Digital scholarship is about creating channels

4 minute read

In the last few months, I’ve become involved in an environmental humanities project that has deeply impacted the way I see my work. At the same time, and even more so since the election, I’m aware of how deeply connected the precarity and faults that exist within our information landscape are to the precarity and faults of our civil society. As the project I’m working on has been closely tied to a particular river (the Schuylkill), I’ve been thinking a lot of the analogies between waterways and workflows (the “flow” in workflow makes it obvious that I’m not the first person to see this connection). Also, because Digital Scholarship is a very difficult term to describe, I am always in search of new analogies and metaphors to draw from when describing what a digital scholarship department in a library can do. Here, I’m testing out a new analogy that has helped me answer questions about how our department spends its time.

Imaginary question: How do you decide what projects and activities to focus on in a Digital Scholarship Department?

Frustratingly complex answer:

Put simply, the “digital scholarship” department in a library should be devoted to the careful development of new channels in the information landscape. This analogy is not perfect for all sorts of reasons, but I’ve been finding it tremendously useful lately. In this analogy, publishing models can be thought of as waterways through which knowledge is designed to flow. There exist a number of really well-carved rivers or channels for imagining, creating, and sharing knowledge. The academic monograph and journal article, for example, are robust channels through which some kinds of academic thoughts flow. Libraries are largely concerned with the scholarly work that has been created within those channels.

However wide those existing channels are, however, there are some kinds of scholarship that are aiming for places that those rivers haven’t reached, and there are kinds of arguments and insights that are not best made within those existing waterways. In addition, inequities, inefficiencies, and constraints exist within those well-worn channels. Parts of these waterways are privately controlled and require tolls to pass through. Parts of these channels contribute to pollution or injustices in ways that are problematic as well, and are closed off to a variety of people whose contributions would enrich the world. In Digital Scholarship, part of our work is to help carve new channels, and to do so in ways that will be sustainable for the people trying to use them, for long term preservation (of both the ideas that people are trying to share and for the environment), and that will contribute to re-shaping the information landscape in ways that are more fair, sustainable, and conducive to continued scholarly and civic discourse.

So, in my library, there are some channels that we’re carving now. For example, by expanding the use of ScholarlyCommons, our open access repository, we’re creating channels for information that need not necessarily pass through costly toll access waterways. In addition, we’re using Omeka to carve a couple of channels that will allow scholars and students to create collections or exhibits, and a we’ll develop some channels for Scalar. So, if a project comes our way that can flow through one of those channels, it’s going to be easier for us to help it along. Or, if a project can help us widen a channel or create a canal to an existing channel, that’s going to be easier as well. That said, where a project is not suitable for any of the channels we have, that can be a great opportunity as well, as it may provide an opportunity to create a new channel that is much needed. However, creating new channels takes time and money and investment, and specialized skills, depending on the environment its aiming to move through, or where it’s headed. We may or may not be the best people to help carve a channel, but no matter who carves it, if only one ship is using it, and it is not connected to the rest of the ecosystem, it will fill in or dry up, or become overgrown. And, if you create a waterway where nobody wants to go, and where the tide of your project has carried you too far downstream, you’re going to feel stuck and nobody is going to want to venture in to pull you out.

So, after all that, the easiest thing to say is that, if a project can glide relatively smoothly down an existing channel, we are going to help it down. Or, if it can help us widen or deepen an existing channel, there’s a good chance we’ll do it. If a scholarly question or project requires a whole new channel, we need to consider whether we have the right set of skills, whether we can all agree to get into a big construction/boat-building project together, and whether the channel we create is likely to be useful to others in the future, or exists in a landscape that is likely to take the channel back into itself as soon as we get a bit downstream.

I’m still working on this analogy. But I continue to find it useful.