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Librarians and scholars: partners in digital humanities 

Christina Kamposiori, programme officer at Research Libraries UK, introduces a new report, published in July, entitled ‘The role for research libraries in the creation, curation, archiving, and preservation of tools for Digital Humanities research’. Its findings demonstrated the value of collaboration between librarians and researchers in the field.

It is widely accepted that research libraries play an important role in facilitating academic research and teaching. However, given the technological advances of the last few decades, this role has been continuously transforming; the fundamental changes that information technology has brought to various academic fields, such as the arts and humanities, can be regarded as one of the reasons.

The emergence of digital humanities, in particular, raises new challenges for libraries. Yet, previous research has mostly focused on the role of libraries in supporting scholarship rather than in their role as collaborators in its creation. Also, as most of these studies have been conducted with US libraries as their main focus, the UK academic library landscape has remained largely unexplored.

For this purpose, Research Libraries UK (RLUK) issued the ‘Research Libraries and Digital Humanities Tools’ project which aimed to explore the role that member institutions play in the creation, archiving, curation, and preservation of tools for Digital Humanities research, along with the models of involvement they employ in this type of scholarship.

Thus, professionals mainly from research libraries within the RLUK membership took part in a survey and reported on the variety of initiatives they support and the different ways in which they engage with scholarly work in the area. Additional discussions with some of these participants shed further light into the collaborative activities formed in the context of various projects, such as the production and preservation of tools.

In the project report, which was published in July 2017, we argue that there is a role for libraries in the creation, archiving, curation and preservation of tools for digital humanities research, mainly as a collaborative activity between library professionals and researchers in the field.

Based on the analysis of the data collected for the purposes of this study, it became evident that the majority of the participating libraries, regardless of the model of support/ collaboration they followed, demonstrated a good level of engagement in DH research through one or more of the following ways: (co-)building, providing and maintaining DH tools; contributing to research and teaching; participating at/ leading relevant professional networks.

Some of the main issues raised in the report are:

  • Research libraries were found to actively collaborate with scholars in the building of various tools for research and teaching; yet, their maintenance and long-term preservation remains challenging for most institutions.
  • Through examining different cases of support of/ involvement in Digital Humanities research, it became apparent that there was not one single model to fit every need. Libraries usually tended to utilise existing resources in creative ways that allowed them to engage with scholars in the field but complied with their strategic goals.
  • The role, responsibilities and skill set of librarians have been expanded to effectively respond to the challenges posed. The increasing number of professionals with advanced technical skills, such as software developers, that join many library teams highlights the existing need for staff members with specific skillsets who can successfully support and collaborate with scholars in the context of DH projects.
  • As research libraries increasingly become active partners in Digital Humanities research and teaching, it became clear that identifying and sharing best practices for engaging in digital research will be an essential next step; this will ensure that these partnerships remain beneficial for both sides.

We hope that this work will contribute to the discussion around the role of libraries in Digital Humanities scholarship and be of interest to organisations and professionals that frequently support and collaborate with research libraries.

Christina Kamposiori is programme officer at Research Libraries UK. Her research focuses on how art historians build their personal collections and, particularly, how they collect, organise and use information in the context of their projects as well as how digital technologies have affected their practices

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