{Series} Emerging Careers in Librarianship: Digital Humanities Librarian

It's a digitally manipulated James Joyce... get it?

As library students, we’re all aware of how deeply digital tools have transformed out field, but sometimes we forget that those same tools are impacting other fields as well, fields with which our own work may eventually intersect. In the academic world, scholars are pulling computational techniques into the traditionally low-tech humanities, and finding that it offers exciting new approaches to subjects like literature, classical studies, and history. That is to say, our users and patrons are thinking of new ways to engage with information, and wherever that’s happening, there’s a place for a librarian.

Lindsay Skay Whitacre is a librarian at Boston College where she’s the go-to woman for scholars who want to start using these tools and techniques in their own work.  She agreed to answer a few questions about her role at the BC library so that those of us who are considering a similar path can hack their library school experience accordingly.

1. How would you describe your position, and how did you come to it?

My official title is “Assistant Digital Collections Librarian” – I ended up in this field in a rather round about sort of way; I graduated from college in 2001 with a major in psychology minor in media studies. I worked in educational/scholarly publishing for several years. In 2005 I packed my bags for grad school at University of Toronto where I received my masters in library science – my concentration was in archives with a certificate in book history and print culture.

However, I worked in public television after graduation here in Boston where I first dabbled in Digital Humanities. I was interested in digital archives in library school so I had some experience with XML, etc. At WGBH I worked with moving image materials where I used TEI to encode transcripts – most notably I worked on the Vietnam project: http://openvault.wgbh.org/collections/vietnam-the-vietnam-collection

I was at the PBS station for about 4 years before I started at Boston College. At BC, I work on a variety of digital materials and digital humanities projects – including trying to get a Digital Humanities program up and running.

2. In a nutshell, what are the digital humanities?

The formal definition is a cross-disciplinary community in humanities that uses technology, especially web computing, as an analytical tool for critical inquiry and/or a means of scholarly collaboration and communication. What researchers are interested in is a way to manipulate and transform existing data into new digital scholarship.

Digital Humanities is not just digitizing a manuscript or a book and then adding some metadata so it can be found again. Digital Humanities is taking that manuscript or book, and adding a new layer to it – whether it is something as simple as creating a word cloud, or more complex like TEI encoding. You are creating something new by using something old. Some great examples include The Newton Project, Women Writers Project, and Mapping the Republic of Letters.

3. Who are the users you primarily work with? What kind of work are they doing?

At this point, I am working with mostly faculty and graduate students – figuring out what they want to do, and what tools are available to them, and also what materials that we already have digitized and available. Digital Humanities and libraries work hand in hand. Think of it like a three legged stool:  one leg is the programmers (those creating the tools), one leg is the scholars (those using the tools) and one leg is the Library and Digital Repository (where the scholars are getting their information to use the tools.) The library is a bit of a changing landscape right now, especially as more materials are being born digital. Remember, though, digitizing something is not the same as digital humanities. You need to use that digital material as a jumping off point to create something new.

Currently I am working on a project that involves James Joyce and the creation of a digital bookshelf. Last year I helped teach a class focusing on the TEI encoding of Pre-Renaissance Italian comedies. It is important to note that I do not speak Italian, but the professor has been working with The TEI as well as annotation apps. I will be teaming up with her again in the future to teach a class on the etymology of romance languages.

At this point, I don’t really get undergrads coming in as dighum projects tend to be longer term.

4. What would you say are the fundamental skills and attributes of a digital humanities librarian?

Know your XML, TEI, METS, MODS, as well as some basic XSLT. Programming experience helps, but not always necessary. But know the field, know what tools are out there and what they can do. Be curious and willing to try new technologies.

5. What advice would you give a new librarian who is interested in working in your field?

Experiment. Go out there and try creating something new – Jentery Sayers talks about tinkering  and the ideas of play with digital humanities, and I think that is really important. The web is your sandbox and there are enough tools out there to build something.

Find mentors in the field and don’t be afraid to ask questions. In my case, I bugged the digital asset manager  at WGBH enough that she let me work on a few projects – I took on extra work, but she mentored me and I got to work on the Vietnam project which led to me working with TEI encoding. Because I had TEI knowledge, Boston College hired me, and I decided to start looking into forming a digital humanities group on campus. I also got funding to attend the Digital Humanities Summer Institute in Victoria, B.C. last June – where I was able to meet more like minded people in my field both librarians and profs. (Note: As did fellow Hacker Brianna Marshall, who has touched on this subject before!)

 Further Reading:

Getting Started in the Digital Humanities

Tooling Up for Digital Humanities

A Companion to Digital Humanities


15 replies

  1. Thank you to both Amy and Lindsay for this great post! I had heard of the term “digital humanities” before but never knew what it encompassed, or even gave it that much thought. As a recent Library grad with a strong interest in the humanities (my undergraduate degree was in History), this seems like a really promising niche 🙂


    • It’s some really interesting stuff. At Mizzou, SISLT (the department that encompass the library school) is developing a new digital humanities graduate certificate, and I’m taking the introductory class this semester to try it out. I actually think Lindsay is underselling how cool DH is. There’s the text stuff, which is fantastic, but as a fellow history major I have been really interested in how DH historians are increasingly incorporating GIS technology into their historical scholarship.


    • It’s a fascinating subject area, and I think it holds a huge amount of potential. It also gives us some examples of how we can use digital tools to not merely replicate the traditional functions of the library, but also to engage with information in new ways. The scarier part is that this field is still so new, the path for an aspiring digital humanities librarian seems to be pretty much a make-it-up-as-you-go-along sort of thing. 🙂


  2. I plan to share the above with my students in Intro to Humanities, both to show the how the concept of humanities has evolved, but also as an exciting career to explore! I studied French Literature as a graduate student, and am envious that at least area within the humanities seems to be blossoming, coming into its own. I’m not sure whether library science has historically been considered to be within the umbrella of humanities sub disciplines. Bravo!


  3. I’m interested in submitting a proposal for a session on digital humanities and librarians for the Modern Language Association convention in January 2014…. Let me know if any you are interested. I’m broadly interested in a conversation about why librarians should be heavily involved in digital humanities projects and perhaps concrete discussions of what librarians do….


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