Digital scholarship blog

Enabling innovative research with British Library digital collections

30 June 2014

Data Driven?

The accumulation of data is driving change in research libraries, but how do we shape that change and bring everyone we need to on-board with the implications? Such considerations were themes of the recent Data Driven: Digital Humanities in the Library conference hosted by the College of Charleston.

Members of the Digital Research team attended the event with three aims: to report on our activities (in particular our Digital Scholarship Training Programme), to discuss how we see our role in the ecosystem of digital research in the arts, humanities, and social sciences, and to gain insight on comparable work and agenda setting taking place in North American research libraries.

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Aquiles telling it how it is.

My notes from the event are available on GithHub Gist, presentations from our talks on Slideshare (Aquiles Alencar-Brayner, 'Digital Scholarship Training Programme at the British Library'; James Baker, 'Mind the gap! Posing problems to unify research with digital research' and 'Making the unfamiliar familiar. Reflections on training digital scholarship in a library filling up with data') and a volume containing many of the papers will appear in 2015 published by Purdue University Press.

Given the flurry of available and forthcoming content this, then, isn't the time or place for a conference write-up, but for reflection on some takeaways (even if the folks from Davidson College got there first), on topics likely to inform our own practice and thinking in the coming months.

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Our glorious setting for all this thinking

On roles and responsibilities, it was clear that many of the librarians in attendance were performing a role whose parameters could extend from promoting and publishing digital collections to training students and colleagues in digital research methods, from researching what digital technologies mean for research and pedagogy to advocating for open scholarship, from digital preservation activities to curating acquisitions of mixed media and born-digital collections, from creating physical maker spaces to networked data sandpits. Some undertaking work in this space were called Digital Humanities librarians, others were not, but all seemed to operate with the notion of the DH librarian as a framework for responding to their local situation; to innovate, to caution, and to enrich how their institution responds to the digital transformations taking place around it.

If this notion of the DH librarian bubbled beneath the surface, the value of embedding librarians into research and research-led teaching stood front and centre. The North American higher education context is important to emphasise here - one where large research libraries containing notable research active information professionals proliferates. Trevor Muñoz set the tone here, positioning librarians as collaborators in rather than supporters of research activity, arguing in favour of a DH librarianship resistant to notions of administrative and programmatic service, and teasing at the key points of connection, - evident in the history of librarianship pre-dating the digital - between core library work and humanistic scholarship (Trevor Muñoz, 'Data Driven but How Do We Steer This Thing'). Notable here too were talks by Jolanda-Pieta van Arnhem and Benjamin Fraser (College of Charleston) on collaborative teaching of urban cultural studies between library and faculty, by Harriet Green (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) on faculty-library partnership in teaching digital literacy, and by Liz Milewicz (Duke University) on the challenges and opportunities of curating DH research projects and experiments (such as the Haiti Lab).

In sharing and reflecting on how we achieve and fail in this way and in venues such as Data Driven, we are confronted with why the work we seek to describe happened in the first place. This latter area is an aspect of library practice that Muñoz argues is worthy of more consideration, of couching in something grounded and theorised. For we need only to consider an historical perspective longer than reflections from one project to the next to gain (at least in part) that grounding, and here both Muñoz's paper and the chatter around Data Driven connected fruitfully with a surge of recent scholarship and comment on enriching DH (and avoiding it's eternal September - Nowviskie 2010) through histories of librarianship, of both the humanities (Bod 2013) and humanities disciplines (Turkel, Muhammedi, Start 2014), and of DH itself (Nyhan, Flinn, Welsh 2013; Terras 2014). As Wilard McCarty writes DH needs 'to begin remembering what our predecessors did and did not do, and the conditions under which they worked, so as to fashion stories for our future.' (McCarty 2014; see also a recent interjection on the Humanist group (28.140) responding to a statement by the Cambridge Centre for Digital Knowledge.) For research librarians to be part of that future, to flourish as collaborators in research, we need to allow ourselves then to be driven not by data but rather - with an eye to our pasts and the pasts of those with whom we work - by considerations around why and why not data.

James Baker

Curator Digital Research



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