Invisible Work, Fungible Labor

With the approaching Symposium on Invisible Work in the Digital Humanities, I’ve been thinking increasingly about my transition from graduate work in a “traditional academic department” to working in a library. As a graduate student, I was aware of the fact that my work was rendered invisible by the fact that it was often not treated as work. Indeed, until very recently, graduate assistantships at private universities were not treated as real employees. And often graduate students are ineligible to become PIs on grants, or receive other opportunities that would allow them to advance in the field. Central to the idea that graduate students don’t “do real work” is the idea that their labor and research is somehow secondary or derivative of “real work” done by faculty. Even in the digital humanities, graduate labor is figured as research assistantships, project management positions, and coordination.

The issue of “centrality” in a research project (especially a funded research project in which there are “principal investigators”) is a problem for DH researchers in libraries as well as for graduate students. As a recent article in Digital Humanities Quarterly entitled “Student Labour and Training” points out, graduate student research outputs often come in the form of less academically viable formats (like blog posts and social media). The authors note that students’ “lack of involvement in the dissemination of project outcomes […] prevents both students and the academic field as a whole from seeing student research as tantamount to faculty research.” Arguably, the traditional outputs of conference papers and single- or co-authored publications allow students more room to diverge from the PI’s stated goals for the project. The idea that students could be writing and generating scholarly products that expand upon, rather than simply feed into, a faculty members’ stated goals is somewhat jarring in an academic landscape. To many, graduate students are apprentices rather than budding practitioners in their own right.

As I moved into the realm of practitioner (in the sense that I was considered a valid employee by FLSA and NLRA), I began to realize that, while some issues of labor disappeared, the issue of centrality to research remained. I have had the good fortune to work in a library that is open to exploring digital scholarship, and has indeed encouraged my efforts in the digital humanities. Yet, there is a still-persistent underlying question about the utility of some of the work I have done: “How are you serving the existing needs of the scholarly community?” Often, especially when new initiatives have been posed, the immediate question has been “Have you done a climate survey?” or “What are the preexisting needs of the campus community?” My reaction to this sentiment has been similar to that of Dot Porter’s to the OCLC report “Does Every Research Library Need a Digital Humanities Center”:

It is galling for these professionals to be told, as they are in the OCLC report, that “the best decision is to observe what the DH academics are already doing and then set out to address gaps,” and “What are the DH research practices at your institution, and what is an appropriate role for the library? What are the needs and desires of scholars, and which might your library address?” and especially “DH researchers don’t expect librarians to know everything about DH, and librarians should not presume to know best [my italics].” What if the librarians are the DH researchers? What if we do, in fact, know best? Not because we are brilliant, and not because we are presumptuous, but because we have been digital humanists for a while ourselves so we know what it entails?

I understand the impulse from librarians to take their cues from researchers in more “traditional” academic departments, especially considering the fact that library and information science is considered a social science, where climate surveys, environmental scans, and other such methodologies are common. However, the fact is that in the context of digital humanities, librarianship and information science as disciplines have greatly influenced the types of intellectual work that is being done in the field. To artificially remove this influence from the equation is a disservice both to librarians and to potential collaborators.

Part of this problem comes back to the issue of “centrality” I mentioned with graduate work. Acting as if the library’s (or a librarian’s) goals should be derived from the goals of faculty limits the potential impact of scholarship from librarians, either through limiting the media or venue through which it can be disseminated or limiting the findings it is allowed to make. And it’s not just the idea that librarians should be in service to faculty; it’s the idea that libraries (as organizations) generate priorities based on faculty priorities, which then filter seamlessly down to the librarians doing on-the-ground work. When talking about the complexities of librarians’ work (or service), Trevor Muñoz points out the significance of the venue of publication for the first major special issue on digital humanities librarianship: “Attending critically to this context means noting that this very welcome special issue on digital humanities and libraries was published in journal devoted to library administration” (emphasis in original). However, I would like to point out the significance of framing digital humanities as, primarily, a discussion for library administrators. It is, of course. However, it also contributes to the idea of DH in libraries as being a top-down issue, rather than one that is done in exploratory ways by librarians that feeds up into wider library (and, yes, university) goals.  

Even the promotional materials for the Invisible Work Symposium betrays some of the underlying sentiment about the role that libraries play in the wider university community. From the announcement:

Imagine, for example, a typical project between a professor of history and a university digital scholarship center. Is the digital scholarship center simply providing a service, or are they considered an equal partner in the work? […] Similarly, the digital scholarship center might be thinking about recycling the resulting code for use in other projects, contributing to broader digital scholarly efforts, and so on.

In this scenario, the labor of the “digital scholarship center” is always collectivized and always working with the intention of feeding into broader efforts. The assumption that there is always one mission for a group of library staff and that this mission is univalent and universally agreed-upon. I think that this view reduces the impact that individual librarians actually play in research projects. Which is not to say that libraries don’t have unified (and often stated) goals. Libraries frequently use strategic initiatives to promote specific areas, focus collection development and digitization around specific subjects, and play to the strengths of their employees and the wider university community. However, I’d like to posit that this is no different than how departments look for candidates in key areas or conduct cluster hires for faculty positions.

I think the main problem is that flattening the various perspectives and individual research interests of librarians exacerbates perceptions of library staff as “in service.” By acting as if librarians prioritize research solely upon the basis of administrative-level or department-wide mandates, we are basically saying that the work of librarians is fungible: “Anyone who can do this prescribed work in a procedural manner is qualified to do this job.” In treating the laborers who build and sustain infrastructure, design metadata schemas, and preserve and provide access to research as essentially fungible we are treating library spaces as neutral and failing to acknowledge the rhetorical and political impact of universities as sites of knowledge production. Pushing back against this notion is especially critical in a time when administrators see libraries as primarily empty student space, and when outsiders ask “Why do you need libraries/librarians when you have Google?

Since so many of the methods from the digital humanities are the intellectual descendents of research done in library and information science, it makes sense that librarians would own their intellectual contributions to DH work. In order to give librarians the institutional power to assert their ownership of their research, it is essential for us to acknowledge that library employees’ research agendas are not simply derivative of wider library goals (generated in some sort of nondescript aether of environmental scans). Rather the opposite is the case: the research interests of individual employees are essential to shaping the type of work that is done at an institutional level.

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