Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Oh what a wonder, oh what a waste

Last week, I read an article in the most recent issue of dh+lib that presented the idea that the development of metadata standards for a particular project can, if we let it, be a kind of outreach. Emma Annette Wilson and Mary Alexander write, "DH projects require high-quality metadata in order to thrive, and the bigger the project, the more important that metadata becomes to make data discoverable, navigable, and open to computational analysis." The article goes on to urge that metadata librarians emerge from the back room in order to build relationships with digital humanities scholars. Wilson and Alexander write, "it is time to leave the backroom and partner with faculty and students on the frontiers of DH research, introducing them to metadata best practises and innovations, and sharing with them the creativity required to produce flexible, sustainable, and robust data for their projects."

I like the idea of including metadata librarians in the development of digital humanities projects. As the authors point out, digital projects require well-formed metadata in order to do the things scholars want to do. Inviting metadata creators into the conversation early on in the process will (hopefully) lead to decisions being made that don't end up with a library's metadata creation team remediating a significant amount of metadata later in the project.

I also appreciate the range of projects that Wilson and Alexander discuss in their article, as I think they show the range of digital humanities work and the metadata that supports it. From using a controlled vocabulary to describe fabric swatches in a fashion industry publication to contextualizing marginalia in digitized texts, the authors demonstrate the value of well-formed metadata across a wide variety of digital projects. The projects outlined in this article show what digital scholarship can be when metadata is considered early and often.

One thing that Wilson and Alexander don't explicitly address in their article is how the additional labor of consulting on digital projects from outside the library is accommodated within the existing workload of metadata creators. And, ultimately, this is the part of the situation that I find myself feeling concerned about. I have mixed feelings about asking metadata creators who are already taxed working on homegrown library initiatives to take on the work of instructing digital humanities scholars about well-formed metadata. On one side, I think it it's important to leverage the expertise that librarians have to provide the services that our users need. And if digital humanities scholars need help with metadata in order to create meaningful digital projects, then metadata creators should be in the middle of things helping them. On the other side, I think that we risk having our metadata creators suffer from burnout if we're not providing additional resources to help those metadata creators balance the demands from within, and outside, the library.

When considering how to balance competing interests in the area of metadata creation, two possible solutions come immediately to mind:

1. Allocate positions (or portions of positions) to digital projects that come from outside the library. By including this work in the position description or job duties of a metadata creator, a library acknowledges both the importance of supporting user-created digital projects and the labor necessary to do this work.

2. Embed a metadata creator in the library's digital humanities program. By doing this, you not only address the importance and the labor of supporting user-created digital projects, but you give the metadata creator the space and time necessary to collaborate with both the digital humanities library and the user community. The metadata creator has time to answer question and give their full attention to the project at hand without significantly compromising the progress on in-house digital projects.

In the end, I am not against the idea that metadata creation can be an outreach tool. Digital humanities research provides an opportunity for academic libraries to engage with our users and that opportunity can't be ignored. But I do think that we have to take seriously the question of labor and of workload when we ask metadata creators to add consultation to their already full plates. If well-formed metadata is as important as the authors of this article suggest that it is, we have to ask ourselves at what point the challenge we've placed in front of metadata creators is no longer sustainable. Ultimately, I don't think academic librarianship can support digital humanities work while also applying the 'do less with more' tactic to metadata creation. Our metadata creators, and our users, deserve better.

Stay positive,

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