Transforming Survival Mode into Sustaining Mode

MLK Commemoration

Photo by Caro Pinto

During the fall semester, Mount Holyoke College commemorated the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s campus appearance by playing a recording of the 1964 speech. Sitting in the campus amphitheater, I contemplated how King’s vision was as much about the discipline of everyday work as much as it was about dreams. My mind wandered back to a certain text that pushed me in college.

King wrote:

We Negroes have longed reamed of freedom, but still we are confide in an oppressive person of segregation and discrimination. Must we respond with bitterness and cynicism? Certainly not, for this will destroy and poison our personalities…To guard ourselves from bitterness, we need the vision to see in this generation’s ordeals the opportunity to transfigure both ourselves and American society. Our present suffering and our nonviolent struggle to be free may well offer to Western Civilization the kind of spiritual dynamic so desperately needed for survival.

In the book referenced above, Freedom Dreams, Robin D.G. Kelly wonders how social movements can transform the world in the face of challenging circumstances:

How do we produce a vision that enables us to see beyond our immediate ordeals? Who do we transcend bitterness and cynicism and embrace love, hope, and an all-conompassing dream of freedom, especially in these rough times?

Thinking back to Kelly, I thought about how much of a struggle it can be to keep the big picture in mind in the face of “immediate ordeals.” How do we push forward when there are naysayers suggesting the work of higher education isn’t worth it, that there isn’t enough money to do x or enough time to implement y or z is too much effort?

Kelly concludes:

Without new visions we don’t know what to build, only what to knock down. We not only end up confused, rudderless, and cynical, but we forget that making a revolution is not a series of clever maneuvers and tactics but a process that can and must transform us.

An innovative future demands fresh vision. It is easy to get bogged down by the emails clogging our inboxes, the administrivia eating up our time, or the petty office politics sucking our souls. It is easy to get sidetracked and forget why we work in academic libraries and why that work matters. As winter turns to spring, I’m thinking about renewal and how to translate small habits into larger patterns for growth. After all, if we don’t think about ‘go for broke’ dreams, there won’t be an opportunity to transform our work in meaningful ways.

Intentional Directions for Inspirational Research

“But more important, I am bothered because I think there is pedagogical value in getting lost in the stacks. When I was a student, the stacks filled me with fear but also with awe-they contained so much learning! Today we applaud students for not exploring the stacks but for being efficient, making research quick and easy.” -Julio Alves

I loved Julio Alves’ piece in the The Chronicle of Higher Education called “Unintentional Knowledge.” In it, he affirms the importance of serendipity in research and writing, how “most of the knowledge we possess is not conscious and intentional; it is incidental, or tacit, acquired as a byproduct of performing some other activity…Incidental knowledge continues to play an important role in our adult lives. The library stacks are a mine of incidental knowledge.” It struck me that sometimes librarians bill themselves as capable sherpas who can help students to save time in their research process by showing them optimal databases, better search terms to leverage, and the fastest ways to download PDFs. I often talk to students about not getting lost in the romance of research, the notion that research is taxing, requiring hours of futile searching before landing on solid sources and leads. I encourage them to be organized, to capture their work process, and to do research systematically. In spite of my organizational exhortations, I do think there is tremendous value in following questions into detours from a “systematic approach.”

This semester, I taught a two-session sequence about topic development and research for a Spanish class. I started the topic development session encouraging the students to think about inspiration; what are they excited about studying? What books or issues in class engaged them the most? I encouraged the students to follow their interests and consider how they wanted to invest their time delving into a topic and developing questions that would resonate with them. We talked about topic reality checks, ways of leveraging library resources like JSTOR, Project Muse, and the catalog to see if a topic is viable and whether it will translate into answerable questions. I asked them to experiment, to find articles that might support their topic, and encouraged them to follow the trails started by the sources they looked at through linked keywords and subject headings in the catalog. In the research session that followed, we explored those trails more thoroughly. Even though these are digital means, they are still opportunities for serendipitous browsing; by starting with their interests and following the questions that mean the most to them, it’s easy for students to think of research less as a series of transactions towards a final paper, but a quest towards answering meaningful questions. Inspiration and incidental knowledge can also come from the digital realm, we just have to find new ways of honing it with our students, a resolution for 2014.

At Long Last, Reflections on Becoming MoHome

Archives & Special Collections, Mount Holyoke College

Archives & Special Collections, Mount Holyoke College

This semester is one of those semesters where I literally cannot believe how fast time is passing. The summer and the start of the semester were extremely busy, but for wonderful reasons. Our merged IT/Library (LITS) overhauled our orientation programming considerably to ‘radically welcome’ new students to Mount Holyoke. A significant part of orientation was also curricular; on the first Saturday of orientation my colleague Leslie Fields and I led the first session of the first year connections course (CUSP). Asked by the organizers to present a session about college history that brought the magic of the archives to about 500 entering students during six concurrent sessions. The question of scale immediately came to mind: how would we think about sharing the wonders of primary sources to so many students during 50 minute sessions?

We decided that the most expedient and perhaps AWESOMEST way of sharing some of Mount Holyoke College’s traditions and history with students was the create an online exhibit using materials from their great-grandmother class of 1917 to compare and contrast their experiences. Above all, we wanted to give the new students a sense that they are part of a larger community, the larger Mount Holyoke Community that thrives and endures beyond graduation and over generations. As the college song refrains, “Mount Holyoke forever shall be.”

So, how to build a site that would both communicate college history, make curricular connections, engage first year students AND look cool?

The four-legged stool of Archives & Special Collections (the goods), RIS (curricular connections), Archives & Special Collections Student Ambassadors (awesome engagement) and Digital Assets & Preservation (technical prowess & keen design sense) decided that we would build an Omeka site collaboratively. DH aficionados love talking about Omeka and there is no shortage of posts talking about its usability and extensibility, but what I wanted to share the link to our site and say some things about the process.

-Students Need Context: Over and over again when I work on digital projects with students, just saying, ‘go do this thing!’ never helps. Providing context, instruction, and measurable goals can help students realize their curation potential. I met fairly regularly with our main student to scaffold the process from idea, to research, to storyboarded exhibit towards a proof of concept before we even talked about Omeka itself.

-Better Together: Omeka’s extensibility really shines when you work with a variety of stakeholders. I alone in Research & Instructional Support could not have created this successful exhibit without the students’ insight/enthusiasm, special collections’ golden content, or Digital Assets & Preservation’s technical know-how & design moxie. With roles for curation, design, and technical support, we were able to do much more than slap some images onto a site. We created a narrative that leveraged plugins downloaded from GitHub and enjoyed a custom designed inspired from our own archival collections.

-Digital Project Outreach Matters: This site was an important step for our team not only in terms of delivering content for a particular class, but also get ourselves better acquainted with a tool that we hope to use more broadly in the curriculum. It’s so easy for successful projects and processes to get lost in the shuffle which is why Sheila Brennan’s post about Digital Project Outreach continues to ring true for me. She writes that “outreach is intentional, is integral to a tools/project’s success…is not only about publicity, the job includes testing and making the tool accessible to targeted audiences; is user advocacy.” We kept our users at the center of this project, not only in terms of the content, but the process, how can we make digital curation scalable to the undergraduate classroom? How can this project be used as model for future projects? We shared our success on social media and found that our community responded with sustained engagement with the site beyond the concurrent sessions during orientation. I also hope that students will also see themselves in the process of creation; that knowing other undergraduates were at the heart of curation will inspire them to ask bold questions and dive into digital scholarship.

You can visit our exhibit here.

DPLA for you & me

Recently, there has been a slew of articles announcing and introducing the Digital Public Library, and its own outreach team has been tweeting out a roundup of the press coverage each week. I’ve been excited to learn more about DPLA and begin a conversation about how the archives and library community can begin to integrate into our work. This post is not meant to cover the ground others have done so well already. Below are links to the three (in my opinion) best pieces providing overviews to the DPLA:

  1. Micah Vandegrift’s article from In the Library in the Lead Pipe where he “concludes that librarians want four things from DPLA: Advocacy, Inclusion, Investment and Clarity.”
  2. DPLA Screencast Overview/Tour Linda Braun for the School Library Journal covers “how [DPLA] works, both good and bad.”

3.Lincoln Mullen’s Introduction to the DPLA on ProfHacker Mullen points to the range of overview pieces about the DPLA from the blogosphere and the mainstream media.

Over the last few months, I’ve spent some time playing with the DPLA by watching the hashtag #dplafinds that the Digital Public Library of America introduced in late April for viewers at home to share their finds. Additionally, one can browse the DPLA and share items of interest to Facebook, Google Plus, and Twitter, but alas, no love for Tumblr and Pinterest, two excellent means of archival outreach (Please see Mount Holyoke Archives & Special Collections Tumblr & Pinterest sites as reference.) I would love for there to be a no-nonsense way for folks to get stuff onto Pinterest and Tumblr so bloggers scrolling through these image focused sites can discover’s treasures.

Outreach has been on my mind lately I prepared to give a presentation about manuscripts, digital tools, and research tools to support a digitization grant in the Five Colleges. In the session, we talked about best practices for description, who we aim to reach with our description, what kind of tone to strike in our writing, and one of the students talked about the struggles undergraduates face when they encounter ‘stiff’ library descriptions, unfamiliar vocabularies not yet accessible to them; why can’t we write for everyone, she asked?
It’s a reasonable question; when describing primary sources we need to serve many masters for provide ready access to the trove of materials in our repositories; the novice undergraduate, the harried graduate student, the experienced scholar, and the enthusiastic hobbyist. How do we serve this spectrum?

In our digital age, we have so many tools at our disposal to welcome a range of users into our materials, especially in terms of social media. In my presentation, I talked about those possibilities, making a joke that one way of building engagement around illuminated manuscripts might be a Tumblr called ‘Thug Manuscripts’ in the spirit of Thug Kitchen



(c) Thug Kitchen

(c) Thug Kitchen

It’s not the simply the tone of Thug Kitchen’s annotated photographs that make it such an effective outreach tool for fresh, healthy cooking, it’s the explanatory paragraphs with recipes and health facts that are accessible to the foodie (Saveur Magazine gave it props!) and the shorter attention span of someone who might not be inclined to cook at all (ahem, me). There are multiple ways into the world of food just as there multiple ways into the world of special collections.

The DPLA coverage points out that this library is as much a platform for transformative uses as it is a portal to many rich cultural resources. To me, outreach, social media, and even fun memes need to factor into that conversation as much as scholarly literature if we truly want to generate interest and build community to a wider cohort of participants. It’s our history, it’s our future, let’s engage with it together.

Edith Irvine, photographer, Lee Library, Brigham Young University

Transition Time

My dear readers, it’s been an intense few months. I traveled to Indianapolis to attend ACRL, I taught classes, I tweaked my slips plan, and, most notably, I accepted a new position at Mount Holyoke College, where I will begin work as a library & instructional technology liaison on 13 May.

In 2009, I started work as a project archivist at Yale University. It was a
collections-focused job, with some outreach and teaching thrown in, too. That experience inspired me to look for positions that were more student-facing, ultimately bringing me to Hampshire in 2011. While at Hampshire, tThe work that I’ve done in digital humanities inspired me to think about positions where I could have a greater hand in the back -end technologies that fuel digital humanities projects. Working in a merged IT/library organization like LITS at Mount Holyoke College will provide me that opportunity.

I don’t have a dream job; I continually seek out positions that challenge me to grow as a librarian, whatever that will mean as the years go by. For me, stasis isn’t an option, because the goal posts keep changing – the landscape in higher education is evolving to meet new demands, and libraries are moving in new directions. I’ve said this before and I will say it again; the job I want in five years doesn’t exist yet , something that is both terrifying and exciting to me.

I remain committed to working in higher education. I love working with students and faculty. College campuses continue to energize me, especially the ebbs and flows of the academic calendar. And I want to be part of the solution to push higher education in new and exciting directions. I am lucky to have worked in the dynamic environments that I have since 2009, with amazing colleagues who support, inspire, and challenge me. I have no doubt that will continue in my new role in South Hadley.

Happy end of the semester!

What’s in a Name? DH vs. DLA

Since February, I’ve been wrestling with William Pannapacker’s Chronicle piece about digital humanities, in which he suggests we should call it digital liberal arts.

On the one hand, I am all for inclusivity: if we want to thoughtfully integrate technology and digital projects into liberal arts classrooms, we need to think across disciplines, between disciplines: all over the curriculum. On smaller campuses, with smaller staffs, it makes sense for all teaching librarians/instructional technologists to be fluent in the digital.

On the other hand, digital humanities is a THING, a discipline, a frame of reference. For students who want to move onto graduate school, understanding this THING, this discipline becomes more important to participate in the conversations underway at centers like CHNM and Scholars’ Lab. Digital humanities as a THING has particular grant opportunities; it’s a discipline in its own right. It is also has a history we can trace back to the 1980s and to humanities computing; this history, this heritage impacts how conversations happen, who gets included in these conversations, and shapes important debates like #transformdh to trace back structural decisions that impact what has been digitized, what gets recognized, and how the current debates get framed. That context, that backstory is equally value, and extremely important. As a [recovering] historian, this backstory matters; to understand where we are, we need to know where we’ve been.

I work at a liberal arts college. I graduated from a liberal arts college. I need a button that reads ‘I <3 liberal arts colleges'; they are high touch educational experiences for the lucky students who attend them. In our current age of pronounced market segmentation within higher education, it’s important to realize that the context in which we practice librarianship is important and impacts what’s possible, what we can do, and what we should do. Many liberal arts colleges represent the best of higher education; small, interactive classes, summer research opportunities, diverse student bodies, generous financial aid, and dynamic communities. And given the particular organizational strengths and values that liberal arts colleges possess that Pannpacker points to in the piece, "…DH is not a "disruption"—it is an enhancement of the core methods of an ideal liberal-arts education."

I agree that liberal arts colleges need not create smaller, ‘scaled-down’ versions of a digital humanities centers found at places like UCLA; liberal arts colleges have an opportunity to build on their successful educational experiences of small classes and close collaborations with faculty to produce original research. Keep doing more of that, I say, just in the digital context.

Liberal arts colleges struggle to find ways to sustainably support these digital initiatives, but I am confident that we will forge new paths leveraging collaborations with faculty, technologists, and librarians While pushing scholarship towards the digital, I also hope that these collaborative teams can consider the history and the context what makes these ventures so exciting, and participate in the conversations that are happening in the digital humanities at research institutions to broaden the field/discipline’s horizons towards the next phase after ‘digital humanities,’ just as practicionters pushed humanities computing into new realms. Who knows what how ‘dh’ as we know it will be identified in five, ten years, but I do think ‘digital liberal arts’ can and will inform the path towards the next horizon.

Either way, in my practice, I will toggle between ‘dh’ and ‘dla’ with equal enthusiasm and care, as the terms of digital scholarship change and evolve into the next big thing.

Big Bang Disruption

What a spring it has been! Between teaching intro to Digital Humanities and participating in energizing committee work, I’ve only begun processing some of my recreational reading.

One Saturday morning in Febuary, I spent the better part of the morning alone in my office at Hampshire going through my pile of periodicals, which included one of my favorites, the Harvard Business Review.That might seem strange coming from a librarian, but HBR has given me a lot over the years, knowledge that I leverage everyday. This month’s issue included an exceptional article about big-bang disruptions. Talking about disruption in the context of higher education almost feels like aphorism, but thinking through the implications of ‘disruptions’ like MOOCs and digital humanities are not to be ignored at the community college, the research university, nor the liberal arts college. The authors define ‘big-bang disrupters':

“But the strategic model of disruptive model of disruptive innovation we’ve all become comfortable with has a bling spot. It assumes that disrupters start with a lower-priced, inferior alternative that chips away at the least profitable segments, giving an incumbent business time to start a skunkworks and developed its own next generation products…That kind of innovation changes the rules. We’re accustomed to seeing mature products wiped out by new technologies and to ever-shorter product life cycles. But now entire product lines-whole markets-are being created or distorted overnight…We call these game changers “big-bang disrupters.” They don’t create dilemmas for innovators, they trigger disasters.”*

What happens in business is not necessarily what does or should happen in higher education, but I will draw a parallel to higher education. While I don’t think that big-bang disruptors (DH, MOOCs) in the context of higher education will necessarily trigger disaster, I do think they are harbingers of creative destruction. DH or DLA and MOOCs will radically change old paradigms about what students learn in college, where they learn it, and how they learn it. With governors in Florida, Wisconsin, and Texas accelerating development of MOOCs while simultaneously cutting spending for higher education across the board, Pannapacker’s call for liberal arts colleges to embrace the digital liberal arts – and the White House’s call to for accountability for colleges and universities higher education as we know – is about to change broadly. Big-bang disruption is here. But how do we respond to these changes? How do we continue to create spaces where active learning can happen, where we not only focus on what students are going to be doing for the first two years of their lives post-graduation and then arm them with the tools that they can lean on for the rest of their lives?

I am skeptical about many of the new trends and developments in higher education. Personally, I don’t view MOOCs as cost saving saviors for the problems facing higher education. But I do think they might well have a place in a flipped classroom, continuing education, or a way for people who are not in school to try their hand or move towards transitioning back into a degree program. I don’t think Digital Humanities or Digital Liberal Arts will make every graduate the perfect candidate for next-generation jobs. I do think Digital Humanities and/or Digital Liberal Arts can make for interactive classrooms and give students an opportunity to build, to think about how to imagine a tool or new framework for studying images. There is no panacea, no easy fix, no fast reform. The transition from the higher education of yore and today into the higher education of tomorrow and the future will not be easy and not without casualties or collateral damage. But changes need to be made if there’s going to be a higher education landscape in the future. Rather than react defensively to these big-bang disruptions, I’d like to shift my practice to work within the new landscape, to find new ways to compromise, innovate, and ensure that higher education remains an exciting realmin which to practice librarianship.

Do Libraries Collect Software Now?

Last week, ISIS  hosted an online seminar about bake-offs, processes through which individuals and institutions decide what new tools or technologies to purchase. Generally an activity in the purview of Information Technology departments, we had the pleasure of hearing a presentation from Sarah Oelker, a librarian from Mount Holyoke College, who talked about how a group of Mount Holyoke librarians applied bake-off principles to the process of sourcing technology solutions for the College. Here’s a look at Sarah’s awesome venn diagram:

Sarah Oelker's Bake Off Matrix

Sarah Oelker’s Bake Off Matrix

It’s a great visual to help us think about how libraries and technology departments can contexutalize making decisions about our resources, and how we should try to meet our community’s academic needs through our purchases and services. As we embrace a ‘just in time’ collecting model – one that allows us to purchase that book a faculty member needs on a moment’s notice or to have a cache of power cords for students to borrow to charge their laptops in the library – how do we think about software as not just a tool, but also as something to collect?

Which brings me to a larger question: should libraries collect software now? As digital humanities centers proliferate  and as heated debates come up about whether 3d printers should be in libraries, the nature of our collections is also shifting. How does/will/should that impact our collecting strategies? As libraries and information technology departments scale up to meet new demands for ‘digital’ scholarship, how do we balance the needs for ‘just in time’ and ‘just in case’ acquisitions with tools that have utilitarian value now and historical value later?

From where I’m sitting, the answer is that yes, we need to collect software, but the what and the how are other questions for which I don’t think profession yet has a cogent answer. For collection development librarians, the ground is shifting away from bibliography and toward patron-driven acquisitions for monographs and journals. I believe this shift provides an opportunity to work closely with our colleagues in IT to map out strategies for successful collection and stewardship of software, especially as librarians increasingly support classroom technologies. In any case, it represents another step towards utilizing the library as incubator of new ideas and practices, instead of just as a repository for the old.

CFP: Digital Humanities for Liberal Arts Colleges

Five College Committee work is one of the highlights of my job at Hampshire College. I am lucky enough to serve on a few committees and task forces including one called DEDCC (Digital Environment Development & Coordinating Committee). One of our goals this year is to raise awareness among librarians of Digital Humanities and how librarians can get involved. To that end, this committee is organizing a program in the Five Colleges later this year. Below is the call for proposals along with a link to submit proposals, as well as some context about who we are in the Five Colleges:

The Five College Consortium is exploring a June program introducing Digital Humanities to an audience of librarians and IT staff at our institutions.  The Consortium in western Massachusetts includes Amherst College, Hampshire College, Mount Holyoke College, Smith College, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst, four liberal arts colleges and one ARL.  We are interested in identifying speakers who can discuss digital humanities vision or digital humanities work in liberal arts settings targeted at undergraduate teaching and research.  We are open to a variety of interpretations on/definitions of the phrase “digital humanities”’ and its intersection with other initiatives around teaching with technology in the undergraduate curriculum.  We envision a panel followed by breakout sessions during which we will ask our panelists to participate in small group discussion.  Possible topics for discussion include:

  • What does it mean to do work in this field in liberal arts colleges?
  • How to help faculty navigate shifting technologies
  • Mapping out new collaborative relationships (inside our institutions and across the Five Colleges)
  • Where should conversation around research/teaching/technology be happening?
  • Content mashups and the development of new kinds of “collections”
  • The library’s role in a supporting digital culture
  • What professional skill sets are needed to support digital humanities work?
  • Infrastructure/services/copyright/IP

If you have interest in participating on our panel and in small group discussion, we would like to hear from you!  Please submit a brief proposal online at by March 8th, describing your interest in the areas outlined above and your interest in speaking to our audience.  We are looking towards mid-June for the program itself and will confirm dates with the identified speakers.  Please direct questions to:

Erin Stalberg,

Chair, Five Colleges Consortium, DEDCC;; 413.538.2228

For further information on the Five College Consortium., please see: