A Librarian at the MLA
I recently attended the Modern Language Association’s annual convention. The theme of the conference, “Avenues of Access,” encouraged reflection on how scholars, students, and publics access the humanities within institutions and on their margins. What does access mean for students when many American universities are eliminating humanities departments and programs? What does access mean for scholars when, according to the MLA’s own statistics, only about half of all doctorates in languages and literatures ever receive tenure-track positions?
As librarians, we might think of “Avenues of Access” in a different way – libraries are the central physical and digital avenues of access to the humanities on many campuses. How can attending MLA and other disciplinary conferences help us do our jobs better as librarians? Among the panels I attended, three stood out in offering ideas.
The roundtable “Theories and Practices of the Literary Lab” (abstracts) brought together six panelists discussing literary labs as campus centers for research, teaching, and discussion. Literary labs are spaces for distant (as opposed to close) reading, quantitative textual research, and collaborative projects open to experimentation and failure. As one panelist argued, book history and bibliography are often missing from the conversation (there were no librarians on the panel). How can librarians use our expertise to enhance literary lab scholarship? When I asked the group this question, the general consensus was just as faculty culture had to change to accept and nurture new kinds of literary research, library culture had to change – in particular, to be less proprietary about data – in order to participate.
The session “How Many Copies Is Enough? Libraries and Shared Monograph Archives,” arranged by the MLA’s Discussion Group on Libraries and Research in Language and Literature, asked “As libraries rely increasingly on digitized texts and on partnerships for archiving print volumes, how do libraries and scholars cooperate to ensure preservation of copies with artifactual value for scholarly purposes?” (abstracts and bibliography) Some questions from the discussion: How do consortial agreements about legacy collections affect bibliographers’ decision-making about current acquisitions? How can we add value to catalog records to identify print copies with artifactual value? How do we adapt the serendipity of browsing in the stacks to browsing in the digital environment? What criteria do we use to define “unique” in terms of a print copy? (A sidebar: We learned at this session that the MLA is revisiting the 1995 Statement on the Significance of Primary Records and the subsequent 1999 report Preserving Research Collections: A Collaboration Between Librarians and Scholars.)
My favorite session, overall, convened by the MLA’s president, Michael Bérubé, was “Avenues of Access: Digital Humanities and the Future of Scholarly Communication.” Inspired by the advent of MLACommons, a new social media platform for members, Matthew Kirschenbaum performed an archeology of his own digital presence, excavating material from Usenet, listservs, and early 1990s websites (complete with flashing graphics on the Geocities platform). He made three assertions about access. Access engenders power, he argued, in patterns of contact acceptance in social media platforms that parallel in-person networks in scholarly institutions like the MLA. Access entails risk: as a doctoral student, he posted drafts of his dissertation on his website, writing in the agora, hiding his ideas, like Poe’s purloined letter, in plain sight. And access requires time: we might envision a future where tenure and promotion are based on “cycles of attention” – the “likes” and retweets that make up the bibliometrics of social media. On the same panel, Bethany Nowviskie used William Morris’s statement that “you can’t have art without resistance in the materials” to make a case for the productive resistance on the margins of the profession. Those in adjunct positions and the alternative-academic movement, as well as librarians and technologists, are the translators and intermediaries, the generators of ideas and pedagogy in the digital humanities. By being generalists – jacks of all trades and masters of none – we enable the work of specialists and ensure access to scholarly communication for all.