Jane Winters, the School of Advanced Study’s professor of digital humanities and director of the new Digital Humanities Research Hub, describes her work on a joint report on libraries as sites of collaboration.

In 2021, Research Libraries UK, in partnership with the Arts and Humanities Research Council, published a report on ‘The role of academic and research libraries as active participants and leaders in the production of scholarly research’. It described the current environment, highlighted some of the barriers to effective collaboration between research libraries and academic departments, championed success, and identified future opportunities for developing and embedding such research partnerships. The report is public recognition of a role that libraries and librarians have long played, but which has not always been explicitly acknowledged – either by academics or by sectoral reward, career and funding structures.

The knowledge and expertise that resides in libraries – including, but not limited to collections, digitisation, copyright and intellectual property, public engagement, metadata and cataloguing, information architecture, open knowledge, data preservation and sustainable infrastructure – enables the research of individual students and academics, but increasingly informs the kinds of multi-partner, interdisciplinary research projects which are becoming more common in the humanities and social sciences. Nowhere is this more apparent than in relation to digital scholarship, where libraries have a dual function as content holders and sites of innovation in research and practice.

My research, which focuses on digital cultural heritage, has benefited immeasurably from being conducted in partnership with libraries and archives. To give just one example, in 2014–15 I collaborated with the web archiving team at the British Library on a project to explore the historical UK web (Big UK Domain Data in the Arts and Humanities, AH/L009854/1). Academic researchers worked alongside curators and technical specialists in the library to co-design the first full-text search interface for the archive of UK web space from 1996 to 2013. The project would simply not have been possible if it had been conceived as taking place in an academic department, with the library solely providing access to data.

Partnership, and the development of a common language of research, were crucial to success. The collaboration has continued beyond the lifetime of a single project, through research networks which bring together researchers and practitioners to explore the potential and challenges of the vast born-digital archives which are increasingly available to us. Learning and exchange continues, both formally and informally.

The focus of this edition of Talking Humanities is on libraries, but the developments in research libraries are mirrored elsewhere in the cultural heritage sector. For example, a total of £14.5 million has been invested through the UK’s Towards a National Collection programme in five Discovery projects which bring together universities and a wide range of cultural heritage partners, including libraries, archives and museums.

One of the aims of the programme is ‘to maintain leadership in cross-disciplinary research’, but disciplinary boundaries are not the only ones being crossed. Dialogue, knowledge exchange, partnership and the co-production of knowledge are at the heart of the programme, reflecting an important shift in the research landscape.

Jane Winters is professor of digital humanities and director of the new Digital Humanities Research Hub at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. She is a co-investigator for the Towards a National Collection discovery project Congruence Engine. Professor Winter’s research interests include digital history, born-digital archives (particularly the archived web), the use of social media by cultural heritage institutions, and scholarly communication. She has published most recently on non-print legal deposit and web archives, born-digital archives and the problem of search, and the archiving and analysis of national web domains.

Cover image: Walker Art Gallery, family in British Art Room, © Mark McNultyArt Fund 2