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Digital Humanities and the Visual Resources Community

By Rachel Schend

The Visual Resources Association just ended its 33rd annual conference in Denver, Colorado, this past weekend. While there were many topics discussed during the seminars and workshops, one topic that kept popping up throughout the week was digital humanities. As a student in library science and the humanities, I had heard this buzzword many times but had never been given a clear definition of what it is or how it could be used in the classroom. During the conference, there were several opportunities for me to find out.

Jenni Rhoda, from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, led the first meeting of VRA’s new Digital Humanities Special Interest Group. This meeting was highly attended and there was standing room only after a few minutes. The large number of new and established professionals in the room clearly shows that there is a need for more information about how librarians and specialists within the visual arts can be involved in digital humanities work. As curators of digital and moving images, the visual resources community is a cadre of collective wisdom whose members can offer a unique set of materials and skills to the DH landscape. They are also seen as the go-to people on campus for information about these resources, which further shows the importance of being familiar with DH.

Some of the attendees were already fully involved in DH projects at their home institutions and shared their work with the group, while many others (including me) listened intently for clues as to how to implement similar projects in the future. The most common thread throughout their talks was that collaboration is key: DH projects are usually only possible through the efforts of librarians/visual resources curators, expert faculty in the humanities, and IT specialists who can create and manage the code. These large-scale projects cannot be tackled alone, so constant communication is required to ensure that everyone involved is on the same page. Often this task falls upon the librarian.

Dealing with scope creep is also an important factor in managing a DH project, as faculty members often do not understand the amount of time and effort it takes to build these projects. After being introduced to the tools and technology, many faculty members expect immediate results, while others want to change the content in the middle of the programming. Having created a website from scratch, I know the perils of going beyond your intended goals. All of the little changes and addendums quickly add up over time, so that your original project is bloated and no longer as concise as you would like. When other people and areas of expertise are added to the mix, the project can get out of control. This is where project management is crucial.

Among the most common problems experienced by the visual resources community is that faculty do not or cannot communicate well what they want to the express in their projects. This is either because they are not familiar with the tools or need to be guided through the different layouts and formats. Digital publishing is also frowned upon in the academic community, which makes it difficult to convince humanities faculty to provide open access to their research electronically. As a graduate student, I understand the overwhelming need to perfect my research before unleashing it on the world. Having your work critiqued by others before you can fully form your ideas leaves you feeling vulnerable and defensive. By working with people from other departments, you can become more comfortable with group projects and be introduced to new ways of thinking.

Stephanie Beene, from Lewis & Clark College, discussed the importance of teaching the information through the technology, not just teaching the technology, in her talk entitled “Visual Resources in a Digital World: Pedagogical Practices in the Digital Humanities, Archives, and Liberal Arts.” She stressed the importance of implementing digital projects in courses for both professors and students. This will allow newer ways of seeing information that cannot be grasped through a completely textual environment. Digital humanities are about the idea and outcome, not the technology or tools used to get there.

After listening to all of the discussions and sessions that centered on this new and evolving use of technology, I have been inspired to learn more about the tools and platforms used in the digital humanities so that I can better inform patrons… once I find my dream job. There is still a lot of work to be done in advocating for its uses and importance in the classroom, but I am hopeful that we will begin to see more projects like these in the future.

Rachel Schend is a graduate student at Indiana University pursing a dual degree in Library Science and the History of Art.

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