians—from the conception of a research project to publication to its preservation.
In the fall of 2012, and running in parallel with the expansion of the Digital Humanities Center, we initiated the Developing Librarian Project (DLP), a two-year training program, with the goal of acquiring new skills and methodologies in digital humanities. The DLP is created by and for librarians and other professional staff in the Humanities and History division. We originally found our impetus from two influential publications, “Re-skilling for Research” published by RLUK and “Research Support Services for Scholars: History” by Ithaka S+R. Since then we have continued to learn from many librarians who are thinking in this space—Kari Kraus, Trevor Muñoz, Angela Courtney and Harriett Green, Dorothea Salo, Michelle Dalmau, Bethany Nowviskie, Miriam Posner, Chella Vaidyanathan, and many others.
The program is based on the assumption that learning must happen in context, a model we borrow from the Praxis Program; therefore the training is project-based with all participants engaged in creating a digital humanities research project as a team. We hope that this approach will enable the team to learn about new tools in a sustained manner that parallels the way other humanities researchers are likely to use them. We designed a set of practical training units and exercises for the purpose of individual or group learning and skills development. We are also adding variations to the graduate student centered models used in the Praxis Network, adapting the project to the needs of mid-career professionals. As a result, our model might inform similar projects at other libraries, from small liberal arts colleges to public and private research universities.
Practical exercises are focused on individual contributions to a common and ongoing project to document the history of Morningside Heights and its environs (the area in Manhattan where Columbia University is located) in the period 1820-1950, as Columbia University was changing the neighborhood. The aim of the project is to produce a permanent public resource while giving the team an engaging project of manageable scope to increase the likelihood of success. We are developing our digital archive using Omeka and Neatline at the core. We chose these tools because we recognize their increasing importance in the humanities community and because of their emphasis on design and ease of use. Besides Omeka and Neatline, we are learning about many other emergent technologies that allow us to search, obtain, clean, manipulate, create, and analyze digital assets. In addition to digital literacy, we hope that the project will allow us to hone our “softer” skills. The fact that we are building together is already helping us bond as a team in salutary ways. Because of the exigencies of digital projects, we are also learning much about web design, usability, project management, and copyright law.
The Developing Librarian training program depends upon a model for assessment that involves evaluation of each unit immediately following a training session, thus providing feedback to program designers before the next unit is presented. In addition, a comprehensive evaluation at its completion will measure the overall effectiveness of the training program. This assessment design is closely linked to the learning objectives outlined in the overall program syllabus, which are tied to skill-set gaps discussed in RLUK’s “Re-skilling for Research” report. Hopefully, the assessment piece will help us and other libraries interested in implementing similar projects to learn from our mistakes and successes.
Assessment is not the only form of documentation for this project. We Developing Librarian Project built Breaking the Code to tell our story. Designing and implementing the blog was the first part of our learning experience. We have made a commitment to document our journey in the blog, from our hesitations to our technological victories, in large part to provide a resource for libraries and librarians who are wrestling with similar questions about our relationship to digital humanities. We hope that you will come and visit us once in a while to check on how we are doing and perhaps leave us comments and questions.
We realize training is no longer a thing to do a couple of times a year, but a continual process of learning integrated into the fabric of what we do every day. In that sense it would be more accurate to say that ours is not a training program, but part of our continuing professional development and research. We are committed to gaining a better understanding of emergent technologies and to being partners in the research process. While the product of the Developing Librarian Project is important, it is the process that is the most exciting, and we hope, most lasting element of these efforts.
Columbia University Libraries
Humanities and History Team