Community Connections in the Digital Humanities

In June and July of this year I moved from a community-based non-profit to a research library at an R1 institution. At the Marian Cheek Jackson Center in Chapel Hill, NC, I managed the development of a public-facing digital oral history project, and as a CLIR Fellow at the University at Buffalo I am building support in the library and on campus for digital scholarship. There are many connections between these two types of work, yet understandings of community and audience are very different.

Since the beginning of my academic career in 2001, I have found myself torn between these two contexts. I love research, ideas, analysis and the opportunity for discussion and debate the academy provides, but I loathe the hierarchies, silos, and ivory-tower mentality. The Jackson Center perfectly matched my desire to use history to make a difference, to transform society. But we were under-resourced, and I missed the professional development and networking opportunities in the academy, especially as it related to the digital work I was doing.

As a community member in Chapel Hill, I decided to take advantage of the fact that UNC was down the road, even though I sometimes felt like an interloper. I did this even before I was at the Jackson Center, because I was writing my dissertation in relative isolation away from my home institution. I joined a digital humanities happy hour and the digital humanities listserv. I racked up fines with a community borrowers card, presented at a symposium, attended talks, brown bag lunches, and workshops. Some of the workshops were open and some required a university ID to register, so those were off-limits.

I was fortunate in seeking out resources because I was familiar with the academic environment. I knew what to look for, and for the most part, where to look – but not everyone does. Even though I felt like an outsider because I wasn’t a student or faculty, I could fall back on my academic credentials. That speaks volumes about how academic institutions are perceived and the messages sent (intentionally or unintentionally) about who belongs and who doesn’t.

The academic/public divide is an old one, but I see the digital humanities as an opportunity for bridging this chasm. The culture of the digital humanities is collaborative, and often public-facing. In the best circumstances it is publicly engaged. While I understand that digital humanities/digital scholarship activities on campus are designed to primarily serve faculty and students, I hope that we can start to think outside outside the academy walls, and ask – is there someone else I can reach out to who might be interested in this? Can we open up our workshops and institutes and explicitly invite the public? Can we invite community speakers to digital humanities events? How can we reach the growing numbers of contingent academic laborers and independent scholars? How can we make digital projects relevant to broader audiences and seek out collaborative possibilities? How can libraries support faculty and students who want to engage the public?

I want to acknowledge that this work is being done at some institutions and discussions are happening in a variety of places. I hope the conversations continue and we learn from one another. For example, when I attended the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) in Victoria, British Columbia, in June, I was able to go to a DLFxDHSI unconference on digital libraries, digital humanities, and social justice. In one of the sessions we explicitly talked about making community connections. I was excited to find out about the new book Disrupting the Digital Humanities, edited by Dorothy Kim and Jesse Stommel. Conversations are happening on Twitter – #aadhum2018, #femdh, #transformdh and more.

I have found THATCAmps to be welcoming spaces. In 2015 I attended a Community Archives THATCamp at UNC. Some of what I learned there I was able to use later at the Jackson Center. Often Special Collections and Archives or Digital Humanities Centers foster these connections. Last year Vanderbilt’s Center for Digital Humanities had a working group on Digital Initiatives in Community Engagement (it may be ongoing). There is a growing call for people engaged in the digital humanities to to think about its intersections with the public humanities. See, for example, Will Fenton’s The Digital Humanities as Public Humanities.

The tendency, however, is for universities to think of “community” as the campus community. As digital humanities/digital scholarship programs continue to expand at colleges and universities, I hope those of us working in departments, institutes, and libraries can look for ways to be more open and inclusive.

About Heidi Dodson

Heidi Dodson is currently CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow at University at Buffalo.
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