Webbs on the Web: libraries, digital humanities and collaboration

Last week a new article by Ed Fay (Executive Director, Open Preservation Foundation; formerly of LSE Library) and me was published in Library Review. The article is behind a pay wall (at the moment), so if you can’t access it please contact me directly. We’ve described the purpose of this paper as follows:

This paper aims to make a contribution to the ongoing debates about the nature, value and potential of closer collaboration between digital humanities (DH) and the library sector by identifying and contextualising the types of new knowledge that were created through such a collaboration on the London School of Economics’s Webbs on the Web project. (see here)

In it we discuss the various collaborations and collaborative partners who  underpinned the Webbs on the Web project (namely, the LSE Digital Library, Archive and Bibliographic Services and teams within the LSE library; the UCL Department of Information studies; the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities (UCLDH); and the private / commercial companies who supplied the digitisation, transcription and information architecture/user experience (IA/UX) services). In doing so we identify and describe some of the new knowledge that came about as a result of such collaborations. Ultimately, we relate our experience of this back to ongoing conversations about what libraries (in this case Academic / Research Libraries) and digital humanities may be able to achieve by working together more (see, for example, http://acrl.ala.org/dh/about/).

In this post I’ll very briefly describe one aspect of the paper: our experience of iteratively user testing the project. A wide range of users were involved in the user testing, these included the technical team of the project itself (5 people); the expert and stakeholder group (c. 20 people); LSE Library staff (c. 20 people); postgraduate students in the UCL Department of Information Studies who were studying for, among other degrees, an MA/MSc in Digital Humanities (c. 60 students); and other externals (c. 100 people).

When we reached the point of including DIS postgraduate students (because they were all taking a core course on our DH MA/MSc programme I’ll refer to them as DH students from here on) and library staff in the user testing of the resource we asked both groups to complete the same set of activities. We found that:

Librarians tended to give more detailed criticism of search and retrieval accuracy, including the presence of tools to aid with discovery such as facets or complex configuration options, while DH students, although also reporting problematic navigational journeys, tended to focus on the item-level functionality to do with the page-turning and textual comparison functionality. (p. 125)

We continue:

One way of interpreting these differing observations is to understand them as an expression of different but complementary expertise and subject interest in DH and library and information studies. On the whole, DH specialists are likely to be more concerned with what can be done at an item or collection level, see, for example, the TEI guidelines, which are central to DH and focus, for the most part, on item-level artefacts such as dictionaries, etc. Conversely, librarians are more likely to be concerned about the discovery at the cross-collection level (notwithstanding important DH work done at this level, the most obvious example being data mining). This perhaps reflects the current positioning of librarians as gatekeepers to large bodies of content – supporting discovery through information skills training and the provision of indexing/database content – rather than as embedded supporters of research through the lifecycle with an intimate involvement in the methodologies and technologies used in academic departments.
This expertise is both complemented and extended by what emerged as a central concern of DH scholars: their focus on the individual resources that support research, and shows how deep use of a smaller body of content, to the extent of utilising innovative forms of retrieval, are as important as breadth [and] availability of collections writ large, using more traditional search and browse functions.
So, although this fits within the library provision of certain parts of the infrastructure framework (the general ability to structure collections and make them discoverable), the collection- or content-specific functionality requires a close collaboration with domain experts and target users. Indeed, the insights that came about as a result of including digital humanists and scholars are the ones that are unlikely to have been gained, had librarians alone been consulted. (p. 125-6)

To put it another way, we found that by involving both librarians and digital humanities researchers and students (groups who might otherwise remain separate within the context of the modern University and Academic Library) in the user testing of the resource that we were able to benefit from insights and expertise that appeared (at least in the context of this research) to be separate yet fundamentally interconnected. We concluded that a greater awareness of the complementarity nature of the skills and knowledge that library and DH people have is necessary in an age where “New models of library service are also emerging to support new research methods, workflows and expectations” (p.120). We believe that there is much to be gained from identifying and describing such instances (not to mention experimenting more with such collaborations). In the immediate sense, the benefits of such a collaboration were clear to us: not only were we able to make a “better” digital resource but we each benefited from the experience in various ways. For example, I felt that I benefited immensely from understanding more about how the area that I have expertise in (TEI encoding) fitted into more wide-ranging approaches to infrastructural and collection-level digital library development. So too I was prompted to reflect on the ways that collaborations such as ours could inform curriculum design and content, not to mention prompting renewed reflection on the divisions that exist between and in many present-day Universities and Academic Libraries.

You will find more about this in our article ..


Julianne Nyhan

Senior Lecturer (associate Prof) in Digital Information Studies, University College London. Main research: Digital Humanities, Oral History & History of Computing. Publications page: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/dis/people/juliannenyhan / Research: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Julianne_Nyhan

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