Libraries as Laboratories

When I think of laboratories, images come to mind of the 10th-century Persian alchemist Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi, or maybe Beaker and Dr. Bunson Honeydew from the Muppets. They probably have various burners, beakers and flasks, and winding tubes of  travelling smokey gasses that eventually drip as strangely colored liquid into a tiny glass potion bottle, or something… Whatever the experiment, the goal might be to confirm a bit of information or further articulate some paradigm or another. Ultimately, from the technologies available in the lab by means of some methodology, what comes from the lab is a set of information to contribute to a conversation that will be disseminated and further discussed by a specific community of scholars.

Although not littered with broken glass and mad scientists (maybe…?), libraries too serve laboratory-like functions, especially for humanists interacting with texts and images, processing the data and information they glean in conducting mental experiments in the library.

As digital humanities has a growing presence in libraries, particular challenges are posed, especially whether one could characterize it as a service. Despite the disagreement over digital humanities as a service in libraries, Bethany NowviskieTrevor Muñoz, and Micah Vandegrift seem to agree on one thing: libraries facilitate the creation of knowledge and assist in preservation and dissemination of that knowledge. Libraries function as laboratories, even think tanks, for humanities scholars. Indeed, the library is the humanist’s laboratory. So, it only seems natural that librarians and researchers (which can be one and the same) should collaborate, rather than draw a line between them as Muñoz does in stating that the focus on faculty inhibits DH initiatives in libraries. Not only will libraries provide space and technological support, they can offer things that the researcher whose digital scholarship is to be disseminated by ensuring proper preservation, licensing, and metadata, etc., are taken care of. As Nowviskie points out, as an example, ”Library technologists, more used to working collaboratively and for broader audiences, can more easily do open source right – and thereby demonstrate its value.” Additionally, “libraries and library-embedded digital humanities centers [help] to beat what we might call a ‘path to production,’ both for innovative scholarship and for its supporting technical and social frameworks.” In this, while collaborators in terms of content and especially methodology (e.g. librarians knowing something about a methodology that will serve the researcher’s purposes), the librarian can be seen as providing a form of service in line with their traditional research consultations. I’m not sure what’s wrong with that.

Like Muñoz, I think that “good digital humanities work is exploratory and innovative,” but also that librarians, many as DHers themselves, can help walk the path of scholarly processes in the library as a DH laboratory. As Micah Vandegrift notes, “the library, as a staid institution of knowledge and exploration, should then blend in with the multitude of ways that the user discovers information,” and so offering assistance with digital humanities initiatives in sharing their know-how.

In reading these articles, discussions from the start of the semester came back to mind: is DH a discipline? a field? a set of methodologies? I can see how it can be considered a field of its own, but because of its interdisciplinarity, I see things like topic modeling, text analysis, and GIS largely (though not entirely in and of themselves) as methodologies available to various fields. I’m wondering if the distinction or confusion of the nature of DH is what is contributing to the conversation of who should own DH (librarians or faculty). This makes me wonder, can one own a methodology? My thought is, probably not.