Does the library have a role to play in the Digital Humanities?

What role does the library have to play in the increasingly data driven, technologically evolving humanities?

Humanities and the social sciences have traditionally been disciplines aligned closely with the institutional library and its resources and services. Increasingly, in my conversations with librarians, there is a concern that while the library as a space remains popular, this masks a growing distance between the services the library provides and the needs and expectations of researchers (to say nothing of undergrads).

As subjects like digital humanities find themselves transformed by their engagement with technology, is the library facing the threat of redundancy?

There has been a flurry of research recently including the RLUK report: Re-skilling for Research and JISC Collections’ UK Scholarly Reading and the Value of Library Resourcesexploring the evolving role of the library in supporting researchers.

Similarly, Ithaka S+R in the US is exploring the changing support needs of scholars across a variety of disciplines. The researcher-centric programme has recently published a ‘memo’ on the interim findings of their NEH funded History project (they are also exploring Chemistry, funded by JISC). And, as the report makes clear:

To many in the history field and in libraries, it is unclear what the role of the library should be in digital humanities. This is not to imply that there is no role for libraries – only that this role has not yet been widely developed and adopted effectively. Libraries remain very much in transition when it comes to expanding models for supporting research on campus

So, I wanted to explore some of the roles that libraries might have in the Digital Humanities:

  • Managing Data: This has undoubtedly become a cliche, but it’s the transformative factor changing research practice. Humanities researchers are increasingly interacting with large corpora; how do libraries support them in this, and the data that is an output from this type of research? This might involve libraries supporting the data management infrastructure, or providing one-to-one support for departments and researchers on best practice. I see libraries playing a role in the collection, re-purposing and organising of data that may lead to further analysis by individual researchers or (sub)departments. What’s critical is that libraries work collaboratively with the researchers/departments: This is not ‘selling’ library services; it is about understanding researchers  needs and providing the right support.
  • Closely connected to this point is the idea of the ‘embedded’ librarian: Providing the support wherever the researcher is; a distributed approach to library services. The librarian becomes the campus Flaneur: Inhabiting the campus and acquiring an understanding of its practices. This active role participates in the activity of the academic metropolis, while always maintaining a distance. The embedded librarian provides immediate support, while always maintaining an eye on the evolution of research practice and relevant support.
  • Digitisation and Curation: The examples above assume that much of the data being managed by the library will, in some way, be created by the researcher themselves. Libraries, are of course, great sources of content and this means they often hold the expertise and infrastructure for digitisation. Libraries have a very meaningful role in the digitisation and curation of that content.
  • Digital Preservation: Libraries, probably better than anywhere else on campus, understand preservation. It is unlikely that developers and researchers involved in a DH project probably do not, although they will acknowledge its importance. Closely linked with sustainability this is a significant area for libraries to play a role. Close collaboration early on will ensure the library is able to provide advice and guidance on standards and best practice. However, as the Preservation of Complex Objects Symposia makes clear – digital resources tend to be complex and their preservation far from straightforward. This is an area that libraries can build on and start having a real impact on these research outputs and their ongoing preservation.
  • Discovery and Dissemination: Libraries are increasingly judged by the services they provide, not as a large store of content. This means that for digital humanists the library can play a critical role in enabling the discovery of content from across academic, and cultural heritage.  Furthermore, this role may evolve into one of dissemination of scholarly outputs. Whether this is through campus-based publishing or aggregation of research outputs, advising on metadata and formats to enable dissemination and discovery, and tracking impact across new platforms and interactions (what is increasingly being termed altmetrics).

Questions remain around the ability of the library, and the wider institution, to adapt to the changes that are affecting scholarly practice. While much of the focus of research has been on the library services and how these can be made attractive to researchers, it is clear that a researcher-centric approach needs to be adopted to ensure requirements and future needs are clearly understood.

Finally, I wonder if the values the library represents (openness, access, contemplation etc…) might also be something that needs ‘capturing’. If we only focus on researcher needs, is there a danger that what they see as the value of the library is lost? Is the library an expression of knowledge and prestige within the research community, and does this have a value in itself?

16 thoughts on “Does the library have a role to play in the Digital Humanities?

  1. Eric Lease Morgan

    I read the Ithaka S+R report as well, and heard the same questions. “What is the role of a library in the digital humanities?” The things outlined above are obvious roles — typical for libraries.

    At the same time, I think librarianship can go further by incorporating digital humanities computing techniques into our systems and services. For example, why not provide concordance services against all of the full text items in our collections. Why not allow readers to create small corpuses of library content and then provide n-gram services, entity-recognition services, or parts-of-speech extraction service against the result.

    Eric Lease Morgan

  2. Ben Showers Post author

    I think these are some really good points – and some potentially very interesting services for libraries, or information providers to develop.

    I wonder about how near-term such a transformation in services of this type would be? The need for new skills, new infrastructure etc. How does the library create agility, how does it adapt quickly and responsively, and how does it engage with researchers to ensure that it is able to affect a new service turn that goes beyond ‘the obvious’?

  3. Brandon Butler

    It sounds like some of these ideas, especially Eric’s suggestion of creating smaller digital corpuses for analysis, are going to require some copyright thinking. Digitizing is copying, after all. ARL has tried to anticipate this with Principle 7 of the Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Academic and Research Libraries. I hope it can be helpful for you guys!

    Find more info here:

    and particularly here:

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