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Launching a library digital humanities center: reflections and lessons learned

Pamella R. Lach, San Diego State University | Oct 28, 2019

SDSU Digital Humanities Lab

History students collaborate on a digital mapping project in the DHC (spring 2019)



In January 2018, San Diego State University (SDSU) Library officially opened its Digital Humanities Center (DHC). This space was created in collaboration with the campus-wide Digital Humanities Initiative, DH@SDSU, which began as a grass-roots, faculty-led, interdisciplinary community and is now a formalized effort that includes a faculty research cluster. As a partner in the growth of digital humanities (DH), the library committed resources to build a DH space under the leadership of the new digital humanities librarian. Since opening, the DHC has become an interdisciplinary hub that brings people together in support of humanistic research, teaching, and learning in the digital age.



Design process


We created the DHC using an iterative, user-centered approach to build broad community buy-in. Library administrators identified the existing Media Center as the site for the DHC. They relocated the media collection and its associated services while the DH librarian collaborated with DH faculty and students to develop a vision and design for the space. Following the completion of renovations in summer 2017, the DHC informally opened with a “soft launch” in November 2017.




User design sketches from fall 2016 (left) and fall 2018 (right) design workshops



We intentionally adopted a minimalist design for the center, envisioning a blank canvas that would invite imaginative uses. We wanted it to be flexible and reconfigurable, so that it could evolve alongside the DH Initiative. In fall 2018, we launched a second design round for a virtual reality production studio (in partnership with SDSU’s School of Theatre, Television and Film), a podcasting studio, an electronic literature studio, and an active learning room for instruction, workshops and ongoing project work. This phased approach ensured the strategic stewardship of one-time funds and resulted in a user-centered space that adapts to a range of needs.



A programmatic service model


Unlike many library-based digital scholarship centers, SDSU’s DHC does not provide formal services such as equipment checkout; digitization, digital collection management and digital preservation; data curation, management, analysis and visualization; or 3D modeling and printing (Vinopal & McCormick, 2013; Mackenzie, 2016; Anne, et al., 2017). Rather, it supports human relationships and community through programmatic partnerships (Muñoz, 2012 and 2013; Vandegrift and Varner, 2013; Posner, 2013 and 2014; Shirazi, 2014; Schell, 2015; Miller, 2016). To signal this service shift—within the library and to our users—we removed the Media Center’s service desk during the renovation. Dismantling the desk was a visual cue that the DHC was not a place to do things for patrons, but a space to partner with users.


Our programmatic service model continues to evolve and mature as we test out approaches. When we opened, we organized one-off activities and co-hosted events, many of which were not explicitly DH in nature. In those early days, our usage request policy was quite loose because we hoped to attract broad disciplinary engagement. We refined our policy in summer 2018; we now require public events in the space to have a direct link to DH. In spring 2019, we developed a more coherent set of programs organized around four tracks: creative workshops, DH tools workshops, lecture series, and research & development activities.


Our current services are articulated through a range of formal and informal programs and community-building activities, including:


  • public-facing lectures, symposia and events
  • tool-based workshops
  • class showcases and our annual campus-wide showcase
  • networking events
  • faculty reading groups
  • formal DH instruction
  • project consultations and instruction partnerships
  • DH core faculty engagement, including recurring office hours



Faculty work with their students in formal and informal ways in the DHC (fall 2018)



Successes and challenges


In just a few semesters, the DHC has established itself as the home of the DH Initiative. Early successes include wide-ranging engagement across the disciplines, broad faculty buy-in, increasing pedagogic partnerships, and creative experimentation, particularly among faculty who find the space’s flexible possibilities a source of inspiration for curricular innovation. Another measure of success is the steady increase in projects submitted to our annual showcase.



Journalism and Media Studies final project showcase (spring 2018)



With these early successes came many challenges, both within the library and across campus. Although library administration committed two full-time employees for the DHC, we struggled to hire and retain people in those positions, which hampered operations and capacity despite efforts at cross-training. Secondly, the introduction of a programmatic service model distinct from other library service points, coupled with physical isolation from other service desks, led to confusion about where the DHC should fit organizationally. A general lack of understanding about DH on campus and in the library compounded these issues, despite regular efforts to make our work legible. Our service model combined with our physical layout still confuses many users who enter the space. Thirdly, the departmental partnerships so central to the DH Initiative and the DHC further set us apart from library spaces controlled by other units (such as the Writing Center or the Math and Stats Learning Center). Moreover, these crucial partnerships potentially expose us to space grabs. It has been challenging to continue growing broad appeal and buy-in across campus while balancing competing interests and needs, especially as the library tries to increase general study spaces for students. The continued success of the DHC depends on the success of the various partnerships that went into creating the center, partnerships that will have to be rebuilt after recent administrative turnover.



Lessons learned


The biggest lesson learned in the first few years of operation is the importance of maintaining buy-in with internal and external partners. This requires constant attention and cultivation to make sure a diverse range of perspectives are at the table, genuinely heard, and validated as compromises are made. Threats to long-term capacity and sustainability can be mitigated by creating partnerships that grow distributed expertise, cross-training within the library, and investing in the people responsible for growing community (Posner, 2014). Equally important, the space—as much as the services—needs to be user-centered and designed to meet its institutional context while being responsive and adaptable to changing user needs (Goldenberg-Hart, 2016).


In short, space matters when building and sustaining community (Lewis, et al., 2015; Dinsman, 2016). The DH Initiative would continue to grow without the DHC. But the DHC makes it possible for faculty and students to get out of their silos, connect with each other, build capacity, and imagine new possibilities.





This article was adapted from a poster delivered at ACRL 2019: Pamella R. Lach, “Launching a Library Digital Humanities Center: Reflections and Lessons Learned in the First Year,” Association of College and Research Libraries 2019 iPoster Session, Cleveland, OH, April 10-13, 2019.





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