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Care of the Soul

[Here’s the talk I gave at Emory University on October 8th, 2010, and is mostly in reference to DiSC (Digital Scholarly Commons). I had been serving on the DiSC Advisory Board for a year or so, and I gave this talk as part of a panel that included Laurie Patton from the Department of Religion at Emory (she is now Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Duke), Richard Faruta from Texas A&M, and Geneva Henry from Rice University.]

[update: Stewart Varner (of DiSC) kindly sent me an mp3 of the talk.]

How do you tell when the person addressing a group of librarians is not a librarian? Easy. He or she will, as surely as day follows night, make a reference to the Library of Alexandria.

It’s easy to understand why that might be a good move. Alexandria, after all, is part of the genesis narrative of Western culture. In the beginning, there was a library. Not only that, but it apparently had all the features of a modern library (including, as far as we can tell, cataloguing and acquisitions departments, thus indicating the eternal nature of these units). It was, from all accounts, extremely well funded. An ancient rumor claims that the library bore a Greek inscription — psycheis therapeia, which translates to something like “place for the care of the soul” or even “soul hospital.” (It’s possible that the inscription belongs to the library at Memphis built by my ancestor Ramses II, but that’s another subject).

It’s also a cautionary tale. We actually aren’t at all sure when or how it was destroyed; ancient sources place that event somewhere within a nearly six-hundred-year period. It’s possible that Julius Caesar accidently set fire to the library during a visit. It’s also possible that a Muslim caliph ordered its destruction. No matter. Fire and religious fanaticism, being both bad for libraries, serve to remind us all how fragile the whole thing is.

There is one thing, though, that is lost in all of this. And that is that the library at Alexandria, as far as we can tell, did not have any actual librarians. Not, at least, in the modern sense. It’s not that the people there weren’t concerned with the organization of information — access and preservation, as we would say today. They surely were. It’s that every single person we’ve ever been able to tie to the library was either a poet, a literary critic, an historian, an editor, an astronomer, a grammarian, a mathematician, a translator, or some other kind of scholar — including the people who are known to have held the title of head librarian. Being a “librarian” meant studying and interpreting the contents of the library.

They did, of course, have people there to help librarians do that — people who looked after the scrolls, kept the lamps burning, fetched things, pointed out the bathrooms, and so on. They were called slaves.

Nowadays, it is taken quite for granted that librarians and scholars occupy completely separate spheres in a modern university. It’s not that librarianship has no element of scholarship to it, or that scholarly research can proceed without a close dependency on librarianship. The deep interdependence of the two roles is another thing that outsiders are obliged to mention. Still, at some level, they remain sharply separate. And no matter what sort of pious noises the outsider might make, the idea persists. Scholars create scholarship. Librarians assist them.

What is most remarkable about this, though, is how recent a development it really is. You have to go forward many centuries — really, to the nineteenth century — before you find the kind of strict compartmentalization we see today. We can go on and on about the importance of libraries to the contemporary university, but in the end, the library is considered a “service unit.”

And that’s a problem.

I was invited to come to Emory a year or so ago to serve as a consultant for the creation of a Center. It’s not the first time I’ve done this. In fact, I’ve probably done it half-a-dozen times or more in the last fifteen years. Not once have I have ever been asked where this center-initiative-thingy we’re sort of imagining should be. It is always, always in the library.

How fitting! Because of all scholarly pursuits, Digital Humanties most clearly represents the spirit that animated the ancient foundations at Alexandria, Pergamum, and Memphis, the great monastic libraries of the Middle Ages, and even the first research libraries of the German Enlightenment. It is obsessed with varieties of representation, the organization of knowledge, the technology of communication and dissemination, and the production of useful tools for scholarly inquiry. But dh is also, itself, a scholarly activity — concerned not just with presenting knowledge or helping to locate it, but with creating it. And it is here that the conventional, if relatively recent configuraton of the library as an assistive technology becomes a serious liability. Allow me to put it boldly: Emory will become a great center for Digital Humanities to the degree that it allows its scholars to act more like librarians, and allows its librarians to act more like scholars.

The alternative — a “center” that is really nothing more than another service point in the library for scholars interested in setting up blogs or creating web sites — might curry some local favor. The President of the University Libraries can present that to the powers above as another way that the library serves the Emory community. And it’s not a bad thing, certainly, to engage in such service. But Emory will never do serious cutting-edge research in Digital Humanities with this model. It will, at best, become a place that is not falling too far behind.

During the year or so I’ve been involved with this project, I’ve tried to offer the best advice I can. But in the end, I’ve just repeated the secret formula for becoming a place for the care of the soul: create a space in which the conventional separations among faculty, librarians, students, and staff become malleable — even, to use a term popular among hackers, fungible. The good news is that computers — those wicked instruments that so deftly serve to make us all feel slightly stupid — can help with this simply by making us all a bit more humble in the face of the unknown. But in the end, it requires nothing more or less than imagination and leadership from academic department chairs and senior library administrators.

So here’s some advice for the four stake holders I just mentioned:

Library Administrators

Let anyone among your staff who is remotely interested in this Center be part of it in some way. If someone knows how to program, or how to build Web pages, or how create databases, or how to make smartphones do miraculous things with gps; if one of these people is way into some particular collection or some subject (and it can be anything from railroads to race relations); if any of these people have a crazy idea for something digital: make some space for them to pursue that as part of the Center’s activity. Think of it as your skunk works. Think of it also as a way to let the extremely creative people who work for you be extremely creative.

Library Staff

Be persistent with your crazy ideas. Given the million things that have to happen in order to keep a library running, it’s at least sensible that an administrator would not want to let you get involved with something “extra.” Of course, it’s only “extra” until people realize just how brilliant it is. Then it becomes Proudly Sponsored by the Emory University Libraries. Be patient. Alexandria wasn’t built in a day.

Students

Digital Humanities centers afford students — and especially graduate students — one of the few genuine apprenticeships in humanities education. They’re a place to learn skills and methodologies, but perhaps more importantly, a place to learn how to become a professional scholar and researcher. If you’re interested in this stuff, you should plan to do just about anything to be involved with one.

Faculty

Be prepared to be the dumbest person in the room. Know, also, that being the dumbest person in the room might be the best experience of your professional life. The greatest scholarly practitioners I have known in Digital Humanities were the ones who came prepared to learn, were willing to roll up their sleeves, who respected the people around them, and who were committed to genuine collaboration. You can pull together a digital project by thinking great thoughts and then ordering people to “implement” them, but you’ll never get a serious work of scholarship that way. Be part of it, and everyone around you will make you look good.

There’s another way you can tell when an outsider is addressing librarians. They say some inspirational things, they say things that are hard to hear, and then they go home. Thank you for having me!

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