Not About Me

I confess: the only reason I signed up for the Day of Digital Humanities again this year was so I could talk about digital humanities work other people are doing and not about myself.

The inherent contradiction in this post doesn’t escape me—it’s kind of the point. Much of the digital humanities that I do these days is about other people doing digital humanities. The details of my own Day I tweeted under the #dayofDH hashtag as I found the time—just as I did last year. There are many wonderful things about enabling colleagues and collaborators but nothing is an unambiguous good so, at the end of my Day of Digital Humanities for 2013, I thought I would ponder some of these issues.

A brief acquaintance with my job titles might cause you to wonder what I could possibly be going on about. I’m an Associate Director at a well-established and productive digital humanities center—the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH)—and I also work for an academic library leading work on a number of digital projects—the University of Maryland Libraries. Don’t I get to do digital humanities all the time? Yes, I do and in a library context (as I said above: wonderful things). What I’m reflecting on is how my way of doing digital humanities is different in my current position from how it was when I was a junior member of a project, or a graduate assistant, or a hired hand. It’s also different I think (though I don’t have first hand experience) from the way of doing digital humanities that many of my colleagues who came to this work as PhDs experience. (I’m a librarian with master’s degrees in Library and Information Science and Digital Humanities—and in brief one of the differences that distinction makes is one of orientation—to a whole professional field versus to an all-consuming individual research project).

That’s the crux of how my Day of Digital Humanities and my digital humanities work is not about me.

My colleague Jennifer Guiliano calls this kind of work “project development” (and see her post on the differences between project development and project management). Project development is the work of taking research questions and ideas and matching them up with one’s best knowledge of where the leading edges of the field are moving, the technical capabilities at hand, and the realities of budgets and personalities. Sometimes you might be engaged in doing this for your own personal research project but more often the project idea being developed is selected because it’s one that serves the strategic goals of the institution, or keeps the team funded and working at full tilt, or capitalizes on a serendipitous opportunity that happens to come across the radar. Those are all good reasons to develop projects. Project development is properly intellectual work not service but it can look and even feel out of place on something like the Day of Digital Humanities because it isn’t directly working with code, or building archives, or generating scholarly papers or online multimodal compositions. Lest this sound plaintive, the point is not to lobby for project development or the other new forms of scholarly work that appear in the digital humanities to be “recognized”—though that’s certainly needed. For today, the point is more descriptive—I want to lay bare more of the mechanism.

Though it only coincidentally fell on the Day of Digital Humanities, today was the kickoff meeting for the next phase of a collaboration that MITH and the University of Maryland Libraries have been pursuing under the rubric of the “Digital Humanities Incubator.” I’ve written elsewhere about the motivation and background for the Incubator. In brief, the project is intended to expand the number of librarians here at Maryland who feel confident enough to take the role of and can be credible principal investigators for digital humanities projects of their own design. The fall half of the Incubator was open to all UMD librarians, staff, and graduate assistants and consisted of a program of workshops, individual consultations, and group activities designed to introduce the process of moving from an idea to a full-fledged digital project. The process concluded with a “pitch round” in which 12 librarians or teams of librarians presented their ideas for potential projects to an audience of their colleagues and the MITH staff. After difficult deliberations, we settled on a collaboration with two of these librarian-digital-humanities-principal-investigators-to-be. This second, more intensive phase of work that will take these ideas from proposal to the next stage (somewhere between interesting experiment and early beta) kicked off this morning. For the next five months, a substantial part of doing digital humanities for me will be helping these librarians do digital humanities as part of the completion of the Incubator cycle.

Lara Otis from the University of Maryland Libraries Public Services division will be working on a project tentatively titled The American Racetracks Atlas that will be a comprehensive reference source for horse racetracks in America from the 1600s to the present including names, dates, locations, photographs, maps, and more. Doug McElrath from Special Collections will be working on an as-yet-untitled project that seeks to reveal the lives of the African American community in Bladensburg, Maryland, during the era of the War of 1812. Doug and Lara will be embedded researchers at MITH for the next five months (look for blog posts coming soon about their projects). For the MITH staff these two related works about changing American landscapes are one project, not two—a structured exploration of a new set of tools, technical design constraints, and intellectual questions.

As co-creator of the Digital Humanities Incubator (with Jen Guiliano), the design of the collaboration that will develop these two project ideas is my digital humanities work. Our colleague Matt Kirschenbaum tweeted a photo from this morning’s meeting that captures the most common experience of this kind of work (I’m at the whiteboard). It strikes me some days that doing digital humanities this way—rather than being a programmer or a designer or an author directly (all of which I also sometime am at other, often side moments)—is akin to the method of eating soup in the allegory about heaven and hell. Maybe there’s something of the same lesson to be found then, or perhaps, at this late hour in the evening, I’m falling prey to a common tendency of the field.

Our meeting was very productive: we brought everybody up to speed on the current project aims and various participants objectives, we raked up some good fodder for our project charter about expectations, we set up a Basecamp project, agreed on our basic collaboration technologies, sketched out the overall workplan, and assigned specific action steps for the near term work. Much digital humanities work was done on The American Racetracks Atlas and the unnamed Bladensburg project. And at another level, important digital humanities work was done through the fact that we had our meeting at the MITH kitchen table rather than off in the conference room, that we had programmers and historians and librarians and literature professors around the table and everyone got to express their goals and have a say in the ongoing shaping of the work, that we agreed as best we could to work both like a project with well-defined roles and inexorable deadlines,  and also like a graduate seminar with discussion and mutual exchange.

None of that, of course, will make it into the final products directly but it does make up a substantial and important part of this and so many days of digital humanities.