Interview with John Russell

John Russell is Scholarly Communications Librarian at the University of Oregon Libraries, which involves open access advocacy and scholarly publishing as well as digital scholarship services. He has been actively involved in digital humanities projects, primarily related to text encoding, and teaches a digital scholarship methods course as part of UO’s New Media and Culture graduate certificate program. John is teaching a course for us next month called Introduction to Digital Humanities for Librarians, and he agreed to do an interview to give people a better sense of what DH is in a library context, and what they can learn from his course.

Hi, John. Thanks for agreeing to do this interview.

Thank you, Rory, for letting me be a part of Library Juice Academy.

I’d like to start by asking the question that is on a lot of people’s minds, which is, what is digital humanities, exactly? I have learned a bit about it from a certain perspective, but I’d like to hear your take as someone who has been very involved in it.

Digital humanities (DH) is such a nebulous thing, to the point that for many people simply doing the humanities with computers in any fashion constitutes DH. I typically define the digital humanities as using computers to analyze humanistic objects, making humanistic objects machine readable, or using computers to make humanistic objects. However, a lot of DH people, whether they admit it or not, do public humanities, so even though I see digital humanities and public humanities as entangled but separate things, I’ll often include the latter as an important aspect of DH.

Could you elaborate a bit? Maybe you could describe a couple of exemplary DH projects that have been done?

I’m being a little vague because the first week of the course revolves around this very question and I don’t want to prejudice student responses too much. But a good example of what I’m talking about is Lev Manovich’s Selfiecity project – well, he’s the project coordinator, it’s the work of a number of people. Selfiecity is a sizeable sampling of selfies taken by people in different cities (Bangkok, Berlin, New York, Sao Paolo, and Moscow). The images were analyzed by software that estimated the position of the eyes, emotional expressions, and a few other things. By analyzing a large number of selfies, the group was able to identify patterns in the data (for example, Bangkok selfies are far more likely to involve smiling than selfies from Moscow). All of this would be hard for a researcher to do without the aid of a computer; certainly not impossible, but very time consuming. You can go to the site and read their conclusions, but you can also play around with their data. The project is designed to engage people, not just report out to them.

Is it generally true that DH projects are done by teams, with humanities scholars and technologists working together?

Digital humanities does involve a lot of collaborative work, to the point that one could say that collaboration is a core value for DH. Because DH work can involve a lot of different skills – web design, programming, project management, data management – working with others who possess different areas of expertise is essential for large projects. Take a project like the Walt Whitman Archive, which I see as a pretty exemplary project. The list of people who have worked on this project is so long because it’s been in process for a long time (since the late 1990s) and the whole enterprise depends on things like digitization, text encoding, web programming, and maintaining the server. All of that in addition to the intellectual labor involved in scholarly editing and putting all of this material in some kind of context. As many people will tell you, the data work (getting, cleaning, organizing) that is part of doing digital humanities is very time consuming and anything ambitious is going to require more than one person. Of course, there are any number of small scale/individual DH projects, especially graduate students working on their dissertations, so collaboration is not essential. However, even in the case of small projects, you often have less-formal collaborations because something isn’t working the way you need it to or you need someone to give you a push in the right direction.

The class you’re teaching for us is going to be a lot about how librarians can have a role in DH projects at their institutions, is that right? What are the roles for librarians on these project teams?

Librarians play a lot of roles in DH projects; at UO, the unit I’m in does digitization, metadata, web programming, and project management. Librarians also create digital humanities projects, so it’s not just about being partners – librarians are leaders, too. However, that’s not the sole focus of this class. The library literature on digital humanities tends to over-emphasize projects, but academic libraries are partners in the research *and* teaching mission of their respective institutions. Personally, I’m much more interested in how librarians can partner with teaching faculty to integrate DH into the classroom or how we can be involved in training faculty and students in DH tools and methods. Also, libraries have the data! What does it mean to think about our special collections as humanities data? How can libraries improve access to humanities resources that can support this kind of computer-heavy research? Librarians who may never work directly on a digital project or do DH-related instruction have a role to play and I’ve tried to set up the course to facilitate thinking about DH throughout the library.

That’s very exciting. I hadn’t thought about the teaching aspect. So, would you outline the class? What will it cover, and what can people expect to come away with?

The first week covers the question this interview started with: what are the digital humanities? That’s such a huge question, so I select a few readings that illustrate a broad range of approaches and just try to give students a taste of what kind of work is being done. That’s followed by a section where students learn to do basic text analysis, mapping, and text encoding, so that there’s some exposure to DH tools and methods. The second half of the course switches to focusing on libraries: what kinds of engagement with digital humanities has been going on in libraries? What’s missing from that engagement? We finish with the students working on a brief project that allows them to create something applicable to their library: a digital project, a collections policy, a research guide, an instruction session, planning for needs assessment, really anything they can come up with. My hope is that students aren’t just learning about digital humanities for the sake of knowing more about it, but are leaving the course with a real sense of how they and their libraries can participate in DH.

That sounds great. Now, next month is going to be the second time you’ve taught this class for us. What was your experience like the first time around and what did you learn from it?

Much of what I’ve said above about the relationship between DH and libraries comes from comments students made. I’ve long been uneasy about the narrative of “doing DH” in libraries, but hadn’t really put all of the pieces together. The way students pushed back against the readings helped me see how the story of DH and libraries has been constructed in our profession and what’s been missing from that story. But also how this narrative – very research and tech focused – makes some librarians feel excluded, or at least gives folks the sense that all of this digital stuff isn’t relevant to their career or their situation. So I learned a lot and, given the really great projects I saw, I think I was successful in getting students excited about how they can be involved in the digital humanities, too.

It sounds like you’ve taken an open-minded approach, and that has paid off. It sounds to me like what digital humanities is is something that is in flux, and that perhaps librarians can actually take part in shaping it as it changes, by taking part in ways that are new. Would you agree with that?

Yes, digital humanities is very much an open field and there are so many ways to contribute.

Well, I’m very glad that you’re teaching this course, to get people started.

You’re teaching this class because you were recommended by more than one person when I put a call out out to find someone to teach a class in DH. But I am wondering, if you could teach any other class that you wanted to, what would it be (or what would they be)?

Well, I’ve done a bunch of work to put together a Twitter Research Methods course that, because of work commitments, I won’t be able to teach this year, but I would like to offer it at some point. My start in libraries was in special collections and I still have a great interest in old books, so I’d love to teach a book history course again. I’ve actually thought about writing a book history textbook because there really aren’t good survey options. Media history or data history would also be fun. My history graduate work focused on French intellectuals and (even though I’d need to get back up to speed) I’d enjoy teaching something focused on Michel Foucault. I like teaching, so I’m always happy to do more of it.

Those sounds like great ideas. I hope to hear more from you about some of them at some point.

Thanks for doing this interview, and good luck with the course next month.

Thanks, Rory. I’m excited to be doing the course again!

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