Redefining the “Life of the Mind” & the Infrastructure of Knowledge in the Digital Humanities Center

If you haven’t read it, Bethany Nowviskie recent post responding to the question “Does every research library need a digital humanities center?” go do so. It’s really good. DH+Lib put out a call for further discussion/response to the issues Bethany raised so I thought I would post a few quick comments here. So, this is a quick and brief response to some of the issues raised. Something more than a tweet, but not necessarily as fully formed as some of my other blog posts.

Research Libraries as Infrastructure for Humanities Scholarship
To me, what is really exciting about the digital humanities is that a lot of the work in the field is actually about redefining what the products and process of scholarship should be. It’s not just about doing things and writing books and articles about them, it’s also about figuring out how everything from blogs, to web applications, to mobile apps, data sets, and a range of tools can themselves be scholarly products.

It’s a bit of a caricature and a gloss over a lot of the hybrid roles that libraries have played in scholarship, but I think the following is a functional definition of how many think about research libraries relationship to humanities scholars.

  1. Scholars use libraries as an access point to “the literature” (books and journal articles).
  2. Scholars then publish their work, adding to the literature.
  3. Then libraries collect that new work and the cycle repeats.

Again, there are a lot of awesome other things that research libraries do, but I’d suggest that this is the primary mode through which they are thought of. As an instrument for access to knowledge. In this bifurcation, the scholars live the life of the mind and make scholarship and the research library is the infrastructure that enables them to do so.

Redefining Products and Process of the Life of the Mind

The digital humanities centers I’m most excited about are an amazing kind of scholarly middle ground; places where scholars from different research traditions work alongside librarians, archivists, software engineers, system administrators, usability and human computer interaction experts and project managers to invent a new kind of knowledge infrastructure.

What is critical here, is that the product of scholarship; the book and the article, are being called into question. The DH center as humanities skunk-works has significant implications for the idea of who serves whom, of what scholarship itself is, and holds the potential for a significant reinvention of the roles of a range of information professionals in the work/labor/and life of the mind in research and scholarship.

Digital Humanities Centers Without Scholars

To illustrate just how independent this kind of activity can be from service to scholars, I’d suggest that one of the most successful centers of DH activity isn’t built to serve scholars as much as it’s built to serve the public. New York Public Library’s Lab, NYPL Labs, is a powerful example of what the possibilities are for the digital humanities in research libraries. In part, because it’s not a service to researchers model at all. I imagine many wouldn’t classify NYPL labs as a DH center at all, likely because it doesn’t have this kind of relationship with scholars. I’d argue that the fact that they consistently win grants from the Office of Digital Humanities as the best definition of the fact that they are a DH center. If you look across their work you see the work of engaged and thoughtful creative professionals working on reinventing the infrastructure of knowledge and scholarship. That impulse in the digital humanities has considerable value to contribute to the core mission of research libraries.

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