Strategic Plan in Action: Center for Humanities and Information

by Shea Wert, Engineering Library, Strategic Action Plan Blogging Team

Like the needs of those they serve, libraries evolve. One way that university libraries in particular are evolving is by directing their focus to enriching and illuminating the area known as digital scholarship—research or scholarship that makes use of the vast array of tools and opportunities that now exist digitally.

Although many universities have instituted departments to work on digital scholarship, Penn State’s Center for Humanities and Information (CHI) is the first to be created specifically in conjunction with the humanities. Created in conjunction with the College of the Liberal Arts, the center aims to fulfill the strategic action plan’s goal of providing scholarly collections and services needed for cross-disciplinary research by undergraduate, graduate and faculty researchers.

In alignment with the objective set for it, CHI is creating a research model that crosses organizational boundaries for researcher needs. In the case of the center, they are particularly focused on increasing digital scholarship within the humanities.

If you are anything like me, this all sounds quite interesting, but is a little harder to imagine what it all looks like off paper. I spoke with John Russell, the associate director of CHI to gain a better understanding of the work being done within. John was hired just over a year ago to head the CHI’s library-based component of the initiative. He notes that being physically located in West Pattee will hopefully contribute to the promotion of digital humanities, while also making it more convenient to work with other librarians.

Throughout last year, John and a working group consisting of Chuck Jones, Nathan Piekelek, Patricia Hswe, and Laura Helton worked on assessing the needs of digital scholarship across disciplines—particularly within the humanities. This has entailed compiling, and then assessing, the technology support that exists within colleges and the library in regards to digital scholarship.

One gap already located, for instance, has been the need for support in regards to text analysis. The center is planning to fill this need in the near future with a new hire specializing in text analysis that will be available to help researchers create data from, and find patterns within, sometimes very massive collections of text. For instance, one of the fellows of CHI is currently analyzing a huge set of Chinese literature from the 20th century.

The needs assessment will naturally be ongoing, but John has already reached out to others within the library that work around digital scholarship and the humanities to do everything from identifying the types of questions that are received to beginning to work on a webpage that compiles the related services. He also contributes as a regular resource in a digital art history course among many other things.

CHI at large supports the fellowship of up to six faculty members, doctoral students, and visiting scholars. These fellows participate in colloquia in regards to information and the humanities all while working on their own research and projects. They also participate in an annual conference. This year’s conference will happen on September 22 & 23 and will feature a panel on Mary Poovey’s “A History of the Modern Fact,” as well as presentations from all of CHI’s visiting fellows. More on the fellowships and fellows can be found here:

Moving forward, John is hopeful about CHI exploring ways to more actively become engaged with special collections. Although what that looks like exactly is still in the works, the idea of integrating technology into those very unique collections is quite exciting.

Keep an eye out for presentations and resources created by John Russell and CHI to learn more about the center or inquire about your own digital scholarship and research questions.