New Book Chapter: “Our Marathon: The Role of Graduate Student and Library Labor in Making the Boston Bombing Digital Archive”

Our Marathon

Alicia Peaker and I co-wrote “Our Marathon: The Role of Graduate Student and Library Labor in Making the Boston Bombing Digital Archive,” a chapter appearing in the new volume, Digital Humanities, Libraries, and Partnerships: A Critical Examination of Labor, Networks, and Community

You can read a preprint PDF version of our chapter here (thanks, Humanities Commons!). Here’s an excerpt:

In 2010 Matt Kirschenbaum wrote “What is Digital Humanities and What’s it Doing in English Departments?” for the Association for Departments of English (ADE) bulletin, in which he argued that “digital humanities has accumulated a robust professional apparatus that is probably more rooted in English than any other departmental home” [11]. While there were (and there continue to be) skeptics and vocal opponents of digital humanities methodologies in these institutional spaces, his point was that many English departments had already begun to embrace, cultivate, or otherwise contend with the impact of digital tools and contexts on literary studies. But in the case of Our Marathon, many of the questions we received about the institutional context of our project stemmed less from an aversion to digital humanities work and had more to do with the project’s self-identification as an archival initiative and its investments in the curation and preservation of particular kinds of material culture: items left at public memorials, social media activity, and first-person narratives, all of them related to a national tragedy. Why is an English major behaving like an archivist, a metadata specialist, a project manager? What more could they know about the long histories of curation, preservation, and community engagement, topics that may not be covered in English department coursework? How might English departments anticipate student and community investments in initiatives like Our Marathon and be prepared to support such work?

Thanks to editors Robin Kear and Kate Joranson for their feedback on our contribution to this project. And thanks, of course, to Alicia, for being great: it would be cool to co-write and/or collaborate on something again in the future. I look forward to reading the rest of the volume: if you’re interested, some of our co-authors have been putting links to preprint versions of their work on this Google Doc.

I also want to link to this commentary on the book by Roxanne Shirazi. I was (and am) comfortable with contributing to this edition in large part because authors were able to distribute preprint versions of chapters, free of charge, via digital repositories of their choosing, and I hope that librarians, graduate students, and scholars in public history and public humanities interested in collaborations with libraries read our work. As I mentioned on Twitter, I appreciate the perspective on why this condition of publication still doesn’t seem sufficient to many librarians and open access advocates, and these points of view will no doubt inform future plans to circulate any writing I might do on libraries and DH (among other topics).

I agree with Roxanne’s description of “the mess that is scholarly publishing,” and it’s been challenging to navigate this mess as an early career scholar interested in interdisciplinary work. I have spent much of the past year preparing and submitting academic and non-academic pieces for a range of publications and audiences. The relationship between publication and tenure and promotion has also informed some of my decisions about sites of publication: the value of a book chapter is contingent on the context of particular academic contexts and audiences, and I do think the publication has more value on versions of my CV read by some prospective employers than it does on others, in addition to the value it hopefully adds to the knowledge of practitioners who are interested in DH work related to the chapter’s subject matter.

A challenge of being an early career scholar in DH is that if I end up staying in academia, then I might land in one of several academic contexts (or move from one to another, as I have in my moves from an English Department and a Digital Scholarship Group that institutionally resides at a library to a Public Humanities Center institutionally housed in an American Studies department).  I am not a librarian and my job search includes a range of academic and non-academic contexts (including libraries!) as I consider life after my current postdoctoral fellowship. I know that many libraries, academic organizations, and departments are working to revise publication expectations for promotion and tenure (or at least advocate for recommendations) , but I also know that these forms of advocacy take time, and their impact varies, and I’m on the job market, like, right now, and it’s stressful.  I was appreciative of Roxanne’s critique because it took the time to acknowledge the lives behind the labor that created this volume of scholarship, as opposed to some of the other comments I’ve seen elsewhere on Twitter since this project was announced. I don’t know if the authors of these snarkier responses are aware of the visibility of their comments (I became aware of them via a conference hashtag, where the mechanics of subtweeting get complicated when attendees or observers use the hashtag as a feed for information), or if they care about the variety of professional and personal contexts informing the decisions made by the volume’s authors and editors, or whatever.

I’m fortunate enough to be part of the American Studies Association’s DH Caucus and their Precarious Labor working group, and it’s been helpful to have a network of peers who are dealing with the various lived realities of precarious labor in DH, to compare perspectives, to see where we agree and where we disagree. I’ve also been lucky to have a support network of graduate students and faculty members from my time at Northeastern. In addition to the political dimensions of publication venues, I have been working through the economic and professional realities of postdoctoral labor, the massive debt accrued in graduate school as a first-generation PhD who took on student loans (on top of loans from my undergraduate career),the expenses of national and international conference travel (along with the access they provide to professional networks and audiences that inform the shape and contributions of publications), the challenges of taking on and balancing contingent labor in DH as a consultant to supplement my income, and other factors.

In other words, the mess that is digital humanities is, at times, a frustrating and exhausting experience. It can be especially difficult at times as a postdoctoral fellow in an institutional context where I’m one of the few DH practitioners. And it’s been challenging to work in DH outside of the field of English or the context of a library, both at the level of the local institution as well as the wider network of DH visible at conferences and on social media. What conferences make the most sense to attend? What expectations do audiences in respective fields bring to descriptions of methodology, practices of citation, objects of inquiry, forms of communication and publication? I think I’ve relied on my blog as a space where I can circulate a range of professional and interdisciplinary research interests, but I’ve also struggled with how much time to spend on this space or how to document its value to me and to particular professional communities. I haven’t documented this work on my CV yet: maybe I should!

I agree that it is time for “a peer reviewed, open access journal dedicated to digital humanities and libraries” and I hope that one is created, since it’s been challenging (for me, at least!) to find publication contexts for work of this nature in DH.  DHCommons seems like it may have been an ideal venue for conversations about labor on digital projects, but they haven’t published since 2016 (and I believe they are no longer active). The Journal of Digital Humanities team has moved on to different phases of their work, and Digital Humanities Quarterly seems like it has a backlog of special issues to work through at the moment. There have been successful versions of OA publishing on this topic: in addition to the edited volume, The Politics of Theory and The Practice of Cultural Librarianship, mentioned in Roxanne’s post (which sounds great!), there’s also the 2016 “special issue” of dh+lib on “Digital Humanities In The Library / Of The Library.” I hope that there are more options for these kinds of publications in the future, and I hope to contribute towards making these spaces a reality as I (hopefully!) move forward in an academic career of some shape or form.