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Liberal Arts Colleges and Digital Scholarship

By Carrie Rampp

How might liberal arts colleges collaborate in support of digital scholarship?Are there inherent strengths of liberal arts colleges that, together, we can bring to bear on shared challenges? At the invitation of Neil McElroy, dean of libraries at Lafayette College, I was invited to attend a DLF pre-conference program focused on these questions with approximately 30 peers. This opportunity was funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation though a grant to Lafayette College. During the program, which was organized somewhat like an unconference, DLF Director Rachel Frick facilitated a series of concurrent dialogs focused on themes such as sustainability of our programs, technology platforms and tools, engaging faculty, expressing the value of digital scholarship in the liberal arts, and the role of students in digital scholarship.

I was pleased that the primary focus was not on how we might settle on a few standard tools or consortially jump into shared instances of some of them, although the complexity of digital repository systems suggests a benefit to both strategic standardization and more collaboration.

So what did I take away?

I found great value in engaging with a mix of leaders of liberal arts library organizations and expert digital scholarship practitioners. These practitioners have diverse backgrounds and include Ph.D.’s in the Humanities, metadata experts, digital initiatives and systems librarians, and technologists. Perhaps because of this diversity, and probably because digital scholarship is still emergent, there is currently a lack of natural gathering places for these individuals.

There remains a wide range of ideas about what digital scholarship is and could be, and how to advance that work. On the one hand this is invigorating. There is no recipe and we are each experimenting in related but very different tracks. But the gathering further cemented my concern that in our collective quest for demonstrable progress—particularly now, when our work might need to be more opportunistic than purposeful—liberal arts institutions will too quickly narrow their digital scholarship efforts into one of two “comfort zones,” i.e., into either the advancement of short-term projects based largely in the student instructional realm, or into more traditional digital library collection building work, often linked to special collections. While I believe both have merit, the more difficult challenge is how to get faculty to engage in truly innovative scholarship to address research questions that cannot be readily answered with traditional methods. To do this would ideally open doors for student collaboration and even for the expanded use of digital library collections, but these might best be viewed as benefits of, rather than the impetus for, greater faculty engagement.

I came away with the sense that we are all struggling with how to transfer the opportunities we are creating for faculty to learn and explore—whether through workshops or other models—into new project ideas. Also, how do we engage with faculty we have not worked with before? We tend to see the same small cohort of faculty heavily engaged with us, often the “usual suspects” of our most adventurous faculty. To bring about a sea change in innovative approaches, we will need to expand engagement beyond that cohort.

As leaders of emerging work in digital scholarship in the liberal arts, we need to clarify for ourselves and for our faculty and administration what we believe are the unique values of digital scholarship in the liberal arts. We do not want our efforts to be construed as simply preparing future Ph.D. candidates. While we may be creating innovative opportunities for future scholars as part of their undergraduate education, making that our primary value statement could invite criticism that the liberal arts are not responding to increased pressure to graduate well-qualified individuals who can enter careers outside the academy. By the same token, we do not want to over-emphasize the idea that digital scholarship gives students practical opportunities and skills because that risks making the work seem too focused on vocational activities rather than higher-level analysis. Neither is the takeaway we want.

In more practical realms, discussions focused on how we collaborate to share our successes and technological innovations, because we all need more success stories to share on our campuses and the stories from our peers are often of interest to our faculty. There is collective concern about the sustainability of our individual digital scholarship projects—whether developing and maintaining the technology platforms we use to create digital scholarship or the fact that these projects tend to be ongoing, and our capacity to launch new initiatives over time could diminish because earlier projects continue to consume limited resources. Most importantly, how do we evolve missions that offer possibilities and platforms to do collaborative work with faculty but do not become just digital scholarship mills where projects land and we execute them? This was a theme driven home by the few R1 participants invited to seed the conversations with a wider range of voices and experiences.

The group discussed and committed to articulate, perhaps as a type of manifesto, what we value about digital scholarship in the liberal arts. Also, there are a few systems for which we are collectively developing expertise. Could there be more meaningful collaboration in development that might produce improvements or add-ons we could share or adapt for our own needs? The discussions of digital scholarship in the liberal arts and the interplay of faculty collaboration, student collaboration, and even library and technology collaboration led to a commitment that a white paper would be produced that might help broaden these discussions beyond the attendees. We also agreed, unanimously, that there was value in coming together for periodic future conversations, at the DLF and other events, where we can discuss the challenges and successes of creating innovative digital scholarship for liberal arts institutions.

Carrie Rampp is director of library services & instructional technology at Bucknell University.

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