vol. 26 no. 1, March, 2021

Book Reviews

The digital humanities and libraries – an evolving relationship

Wilson, Emma Annette. Digital humanities for librarians. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2020. xix, 227 pp. ISBN 978-1-5381-1645-6. £38.00.

Millson-Martula, Christopher and Gunn, Kevin G. The digital humanities: Implications for librarians, libraries, and librarianship. London: Routledge, 2020. xii, 494 pp. ISBN 978-0-3676-6354-4. £120.00.

The field of the digital humanities has exploded in recent years, as programmes, projects, scholarly literature, and centres devoted to the subject have multiplied. In the process, the library’s central position in organizing and providing access to collections of material has been transformed. There is a growing body of scholarly literature on these transformations. The books Digital humanities for librarians, written by digital humanities librarian Emma Annette Wilson and The digital humanities: implications for librarians, libraries, and librarianship, edited by librarian Christopher Millson-Martula and information studies scholar Kevin Gunn, both seek to document the effects digital humanities has had on librarians and their roles within academe. Both books are written largely by librarians, who primarily focus on advice for library professionals just getting started with digital humanities work.

This emphasis means that most of these volumes lift the practical or concrete as the basis for analysis. The other clear theme running through both works is how digital humanities work is in many respects a natural outgrowth of traditional librarian work, including librarian expertise in cataloguing, metadata, standards, and collection management best practices alongside project planning and collaboration as the issues that have made librarians central to the construction of the digital humanities in practice. Both books detail regular collaboration with information technology specialists, administrators, academics and other subject specialists, and graduate and undergraduate students, sometimes across institutions. However, the two volumes differ in their critical approach. Wilson’s book is designed as an introduction to the content of the subject, while The digital humanities is a critical compendium, evaluating a variety of kinds of digital humanities work in which librarians have been involved.

Wilson’s book advertises itself as 'the first single-author textbook on digital humanities designed specifically for librarians and students of library and information science'. Digital humanities for librarians is designed as a one-stop reference book, as opposed to the numerous more directed books on digitization, metadata, data curation, and other subjects central to the digital humanities. The book is designed to provide interested students and working librarians with an introduction to the field. This goal is threaded through the entirety of the book, baked into its structure, which includes exercises, extensive references to and information about various projects and digital humanists, and a long list of references at the end of every chapter.

Digital humanities for librarians is structured in three units, each of which is comprised of several themed chapters. The first section seeks to establish boundaries for the set of people, practices, and tools that make up the digital humanities, starting with a historical overview before introducing the reader to a series of relevant projects and outlining a set of models for librarian support for digital humanities work at universities. The second part provides basic information about 'the digital part' of the field, with chapters on metadata, digital exhibitions and other collection displays, encoding technologies, digital mapping and GIS metadata, and the computational text analysis that briefly covers everything from programming to introduction to several applications that allow for the processing and analysing structured and unstructured data. The last unit focuses on 'the human part' of digital humanities with an emphasis on management and the 'people skills' critical for collaboration across disciplines and professional areas. These final chapters concern public outreach, the range of roles that digital humanities work can involve (including an introduction to various individuals across a number of professions), a variety of models and 'strategic, conceptual, and practical approaches' to the management of projects. The final two chapters on management aim to encourage collaboration and management of data.

The book is an excellent primer, offering workshop, management, and outreach ideas for the practicing librarian interested in the digital humanities and anyone in the midst of studies in library and information science who has an interest in the field. The various examples and introductions provide a good and concise overview of the kinds of work that can be conducted within the digital humanities, and glossaries sprinkled throughout provide lists of important concepts and short definitions. The book attempts to answer questions about what methods and tools are popular, why these methods and tools are popular, and who is currently applying which digital humanities approaches. For this reason, this is a textbook that would work well in the classroom, given that individual chapters or units could be assigned separately or used out of order. Wilson’s volume does not require any background knowledge of issues such as the contested boundaries and definition of digital humanities as a field, and as a result skirts theory or the specific debates taking place within the field.

A good introduction to some of these debates can be found in the edited volume The digital humanities, which focuses on how digital humanities are challenging and changing the nature of libraries and the practice of librarianship. Various authors highlight the shifting, unbounded definition of digital humanities, a fuzziness that affects the variety of ways in which libraries have integrated its methods, perspectives, and project work into their regular activities. The book is divided into six subthemes: (1) theoretical and critical issues, (2) transforming traditional collections, (3) models of collaboration, (4) planning and project management, (5) the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education, and (6) embedded librarian instruction. After the first section, the remaining sub-themes are explored through deep dives into individual digital humanities projects.

The first chapter uses a questionnaire to assess how librarians who work with digital humanities have acquired experience. The chapter proposes more educational and library support for this kind of project work; as this field and librarians’ relationship with it evolve, digital humanities librarianship needs to be seen not just as a specialty requiring more thorough training and requiring more space in library infrastructures. The second chapter is more concerned with theory, examining the role of librarians through the lens of intersectional feminist theories. The authors consider the emotional labour of digital humanities librarians, using genre theory to examine their area of work as liminal and service-oriented in nature. This positioning is integral but largely unseen, as librarians support communication across disciplines and between academics and students, as well as the general public. Logsdon, Mars and Tompton conclude that librarian-led digital humanities projects are a way out of the narrow image librarians have within this field.

The second section addresses how the digital humanities makes use of several traditional librarian skills. The first chapter covers the changing role of university reference librarians, using Providence College’s text encoding initiative project Rosarium to illustrate how the digital humanities makes use of specialized knowledge and proficiencies in bibliographic work central to the role of the reference librarian. The following chapter covers digital humanities as a natural fit for subject librarians, who have long worked with cataloguing and digitization as methods of providing access to information. The last two chapters cover a project to make the sensory experience of medieval manuscripts tangible with touch technology and the construction of open access material for higher education. The third section begins with a chapter on data management, highlighting the need for a collaborative, flexible but systematic approach to the data cycle within digital humanities projects. The following chapter covers digital curation frameworks for the archives, critical to ensuring long-term access to digitised cultural heritage material. The final chapter discusses librarian-faculty collaboration within the context of digital humanities projects, making theorization of the problem of the invisibility of librarian labour in chapter two more concrete.

The fourth section on project management is the second bulkiest part of the compendium, comprising seven chapters on leveraging the pre-existing project management planning skills of librarians demonstrated in digital projects, developing the project EIRE (the Electronic Irish Research Experience) to improve community through digital production, and managing project documentation to enhance the planning and project execution process. Other chapters cover sustainable digital curation that integrates undergraduate and graduate student labour into workflows, the special aspects of digital humanities projects and institution-building at teaching institutions, making working with large data sets accessible to users without much experience in text-mining, and a model for digitization work without the requisite staffing and budgetary prerequisites normally considered necessary for this kind of work. Collaboration extends to the section on information literacy, which consistently emphasises collective development of literacy skills. Chapters cover a summer teacher development programme that employed the Association of College & Research Libraries framework to teach geospatial tools and history, a model for integrating digital humanities lab work into the classroom using a case study featuring visualization of data from oral history transcripts, two models for conversation-based development of digital humanities literacy goals, and building the conversations that are necessary for connecting the overlapping goals and values of libraries and the digital humanities.

The volume closes with the largest section, ten chapters on embedded library instruction. The first chapter covers how to support digital humanities work at universities with ordinary library services that do not include a specialised centre, with a specific focus on the role of the subject librarian as already embedded in teaching and research networks. The following chapter covers teaching Text Encoding Initiative practices, furthering digital and information literacy by bringing the construction of digital editions into the classroom. The next chapter extends the emphasis on collaboration, arguing that digital humanities projects are uniquely well-positioned to facilitate productive relationships between librarians, faculty, technical staff, and students with faculty. Other chapters focus on the role of subject librarian providing digital humanities classroom instruction, investigate student-directed curricula, the process of constructing a distance course with historical, archival digital humanities work at the centre, and the opportunities presented by geographic information systems for teaching The final two chapters analyse collaboration in a course teaching the impact of digital on literature and reading and collaboration between libraries and faculty that can support both the development of local digital humanities work in which researchers are invested.

The relative youth and wide-ranging nature of digital humanities means that both of these overviews focus on and use descriptions of an array of projects as a means to define the field of digital humanities without needing to weigh in on this more theoretical and academic debate. This area is defined across and within the books as a set of tools, practices, and concepts, depending on what digital material or project is being described. This practical focus allows the books to demonstrate how digital humanities projects are beginning to build on one another, developments that underline the importance of open-source materials and projects. This importance is emphasised specifically in the chapter on touch technology and medieval manuscripts, which utilised digitised documents from the Getty and open-source hardware and software to build an interactive exhibition and the chapter on digital curation, which notes that curation in digital environments must also ensure reuse opportunities (Gallant & Denzer; Sabharwal, both in Millson-Martula & Gunn 2020). Regardless of its theoretical underpinnings, the field of digital humanities is beginning to achieve a kind of definition, as a rather solid web of project work. It is this web that requires analysis if digital humanists are to successfully begin to theorise their field of study.

The centre of this web is the United States in both of these books, a not unusual bias for the digital humanities studies genre. It is also unequivocally positioned within the academy in both these texts, and authors in both of these books largely discussed impact and outreach as happening primarily within the university milieu, in terms of integrating digital humanities projects into course literature and accepted for similar broadened academic use. So, while the volume edited by Millson-Martula & Gunn underscores the centrality of outreach for digital humanities projects, which are assumed to have much broader audiences than visitors to the physical library, outreach seems to most often stop at the bounds of university audiences. This reach can be rewarding for all project contributors – as Bailey’s chapter Creating digital knowledge notes. Digital platforms facilitate the collection of data on visits and downloads, which can be encouraging for all members of the project team, but especially those unused to publishing themselves (Millson-Martula & Gunn 2020). But this is a relevancy within the broader academy, rather than a general one.

This more insular approach to the digital humanities places the books somewhat at odds with recent literature on both digitisation and participatory and community-oriented cultural heritage institutions, which have increasingly focused on local community involvement and the ethics of collection practices, document description, and other aspects of collection management (Bastian & Flinn 2020; Benoit & Eveleigh 2020). These themes are not very visible in these books, which are largely written by and directed towards academic librarians. One exception is Edwards and McCrea’s chapter on EIRE, which discusses the logistical difficulties and opportunities of crowdsourcing digital project content and identifying target groups for digital humanities projects (Millson-Martula & Gunn 2020). This conversation may be happening to a greater extent within archival institutions, where issues of historical bias, colonising practices, and the myth of neutrality have been broadly discussed for the past few decades. But this focus on academic institutions and actors may also have a lot to do with the way in which the digital humanities have evolved. This is a field that some have accused of failing to take systemic, historical inequalities – the context for the tools and empirical material of digital humanities – into account (for a recent exception, see Losh & Wernimont 2020).

Making materials accessible far outside the bounds of individual institutions might be seen as challenging the traditional role of academic libraries. But digital humanities could also be seen as a return to the visible structural, subject, and reference work that librarians used to perform before the advent of the internet. What digital humanities can do in addition is make this work more visible – a theme threading through both books under review here. While previously, librarians functioned as near invisible support for research, current projects can make librarians equal co-creators of academic projects. This is a good reason for following the advice of several authors here and increasing both educational and library support for the skill development needed to support such project development. However, the authors are less clear about where to target this support. While the Millson-Martula and Gunn volume begins with a call for more attention to digital humanities within library education, the history of this field has largely involved learning on the job, both for faculty and librarians. Given the enormous reach and undefined nature of digital humanities, departments of library and information science may need to start incorporating precisely the same kinds of projects used in English and history departments into their own curricula.


Rachel Pierce

University of Borås
March, 2021

How to cite this review

Pierce, R. (2021). The digital humanities and libraries – an evolving relationship: book review. Information Research, 26(1), review no. R712 [Retrieved from http://www.informationr.net/ir/reviews/revs712.html]

Information Research is published four times a year by the University of Borås, Allégatan 1, 501 90 Borås, Sweden.