Last week I attended an “executive roundtable” on supporting digital humanities sponsored by the Coalition for Networked Information (CNI) during their Fall 2014 Membership Meeting in Washington, DC.

Because academic library deans and university CIOs make up the majority of the crowd at CNI, the meeting offers a relative newcomer to the profession like me a 30,000 foot view of library and university operations that I don’t often see. The same is true at CNI’s executive roundtable discussions, which they have recently hosted on topics such as institutional strategies and platforms for scholarly publishing, e-book strategies, and software as service & cloud applications. This executive roundtable on supporting digital humanities received so many requests for participation that CNI could have hosted 6 roundtable discussions! Clearly, the topic is one with which many people at many campuses are deeply engaged.

The call for participation specified that institutions could be represented by one person or two people with distinct roles. Mary Foskett (Director of the Humanities Institute) and I represented Wake Forest. Potential topics of discussion enumerated ahead of time included:

  • Organizational models — institutional units supporting digital humanities and their roles
  • Supporting established projects vs. supporting new projects
  • Providing space, technology infrastructure, hardware and tools, staff expertise, exhibit space (physical and virtual)
  • Providing repository, research data management, and preservation services
  • Supporting digital humanities in teaching and learning
  • Staff skills needed
  • The realities of collaboration between information professionals and digital humanities scholars
  • Digital humanities and e-research in social sciences and sciences — one program or separate programs
  • Assessment strategies
  • Connections with institutional publishing strategies and programs
  • What happens when projects end
  • Funding models
  • Future directions

Cliff Lynch (Executive Director of CNI) opened the roundtable discussion by noting that many campuses are introduced to digital humanities through large Mellon or IMLS grants in which one or a few faculty are deeply involved. Often after this introductory period, the challenge becomes laying the infrastructure (organizational, technological, financial, etc.) such that pursuing digital humanities research and pedagogy is an option for every faculty member. Institutions of every size face this challenge of supporting digital humanities at scale, and there are many different ways of meeting this challenge, as the recent Ithaka S+R report on Sustaining the Digital Humanities demonstrates.

Below is my summary of some of the threads of conversation that seemed to be of particular interest to our context here at Wake Forest:

  • Often we think of the primary digital humanities activities at institutions of higher education as being research-centric, but increasingly campuses are thinking about how to support digital humanities in the classroom. What is the role of digital humanities in the liberal arts education? One participant pointed out that no engineer or scientist completes a college career without a collaborative, project-based course — but virtually every humanities undergraduate does. Another participant noted that she is thinking less in terms of digital humanities “projects” and more in terms of digital humanities as an element of the curriculum; this person has developed a proposal for an “Introduction to Digital Humanities” course co-taught by an English faculty member and a librarian. This thread of discussion resonated with my experience, having developed multiple semester-long collaborations with faculty to integrate digital projects into their courses.
  • What is the nature of “support” for digital humanities? As one participant noted, digital humanities is not a set of skills; it’s a methodology, a set of methodologies, an argument, a set of arguments. Consequently, can digital humanities be a “service” provided by a library or other unit on campus? Rather, the service rendered may be sustainable support for web projects of various levels of complexity, or consultations about metadata, or a referral by a library liaison to relevant campus or library resources. That said, it’s difficult to design infrastructure (technological or human) without knowing what we’re infrastructuring.
  • Support for digital humanities can be centered in one unit of the organization (such as ZSR’s Digital Scholarship Unit) while also being more distributed throughout the organization. Inreach is crucial to educating front-line liaisons about the core services of units such as our Digital Scholarship Unit, so that a natural part of their liaison work is connecting faculty with those core services.
  • Preserving the products of digital humanities research may be integral to legitimizing the digital humanities enterprise. Librarians are well-equipped to face the challenges of preserving scholarly works, including the outputs of digital humanities research. In order to demonstrate the value of digital humanities research, one long-term strategy is to preserve digital humanities research.
  • Regardless of the size of the institution, building the relationship infrastructure is just as crucial as building the technological infrastructure. Here at ZSR, I think we are positioned well to continue strengthening the relationships that already exist between ZSR, the Humanities Institute, Campus IS, academic departments, and individual faculty members.

CNI will issue a report summarizing the roundtable discussions in the coming months. In the meantime, we have plenty of food for thought!