Digital Humanities, Service to Graduate Students and Why Future Academic Librarians Should Care

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on July 12, 2018.

Digital humanities (DH) is the loosely defined set of practices for humanistic inquiry utilizing digital tools. The field happens to be one of the few areas within the broader humanities that is still growing today. In a time when English and History departments are facing declining enrollment and decreased opportunity, this is something not easily ignored. As DH continues to grow, many in academia are concerned about the continued viability of the field (Grusin, 2014). A major worry is that humanities graduate students are not trained in DH skills and tools. Departments across the country are changing to support this need, but unfortunately that change comes too slowly for a multitude of reasons, including stubborn faculty, limited funding, and the bureaucratic nature of the university which cannot help but change slowly. However, these challenges present opportunities for academic librarians to serve as project managers, and to collaborate with faculty and graduate students to enable exciting DH projects that will attract funding and prestige to their institutions. DH is becoming quite popular, and necessary for the continued survival of the humanities in general, but curricula and institutional organizations are not changing fast enough. Librarians are stepping in to fill that gap. 

As the historian of science, Tom Scheinfeldt (2013) describes it in his chapter in Hacking the Academy: New Approaches to Scholarship and Teaching from Digital Humanities, “The eighteenth-century electrical machine was a parlor trick. Until it wasn’t. I believe we are at a similar moment of change right now—that we are entering a new phase of scholarship that will be dominated not by ideas, but once again by organizing activities, both in terms of organizing knowledge, and organizing ourselves and our work” (pp. 57-58). Electric machines took a long time to prove themselves useful, practical and efficient, yet now they pervade every corner of modern society. Digital humanities methods and tools will possibly follow a similar path. The field requires a reevaluation of values and approaches that many humanities departments are currently unwilling or unable to enact. It does take time to develop a new field from whole cloth, inventing the tools it needs, and formulating the guiding theories to make those tools useful, and the work cannot possibly be done by humanities departments alone. Scheinfeldt makes another point that will serve as a good pivot point for the rest of this discussion, which is worth quoting in full:

Perhaps most telling is the excitement that now—or really, once again—surrounds the library. The buzz among librarians these days dwarfs anything I have seen in my entire career among historians. The terms “library geek” and “sexy librarian” have gained new currency as everyone begins to recognize the potential of exciting library-centered projects like Google Books. In the days of George Sarton, a thorough bibliography was an achievement worthy of great respect, and an office closer to the reference desk in the library an occasion for great celebration (Sarton’s small suite in Study 189 of Harvard’s Widener Library was the epicenter of history of science in the United States for more than a quarter century). As we tumble deeper into the Internet age, I suspect it will be again (p. 58).

Given the limitations in academic departments, things are still changing overall: many universities now at least offer a digital humanities graduate certificate and a select few offer DH-centric PhDs, like Duke’s Computational Media, Arts and Culture program. These programs are typically sponsored not by traditional departments, but by ad hoc working groups generally housed within libraries. These are few and far between however, and this is tragic. Freshly minted PhDs in most humanities disciplines are typically expected to have at least some familiarity with DH when they go on the job market (Pannapacker, 2012). Yet, often, graduate students are required to go out on their own to gain the DH skills that they feel they need, and the majority of humanities programs provide little direct support for DH beyond an “Introduction to DH” course, (R. Cordell, personal correspondence, July 1, 2018). We need active collaboration between faculty, graduate students, librarians and administrators to affect institutional change to better support a burgeoning method of humanistic inquiry and argumentation (Marshall, 2007).

Humanities degrees do not “sell” these days, either on the academic job market, or to undergraduate students picking their majors. In an economy that demands students find high paying jobs right out of undergrad, humanities research sadly seems less and less relevant each year. However, DH does sell. It is a hot topic that is getting people at all levels of academia excited about the humanities. DH will open space for new scholars for now and the next decade or so.

By this point in the discussion, some may be questioning why there is so little talk of research on how to train graduate students who need DH experience and know-how. This is no accident, because there is almost no research done in this area. Most scholarship on DH, the future of the field and its importance to graduate students, are narratives about individual academics’ experience with the field (and many, including Grusin, admit they have no hands-on experience with DH). However, the few empirical studies that do exist in this area are conducted by librarians. If we are to take Scheinfeldt at his word in the above passage, this should be no surprise. In an emerging field that is still organizing its work and resources, we should expect that DH practitioners are reliant on librarians and their ability to manage information overload. (Liu, 2013, pp. 419-420).

Several authors note the importance of collaboration between graduate students, faculty, and librarians for PhD candidates to gain the DH skills they need to stand a fighting chance on the job market. With such importance placed on this collaboration, it is criminal that such little research and assessment has been performed on library services for graduate students. As Jankowska et al. (2006) point out, there is very little hard data regarding graduate students’ library usage and their information needs, despite an overwhelming amount of studies regarding the same for undergraduates. As graduate students are a large portion of a university’s research workforce, this disparity is troublesome (p. 60).

Most studies on library services to graduate students are quite traditional in their expectations and approaches. Jankowska et al., for example, show that at many academic libraries, most instruction focuses on subjects like literature reviews and database searching skills and concludes that that is an acceptable state of affairs (p. 74). These are important skills, of course, but no longer sufficient for preparing graduate students for professional research. Another survey-based study, Baruzzi and Calcagno (2015) held some promise but fell into this same trap, offering reinforcement of the importance of librarians teaching doctoral students traditional research methods, but offering little in terms of how librarians can help those students gain experience in newer, dare I say, more relevant methods. A more recent study by Fong (2017) helps to demonstrate a possible way forward, however.

Fong’s study analyzes new, nontraditional PhD dissertations that utilize multimedia and hypertextuality. The benefits of these features include decreasing the opaqueness between scholarly analysis and primary sources, and they also increase the chance that a dissertation will be read by the scholarly community at large–it is unlikely that many scholars read traditional monograph dissertations (p. 140). The departure from traditional dissertation formats is not remotely close to universal yet, and varies between institutions, between departments, and even between individual dissertation directors and committees in the same department (p. 136). For this reason, PhD students interested in non-traditional dissertations must collaborate not only with their faculty but with librarians who can coordinate between the student, faculty, and other helpful campus units like the graduate school (to whom librarians/faculty can petition requirement changes) and IT (acquiring training requisite for programming and multimedia projects).

“Most importantly, however, librarians need to be cognizant of emerging research and scholarly communication trends that may lead to changes in dissertation requirements at their university and be willing to continue learning new skills to more fully support their doctoral students” (p. 140). This sentiment segues nicely into one of the most thorough studies of library services to DH-oriented PhD students; Richardson and Eichmann-Kalwara’s 2017 study in which the authors discuss their, and other librarians’ experience acting as embedded librarians in DH projects. The major findings of the study are threefold: 1) DH projects in most institutions are ad hoc at best because 2) there is a lack of infrastructure and precedent that would enable the inheritance of project structure and 3) this requires that librarians themselves deploy a range of skills to enable DH projects, which include: project management, teaching, technical and metadata expertise, and being stewards of an institution’s professional and academic practices (pp. 610-611).

The trajectory in the literature on this topic suggest that librarians are serving as crucial DH project collaborators, partly due to humanities faculty being unwilling or unable to engage with DH endeavors, and partly because DH work requires more interdisciplinary approaches not suited for the traditional single-author research that humanities have (Corlett-Rivera, 2017, p. 190). Because of the parallel representations of this attitude in the bulk of the literature, it is safe to assume that DH presents some important opportunities for academic librarians, at least for the coming decade.

Suggestions for further reading:

Guest author Ashley Maynor’s 3-Step Introduction to Digital Humanities

Amy Frazier’s Emerging Careers in Librarianship: Digital Humanities Librarian

Brianna Marshall’s Declassified: Digital Humanities


Baruzzi, A., & Calcagno, T. (2015). Academic Librarians and Graduate Students: An Exploratory Study. Portal: Libraries and the Academy, 15(3), 393–407.

Brennan, T. (2017). The Digital-Humanities Bust: After a decade of investment and hype, what has the field accomplished? Not much. The Chronicle of Higher Education; Washington. Retrieved from

Cassuto, L. (2017). The Job-Market Moment of Digital Humanities. The Chronicle of Higher Education; Washington. Retrieved from

Corlett-Rivera, K. (2017). Subject librarian as coauthor: A case study with recommendations. College & Undergraduate Libraries, 24(2–4), 189–202.

Dalbello, M. (2011). A genealogy of digital humanities. Journal of Documentation; Bradford, 67(3), 480–506.

Fong, B. L. (2017). An Exploration of Changing Dissertation Requirements and Library Services to Support Them. Portal: Libraries and the academy; Baltimore, 17(1), 129–144.

Grusin, R. (2014). The Dark Side of Digital Humanities: Dispatches from Two Recent mla Conventions. Differences, 25(1), 79–92.

Jankowska, M. A., Hertel, K., & Young, N. J. (2006). Improving library service quality to graduate students: LibQual+ (TM) survey results in a practical setting. Portal: Libraries and the Academy, 6(1), 59–76.

Kelly, M. (2013). Making digital scholarship count. In Cohen, D., & Scheinfeldt, J. T. (Eds). Hacking the academy: New approaches to scholarship and teaching from digital humanities. University of Michigan Press. Retrieved from

Liu, A. (2013). The meaning of the digital humanities. PMLA, 128(2), 409–423.

Marshall, D. (2007). The places of the humanities. Liberal education, 93(2), 34–39.

Pannapacker, W. (2012). No DH, no interview. The Chronicle of higher education; Washington, n/a.

Richardson, H. A. H., & Eichmann-Kalwara, N. (2017). Process and collaboration: Assessing digital humanities work through an embedded lens. College & Undergraduate Libraries, 24(2–4), 595–615.

Scheinfeldt, J. T. (2013). Theory, method, and digital humanities. In Cohen, D., & Scheinfeldt, J. T. (2013). Hacking the academy: New approaches to scholarship and teaching from digital humanities. University of Michigan Press. Retrieved from



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