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Figuring Out the ‘What For’ of Digital Scholarship Centers

August 8, 2019

The success of any new enterprise in a library often depends on decisive and nimble planning. But if you begin by asking the question ‘Why’ you will get either rather bland reasons such as competition or a thoroughly subjective rationale that is simply responding to a current but all too specific need. You don’t want to chuck away the opportunity to articulate a vision by simply chalking it up to broad relevance or fall victim to creating a president too hastily. Either can be disastrous.

When it comes to a cause célèbre like Digital Scholarship the agenda is often shaped solely by identifying what a library is already prepared to support, for instance: Text and data mining, Geospatial analysis, or Data visualization.

Media Wall

Media Wall outside The Lewis & Ruth Sherman Centre for Digital Scholarship in Mills Memorial Library at McMaster University

The ‘What’ may very well be driven by only investigating the scholarly community of practice the library serves and evaluating resources, but perhaps “a more socially directed mode” of generous thinking, that “might enable us to make possible a greater public commitment in our work which in turn might inspire a greater public commitment to our work,” is what’s called for (Cf. The Munro Lecture: “Generous Thinking” with Kathleen Fitzpatrick).

An important preliminary will be to provide a common understanding of Digital Scholarship. It would help to decide on a coherent definition of Digital Scholarship, like the one from CU Boulder University Libraries, Center for Research Data & Digital Scholarship: “Digital Scholarship extends traditional methods of research by leveraging new technologies and digital data to advance research and enhance pedagogy. While it is most commonly associated with Digital Humanities, Computational Social Science, and Data Science, Digital Scholarship is applicable to all disciplines, and it often relies on interdisciplinary collaborations.”

Mission statements that live in a drawer and are infrequently consulted in assessing day-to-day decisions cannot be a force. That it is why it is necessary to determine the values which will be at the forefront of every conversation in answer to ‘What For?’  A good example of this are the Core Tenets of Boston College Libraries Digital Scholarship Group:

  • We aim to build experience and community
  • We are experimental
  • We are open
  • We teach, support, and collaborate

Some keys to generous thinking which Kathleen Fitzpatrick describes in her Munro Lecture that may also help are to maintain a tension between “critical audacity” and “critical humility,” and when working as a group “assume positive intent” and “own negative effects.” Thus, a spirit of generosity will enrich even further the thinking around the questions to be asked.

For descriptions of Digital Scholarship programs check out the ARL’s Digital Scholarship Profiles. You be the judge. Are they asking What For?

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