Tuesday, April 12, 2011

What is the relationship status between The Digital Humanities and The Digital Library?

Last week I read Bethany Nowviskie's what do girls dig? with a certain deju all over again feeling...

What follows from the comments of her original tweet and subsequent blog post is the start of a guarded conversation about gender, technology and academia.

Unfortunately, this conversation is one that librarians are all too well-acquainted with

(image has been edited)

It's not uncommon for technology-based library conferences to have a slate made up of mostly men even as they still make up only a minority within the profession as a whole (except for administration, natch). What's particularly disturbing is that there is an upcoming non-technology themed symposium on the Future of the Academic Libraries that has only 3 out of 21 speakers being women.

Gender and technology and the academy. It's a relationship that's... complicated.

And now, I'm going to complicate matters a whole lot more. * deep breath *

Not only is the Future of the Academic Library symposium problematic for its unabashed disregard to uphold McMaster University's formally established commitment to equity, it also draws another shadow for being organized by a University Librarian who has recently fired two librarians, set up the early retirement of five more and has recently gone on on record that it was likely that no more librarians would be hired, librarians would be moved out of supervisory roles, and the work of the library would largely be performed by IT staff and postdocs.

Not surprisingly, librarians are furious that they are being destroyed from within by their own leadership.

But I would like to know is what do the people from the Digital Humanities think of what is happening at McMaster University.

Personally, I believe that the growth of the digital humanities does not have to occur at the expense of librarianship and I take comfort that I know that I am not alone in this assertion. In fact, one of the reasons why I have been following and being involved in the field is that it provides a space where conversations about the work itself can sometimes come before introductions and titles.

Besides, the digital humanities and librarianship share many of the same values and grapple with many of the same issues. We work to understand and expand the human record. We strive to provide effective and caring teaching, online and off. We work toward making our work public and for the public. There's aforementioned fault line of technology and gender. And the Digital Humanities also struggle with  issues related to status from being alternative-academics and not "real" faculty.

Just yesterday, I met with the Head of the Humanities Research Group with a group proposal for a short digital humanities summer series to be hosted by the library. When I said I was not Dr. Williams, but Ms. Williams, the response was a smile and that it was good thing that I wasn't an academic, as becoming so would make me moldy. There are *so* many ways that I could unpack that statement but let's leave it at this:  recent events at McMaster University demonstrate that there is a struggle about who gets to decide what work has value in the academy.

Lane Wilkinson has a written a great post about the conflict between phds and librarianship and it's being well-received for good reason. Still, I believe that there is more to this issue that remains largely unsaid. The Council of Library and Information Resources sponsors the postdoc program a McMaster University Librarian describes as "the best thing we've done in the four years I've been in here". We need to ask ourselves how librarians can complement and extend the work of the humanities without the profession being destroyed in the process.

That all being said, I hope that the role of gender doesn't get entirely lost in the conversation just because it's complicated.


Lisa Goddard said...

Just as the library has supported the humanities, so can the digital library support the digital humanities. The digital humanities will need access to large masses of highly structured texts in open formats that are based on open standards. Sounds like work for librarians to me.

Lisa said...

Thanks for this Mita- another piece of the Phd puzzle for me is that in hiring post-docs people seem to be thinking more about the fact that they have Phds vs MLS's ... but not talking about the casualization of labour and academic freedom issues here. This tactic is removing permanent positions from the university library, in favour of non-tenured contract gigs no? And that's bad for everyone, regardless of your initials.

Mita said...

I literally had just hit the publish button on this post, when the response from the Digital Humanities came down the line:

Today's #alt-ac & libraries must-read: "I'm Nobody! Who are you?" @surlyF reacts to @trzecia talk at PSU (& aftermath): http://bit.ly/dMk0nA

Dale A said...

I'm not sure the sky is falling ... yet. I enjoy reading your posts, but you make two points here to which I'd like to reply.

First, you mention in passing that tech-based conferences and library administration skew male. True enough. Having been at Access and others of its ilk, I've witnessed that. That's a problem with the IT world in general, which you know as well as I. Where I take issue with this broad stroke statement is that it is always so. I just returned from CNI (tech all the way) and once again noted that women made up a large portion (majority?) of attendees and speakers, including the opening keynote. I don't dispute that there are myriad gender inequity issues in our society, and that some of them exist in libraries, but I don't think unnuanced statements such as this help resolve them.

The other point concerns PhD holders working in libraries. As I said in a comment on Jenica Rogers's blog today, this is not a new topic. You note that Lane Wilkinson wrote an interesting post on the topic. Granted, it's a nice read, but there is actually research on the topic, such as that by Gilman and Lindquist published in portal in recent years. It paints a different picture, gives historical perspective, and points out longstanding issues between librarians with PhDs and those without. PhD holders do not destroy the profession. They enrich it.

NAN said...

To Dale A:

PhDs definitely "destroy the profession" when librarians are fired to make room for them.

PhDs definitely "destroy the profession" when your boss explicitly states that librarians will not be hired and that it's all postdocs and IT from here on out.

Personally, I don't see how you can in good faith consider yourself a booster for librarians when you work for someone like Jeff Trzeciak. I hope you sleep well.