For a few years, I’ve heard some rumblings and complaints from various quarters about feeling excluded from technology groups, digital humanities groups, and other like-minded organizations. And in the past couple of days, the topic has come up again, in a number of different discussions. It has gotten me thinking a lot about siloed outreach and information, as well as what sorts of efforts I, and my fellow GLAMazons, should be doing to ease some of the feelings of alienation some potential technologists experience when trying to navigate their way into our DH “family”.
Regarding those feelings of exclusivity by GLAM folks, Dan Cohen tweeted about his surprise that people felt excluded from the Digital Humanities. He was reacting to this article from William Pannapacker, Pannapacker at MLA: Digital Humanities Triumphant?
The digital humanities have some internal tensions, such as the occasional divide between builders and theorizers, and coders and non-coders. But the field, as a whole, seems to be developing an in-group, out-group dynamic that threatens to replicate the culture of Big Theory back in the 80s and 90s, which was alienating to so many people. It’s perceptible in the universe of Twitter: We read it, but we do not participate. It’s the cool-kids’ table.
So, the digital humanities seem more exclusive, more cliquish, than they did even one year ago.
I don’t blame Dan, Dave Lester (to whom I complained about this a year ago. Sorry Dave – I remember how appalled you looked and I felt very guilty), and others for being prickly about the article and this topic. They’ve really tried very hard to make digital humanities meetups available to all, regardless of background and I applaud their efforts and those of all of the other organizers of the various THATCamps and DH events. I want to stress that these events are important,useful, exhilarating, and move conversations forward and reach a wide range of digital humanists, including academics, developers, and museum, library, and archive staff. Unfortunately, Pannapacker’s complaint is something I have heard over and over again by many established and well-respected GLAM professionals for the past 2-3 years, ever since cultural heritage technologists began to really gain a foothold in academia and in our institutions. My concern here is that the conversation is trapped in a fishbowl and we’re not serving the rest of our professional communities. We forward our conversations, but what about the rest of the memory institution?
Clearly something is going on, despite the best efforts of the “cliques” to invite new folks into the fold, as it were. I remember feeling rather ostracized myself, despite being moderately well-connected to the movers and shakers. I think the core cause of my own perception may also be the cause of many others’ feelings as well, so I present one possible little bandage that might help. Ready?
Stop using Twitter as the vehicle for outreach.
Ok, so that was a really reductionist view of what I think might be a major factor. But to unpack that statement somewhat, there’s a large community of potential new technologists who aren’t sure where to start. They’re not on Twitter or on the DH feeds or academic journals; they’re still on listservs and email lists and blogs and bulletin boards, and the case has yet to be made to them that they should join these other avenues of information. They’re on subject-specific listservs, like RCAAM (museum registrars), museum-ed (museum educators), and various other library and archives lists. Just to keep on listservs for a moment, I track Museum-L and RC-AAM pretty closely. The last time I heard about a THATCamp or other digital technology event on one of these listservs, it was… uh… so long ago I either don’t remember or they’ve never been posted there (a search for “THATCamp” on the museum-ed archives turned up nothing).
My point here is that there’s a very large audience who really want to be involved, who aren’t hearing about anything until after the fact, because the events are only being shared through word-of-mouth (for which Twitter serves as a vehicle) or through DH-specific resources. As a result, people assume a certain cliquishness, that you have to be one of the “cool kids” in order to even know about these things. Add in the academic factor (e.g. the historic tensions between the boots-on-the-ground GLAMs and academics), and you have a community of folks feeling alienated, assuming that the digital humanities is only an ivory tower thing.
I really hope I’m not coming across as blaming anyone here. I myself have been absolutely lousy this past year with engagement, and it’s something I plan to actively work on. Call it a New Year’s Resolution: I will endeavor to help non-technical GLAMs understand the importance of digital humanities and help them understand DH is relevant to their interests and work. But we all need to identify target audiences beyond “people studying digital humanities and those who work in archives, libraries, and museums.” The former is easy to get. The latter three are fractured and diverse and still need an assist to join us.
There will always be people who feel excluded, as they’re trying to find their feet and not know where to start. And, sure, lots of us are friends and go out to bars and meetups together, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone ever actively exclude anyone from the group. So of course it’s somewhat unfair to have the “clique” charge leveled at a particular group. Regardless, if enough people seem to feel that way, it’s worth analyzing why we keep getting that complaint. And given the number of times I’ve heard it in the past few years, it’s enough to keep me thinking about it and what I, and our clique, could be doing better.
I apologize if I’ve ruffled any feathers, but this is something that I’ve been worrying on for a while now, and I really welcome any debate and discussion that arises; it may be that I’m completely wrong here and looking at it from the prism of someone working in the GLAM trenches who can’t always be connected 24/7. But that may be the very reason why I think my perspective here is a valid one, and representative of something that’s actually happening.
~edited to add: First off, I want to thank everyone who has taken the time to comment here and on Twitter. There’ve been a lot of fantastic discussions flying around today, from this, to “rock-stardom” to the vagueness of “digital humanities” as a term to donuts. Second, I especially want to thank Sheila Brennan for quickly putting up a sort of how-to guide for understanding and getting involved with digital humanities. Do check out her post, Getting to know DH if you work in cultural heritage. Lots of suggestions about points of entry into DH meetups and resources.
Third, if anyone would be willing to serve as a sort of mentor for answering questions from DH/GLAM/Technologist newbies, please fill out this poll. I’d like to make a list available either here on Musematic or on the Media and Technology website.