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Roles for Digital Scholarship

Julia Flanders, who is the Director of the Digital Scholarship Group in the Northeastern University Library, and a Professor of Practice in Northeastern’s English Department gave a talk on  Jobs, Roles, Skills, Tools: Working in the Digital Academy as part of the Program on Information Science Brown Bag Series.

In the talk, illustrated by the slides below, Julia  discusses the evolving landscape of digital humanities (and digital scholarship more broadly) and considers the relationship between technology, tool development, and professional roles.

In her abstract, Julia summarizes as follows:

Twenty-five years ago, jobs in humanities computing were largely interstitial: located in fortuitous, anomalous corners and annexes where specific people with idiosyncratic skill profiles happened to find a niche. One couldn’t train for such jobs, let alone locate them in a market. The emergence of the field of “digital humanities” since that time may appear to be a disciplinary and methodological phenomenon, but it also has to do with labor: with establishing a new set of jobs for which people can be trained and hired, and which define the contours of the work we define as “scholarship.”

In the research described in her talk Julia identifies seven different roles involved in digital humanities scholarship: developer, administrator, manager, scholar, analyst, data creator, and information manager. She then describes the various skills and metaknowledge required for each and how these roles interact.

(I will note here that the libraries and press have conducted complementary research and engaged in standardization around describing contributorship roles. For more information on this see the Project CREDIT site.)

The talk notes the tensions that develop when these roles are out of balance in a project, and particularly the need for balance among scholar, developer, and anlayst roles. Her talk notes that a combination of scholar, developer, and analyst in a single person is very productive but rare. More typically, early career researchers start as data creators/coders, learn a particular tool set, and evolve into scholars. In the absence of a strong analyst role this creates “a peculiar relationship with tools: a kind of distance (on the scholar’s part) and on the other hand an intensive proximity (on the coder’s part) that may not yet have critical distance or meta-knowledge: the awareness needed to use the tools in a fully knowing way.”

  Observing commercial and research software development projects over thirty years — one of the most common causes of catastrophic failure is the gap between the developer’s understanding of the problem being solved and the customer’s understanding of the same problem. A good analyst (often holding a “product manager” title in the corporate world) has the skills to understand both the business and technical domains sufficiently to probe for these misunderstandings and ensure that discussion converges to a common understanding. In addition the analyst aids in abstracting both the technical and domain problems so that the eventual software solution not only meets the needs of the small number of customers in the loop, but is broad enough for a target community.  Moreover, librarians often have knowledge in components of the technical domain and in the subject domain — which can serve libraries with particular competitive advantage in developing people in these critical bridge roles.

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