This summer, I had the pleasure of attending two international conferences, the 48th LIBER Annual Conference (LIBER2019) and the Digital Humanities Conference 2019 (DH2019), which both constitute highly-valued annual meeting places for their respective communities. The former took place at Trinity College Dublin Ireland on 26-28th June 2019 while, the latter, on 9th-12th July 2019 at TivoliVredenburg in Utrecht, the Netherlands.
The theme of LIBER2019 was ‘Research Libraries for Society’ and the programme featured keynote and panel talks as well as workshops and posters addressing issues that currently concern the modern research library around its role and responsibilities in an increasingly networked society. More specifically, the topics discussed throughout the conference ranged from the future of collections and the ways research libraries foster citizen science and public engagement to open access, copyright and the role of libraries in digital scholarship.
On the other hand, DH2019’s theme ‘Complexities’ aimed to explore the strong potential of digital humanities scholarship in developing, analysing and communicating complex ideas through the use of digital technologies. The theme was also evocative of the diverse and complex networks of people involved in the field and the range of areas studied and taught. Thus, under this broad thematic ‘umbrella’, the conference programme comprised keynote talks, panel presentations, posters and workshops on topics that were illustrative of the broad spectrum of research in the field. Examples include issues associated with the theory and disciplinary practice in digital humanities, including the application of digital technologies to historical, literary, visual, media and linguistic studies; issues around community engagement and pedagogy; digital innovation in cultural heritage institutions and collections; and the development and sustainability of infrastructure, research software and tools as well as the ethical aspects involved.
Both these conferences, which attract a large number of professionals from across the world, offer great opportunities to get a detailed view of the latest developments and debates surrounding open and digital scholarship and collections. Having been involved in and closely followed both the research libraries and digital humanities communities over the past few years, it was particularly interesting to notice some common areas of interest and shared values emerging through the discussions. The areas where, in my opinion, both communities increasingly have similar visions and which offer fertile ground for collaboration are:
Collections as (big) data
Digital technologies offer unique potential for transforming institutional collections and presenting them in ways that can drive data-oriented research forward; in fact, this is one of the areas where a great deal of effort is currently put by the research library community. Yet, there are various challenges involved in ‘preparing’ collections for this purpose, such as understanding what scholars need, and several concerns both related to the biases that can exist in the archival records as well as the algorithms behind existing software and infrastructure used to discover and process large amounts of data.
Digital Humanities, as one of the main communities interested in the use of innovative technologies to interrogate and analyse large corpora of information to answer questions that has never been possible to ask before, has lot to offer in this area. On the one hand, working closely with libraries, scholars can contribute towards ‘shaping’ the collections and making them easily usable and re-usable as data. On the other hand, the combination of library professionals’ expert working knowledge of the collections with the critical and computational skills possessed by digital humanities scholars can prove valuable for challenging existing misconceptions and biases in the archival record and the algorithms behind the discovery and use of information. This can lead to greater representation and visibility of different ‘voices’ in the collections and foster research that can more accurately and holistically reflect on the past and future of our society.
One theme I’m seeing at #DH2019 papers = the issue of data bias, & the critical enquiry into what data allows us/ constricts us in doing (rather than in previous years – how to do it, or yay data cool stuff here’s my database). This is a good development in DH. I’m here for it.
— melissa terras (@melissaterras) July 11, 2019
Openness, inclusivity and impact
Additionally, both communities value, and strongly support, openness and enhanced access to knowledge as well as inclusivity and meaningful engagement with different professional and public groups. More specifically, research libraries have long developed a strong voice in the area of open scholarship and open access publishing while, over the last years, the discussions around the ‘social purpose’ of libraries – as Richard Ovenden (Bodley’s Librarian) also raised in his thought-provoking LIBER2019 keynote – have been increasing. Examples of the way this role is being investigated include the use collections to engage the public in conversations around inclusivity and diversity, wellbeing and mental health, fake news and other current societal concerns as well as in the active production of scholarship.
Digital humanities, from the start, has been a field with inherently interdisciplinary nature and international character, something that it is also apparent through the wide array of topics addressed at the conference and the participation of professionals from a range of disciplines, career levels and backgrounds. Moreover, recent years have seen members of this community actively advocating for and participating in activities that challenge current notions and preconceptions around race, gender and identity as well as the politics related to the access of information in the digital age. Apart from that, efforts are being made to increase inclusion in the field of scholars from areas outside the well-represented Western world. Joint work by the research libraries and digital humanities communities can indeed have a positive impact on current debates around diversity, equality, and inclusivity and the democratisation of knowledge which can lead to meaningful change.
Preservation and sustainability
Finally, another area of common interest for both communities and, where collaboration should be fostered, is preservation and sustainability. Preserving and sustaining the wealth of collections and resources that have been digitised over recent years, but also capturing and preserving born-digital material has become a priority area for libraries; these activities are necessary for ensuring future access to knowledge and facilitating use and reuse. Moreover, in an era when it is easier than ever to spread fake news, libraries, along with other cultural and educational institutions, have a responsibility to safeguard and advocate for the ‘truth’ through preserving our physical and digital history and making it accessible to the public who can then debate, challenge, and discuss it. In fact, the role of research libraries as pillars of ‘truth’ is a theme that frequently arises at events, including LIBER2019. Yet, the cost, in terms of resources, required to achieve considerable progress in this area is often very high for libraries to face alone.
The big take away from #liber2019 is that Libraries and archives are one of the pillars of an open society and we need to play our part in preserving and making things open
— Lorna Dodd (@LornaDodd) June 28, 2019
— Christina Kamposiori (@CKamposiori) July 12, 2019
Similarly, in Digital Humanities, preservation and sustainability of the knowledge that has been produced over the past decades is one of the key concerns that the community currently faces. However, as Johanna Ducker (Joint Professor, Department of Information Studies, UCLA) noted in her excellent DH2019 keynote, this is a challenge that digital humanities scholars cannot tackle alone and the community was encouraged to look for partners, such as libraries. Thus, in support of this proposal, it is argued here that by closely working together and involving other key stakeholders, such as funders, research libraries and digital humanities scholars can identify and more holistically understand the challenges ahead and plan strategically towards a more long term solution.