Infotecarios Interview: Thoughts on DH and Librarianship

Written by: Thomas Padilla

Primary Source: Thomas Padilla

Many thanks to Natalie Baur for the request to talk about DH and Librarianship for Infotecarios. Hoping that some of what is said will be useful to folks seeking to get more involved in DH and librarianship more generally!


Tell us a little bit about your academic background, your experience, and your professional interests that have brought you to being a Digital Humanities Librarian at MSU.

My path toward librarianship began while pursuing a Masters degree in History at San Francisco State University. Leading up to that point I had wandered a bit, working in sales for a software company and as an English teacher in two different countries. When I decided to attend graduate school for my History degree my intention was to earn a PhD (which I may still do someday), but I had always been curious about working in archives or libraries. It was during this time that I became aware of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) National Internship Program. This is an organization that provides financial as well as administrative support in connecting hispanic students with concrete work experience at Federal agencies throughout the United States. Through this organization I secured internships at the National Archives (NARA) and the Library of Congress.

These experiences were formative in the sense that they provided the means to get a foot onto the path of librarianship and they both had core digital components – digitization in the case of NARA and digital pedagogy as well as digital preservation at the Library of Congress. I was lucky to be able to convert my Library of Congress internship into a full time job. I completed my graduate degree in History, worked at the Library of Congress for a time, and then made a decision to earn a graduate degree in Library and Information Science.

Having had such a great experience with HACU I looked for similar diversity oriented support systems to help develop my skills as a librarian. This led me to the American Library Association Spectrum program, as well as the Association for Research Libraries Initiative to Recruit a Diverse Workforce. I was lucky to apply to and be selected by both programs. Going into library school with membership in both programs provided financial support, but perhaps most importantly it tied me into a high achieving group of diverse individuals. This social aspect provided an invaluable network as I began my studies at what turned out to be a wonderful program at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. If I had any advice to give about library school I would stress the value of work experience. It is essential that you earn it, ideally in a setting that you would like to work in post graduate school. I would also stress thinking creatively about ways that coursework can be bent toward creating products that can have a direct impact on those jobs, the job you would like to have, and if the prior arent possible at the very least an outcome as a piece of research that you can share with your intended professional community.

I am nearing the completion of my first year as Digital Humanities Librarian at Michigan State University. My professional interests in History, digital humanities, and data curation have so far served me well. Inside the library I have been working on finding data that resides in our collections, often the product of digitization initiatives, and repackaging and making it available in such a way that it is more easily useable in digital humanities research. I do a lot of digital humanities and data curation teaching and consultation for both faculty and graduate students in collaboration with campus partners inside and outside of the library. The same goes for supporting community-building events like brown bags and THATCamps. On the research side, the first year has focused on digital humanities pedagogy, humanities data, and literary analysis at scale.

 As a librarian, how would you define Digital Humanities? How do you see it developing in the US (and beyond)?

I define Digital Humanities as an interdisciplinary approach to utilizing methods and tools, often computational in nature, to formalize, extend, and refine (inter)disciplinary questions. As with anything interdisciplinary I believe that use of the methods and tools common to this type of inquiry must be predicated on responsible use (e.x. engagement with literature that gave birth to methods enacted through computational tools). As a pragmatic concern I see the digital aspect of Humanities research growing, if only because the material of cultural production is increasingly encoded digitally. Consider the example of a Historian seeking to understand the early 21st century 30 years from now. How will they work with a resource like a web archive without fairly robust skill in working with digital content?

What role do you see GLAMS having in DH work? And librarians and archivists?

As GLAMs have always done, they have a key role in providing materials that humanists can use in their research – in the case of digital humanities – data. The experience of providing this data in usable form – data cleaning and preparation to serve a particular end – situates librarians and archivists as prime educators for this invaluable step in the research process. Digital Humanists may not always work with GLAM data, but 9/10 times, they will need to clean and prepare their data. Librarians and archivists can and should also serve a primary role in communicating core principles of data curation. A data curation perspective is necessary to ensure that data underlying a given project remains accessible and usable. Furthermore this perspective lends itself well to advising on research project documentation. Without this added layer of documentation it becomes difficult to manage a project as well and to communicate it in such a way that it can be peer reviewed effectively.

What advice would you give to an aspiring DH Librarian? What tools, strategies and concepts will they need to bring to the table?

Be honest. Be humble. Be brave. Remain curious. There is too much to know and you will never know it all. Full stop. If you cultivate the prior four sensibilities you’ll insulate yourself well. A big part of doing this DH thing is learning how to be comfortably vulnerable about things you dont know, confident in the things you do know, and cognizant of the types of challenges that are best met by bringing a group of people together to tackle. The grand challenges! Exciting, no?

Lastly, share a little bit about your typical day as DH Librarian. What are the highlights and challenges to what you do?

Always something to do! I’ll just run through today. This morning I met with a research group in Linguistics to advise on research data management. I will likely spend a couple of hours following up on things that came up during that meeting. I’m particularly excited about trying to figure out how to archive data from a mobile app. Following that Ill put some work in on a digital humanities needs assessment, evaluate whether I have a good chance at a grant that’s been on my mind, work on planning digital humanities events for the next semester, and probably mess around cleaning, preparing, and visualizing data that I plan to promote next semester.

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Thomas Padilla
Thomas Padilla is Digital Humanities Librarian at Michigan State University Libraries. Prior to his move to Michigan he was at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign working at the Scholarly Commons and the Preservation Unit of the University Library. Prior to that he was at the Library of Congress doing digital preservation outreach and education. Thomas maintains diverse interests in digital humanities, digital preservation, data curation, archives, History, and interdisciplinarity. His work and projects often map to these areas of interest.