Digital Humanities: Projects, Power, and Opportunity

By Sara White

As technology continues to advance and change, libraries are increasingly working to provide the digital services their users want and need. This is an ongoing challenge, and each institution responds to it differently. Columbia University, for example, has three digital centers on campus for their students and faculty. There is the Center for Digital Research and Scholarship, which offers a variety of services, such as running the university’s institutional repository, Academic Commons; the Digital Science Center, which has services such as offering the hardware and software used for advanced statistical analysis of scientific data sets; and finally, the Digital Humanities Center, where I was able to do a field observation on October 18.

Butler Library

Butler Library 


The Digital Humanities Center works to provide the technology and services to assist researchers and students of the humanities who are using digital sources or who are working on digital scholarship projects. I was able to spend the morning there with Alex Gil, the Digital Scholarship Coordinator at the Center, located in Columbia’s Butler Library. First, Alex gave me a tour of the Center, which has several PCs and Macs that have a variety of software programs for editing projects (such as Adobe Creative Suite and citation management software,) and different types of scanners (some better for text, some for images). This is just a basic overview of some of the facilities provided by the Center, but the full list of services can be found here on their website.

Alex also showed me the recently opened Studio at Butler. The Studio is a space designed to facilitate educational and digital scholarship projects. There are tables, whiteboards, and some tech (such as a projector) provided, but users are asked to bring their own devices as needed for workshops or events. Researchers from within and outside Columbia can use the Studio to have an event related to the purpose of digital scholarship. There is a host of events, such as a weekly tech brownbag lunch, which is a more informal discussion among the tech specialists within the library to come have lunch together and discuss any topic they choose within the realm of technology. There are also several workshops on different subjects, including an upcoming event on mobilizing collaborative learning with technology. The full calendar of events can be found here.

During my time at the Center I was able to see Alex work on a lot of different projects, and there are a couple in particular that I’d like to highlight. First, the launch of a website for a global digital humanities conference in Mexico City happening in May 2014 which he helped build. The focus of the conference is the advancement of digital humanities in academic and cultural institutions and the future of DH in these settings in a global context. To launch the site, Alex posted the link for the call for papers to Twitter, Facebook, and through email. On Twitter we were able to see how many people had retweeted the information, saved the announcement as a favorite, or replied to the original posting. Through this medium, we were able to see how the information was being shared and passed along by others in the digital humanities field, and how rapidly it made its way to different countries across the world. While launching the site, Alex emphasized the importance of utilizing the different methods of online communication such as Twitter, Facebook, and WordPress to be an active participant in discussions and to learn about upcoming conferences and new research in the field. These forums can be valuable tools for learning and sharing information both within the digital humanities community and reaching out to share research with the wider world.

Next, Alex told me about the Developing Librarian Project at Columbia. This is an ongoing project that began in 2012 and was designed to help train current history and humanities librarians in the skills needed to fully support digital research and scholarship. While it is a training program, it is also a digital scholarship project in its own right: the librarians are creating a digital history of the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. This sort of institutional support for continued professional development for librarians is quite valuable. As digital scholarship increases in scope and complexity, librarians will need to be constantly working to stay up to date with the changing technology. Programs like this, which help library staff train on the job rather than forcing them to find courses and workshops outside of work, have a host of benefits for both librarians and their users. When training is so accessible, librarians will be able to advance their skills and knowledge more and more. And, as the librarians gain this advanced tech knowledge, they are then better able to serve the faculty and student library users, so it is equally beneficial for their institutions.

As I was doing my observation, I couldn’t help but think about some of the ideas regarding archives and power that have long been discussed by scholars and theorists. In particular, ideas about archives as centers of power in which history is constructed, and especially those about archivists having power as they are the keepers of records which create this knowledge 1  Places like the Digital Humanities Center at Columbia work to make the technology for digital scholarship more accessible to users, for instance offering assistance with personal digital archiving for users. The Center, and other digital humanities centers, seem like they could help make more people active participants in libraries and in record keeping, thereby distributing some power traditionally held in the archive to the wider world. The DH Center and the open access Academic Commons run by Columbia’s Center for Digital Research and Scholarship may help mitigate restrictions on knowledge, which was previously limited to those within small and select academic communities.

However, while centers like this are potentially a powerful tool for opening access to previously restricted knowledge, I think the effects would be limited, at least at first. Most of the materials made available online through Columbia’s repository or through projects by the DH center would be of a high academic level, the knowledge contained within would still be restricted to those with the training and education to understand that sort of content. So, the content is available but the knowledge within is not necessarily accessible by a general audience. However, if more institutions such as public libraries or local nonprofits were able to offer similar training programs or projects as the DH center that includes content on a variety of subjects and accessible to those from a variety of backgrounds, a more noticeable shift could occur. Digital humanities can help to provide the tools that can be used to increase access to knowledge, but it is not a solution to the problem of restricted knowledge in and of itself.

While my observation was a bit different than some, as I did not interact with library users, I was able to learn a great deal about a variety of projects in the digital humanities field. I’ll be going back another day to attend a workshop at the Studio at Butler and am hoping to learn more about utilizing digital humanities in education and scholarship. While the amount of tech that I need to learn before I can really get involved in this field feels somewhat intimidating, the variety of opportunities that the field affords left me feeling very excited to study them.

  1. A good overview of different ideas relating to this can be found in: Joan M. Schwartz and Terry Cook. (2002). “Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory.” Archival Science. 2. 1-19.
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