Submitted by Debbie Malone, VAL Committee member: This blog post is one in a series of posts discussing the library value work being done by the ACRL Liaisons to non-library higher education organizations. We welcome Sarah Wenzel, University of Chicago, who is our liaison to the Modern Language Association (MLA).
The Modern Language Association is best known among librarians for its eponymous index; however, the MLA itself as an organization is active in areas ranging from pedagogy to pay-equity to open-access scholarship. The scholarly work being done by its members is novel, interdisciplinary and increasingly reliant on technology either as a tool or as the medium of the object studied.
As liaison to the MLA I have been observing and reporting back to ACRL, particularly the Literatures in English and Western European Studies Sections, changes in topics of interest, types of scholarship, attitudes towards libraries and librarians, and most importantly areas in which I think we librarians can participate (or intervene) on our own campuses or with our own faculty. Some of these are, broadly speaking, discussions that are relevant to the Humanities in general and not unique to literary studies.
One aspect that librarians may need to pay attention to was brought out in a session held at the 2014 Convention : “What Is Data in Literary Studies?” The debate was not as interesting as the discussion afterward, which led to points being made that I have not heard literary scholars previously make, such as : “The Archive” must be defined; scholars need to state their methodologies; results must be reproducible. This acceptance of the data-set in lieu of “the archive” (scholar-speak for the collection of texts or other materials upon which they work), has implications for libraries. First is that as scholars need to define their data set, they will need to know what is in (or not in) the full-text databases to which we subscribe, or the HathiTrust, or Project Gutenberg. Will they begin to care about what is or isn’t in a digital collection? (Associate costs vs. content?)
Second is a need to store data sets formed from different sources, which will have an effect on institutional repositories. In addition, while faculty already are insisting on licenses that permit data-mining, what sort of permissions will be required for storage of the data set created? A third will be that librarians responsible for teaching students literary research will need to learn the skills required to evaluate these projects. And a fourth implicates collection development: while looking through a bibliography is one way to judge the strength of a library’s collection in a given area, a data-set or corpus of digital works is an entirely different animal. Concepts such as these were brought home to me even further when I sat in on a digital humanities course at my university, both observing and contributing to the search for raw data, creation and eventual loss of the data sets gathered for the final projects. And yet this aspect of the digital humanities, in what was meant to be a sort of introduction to the field, went unmentioned by the teaching faculty.
Also of great interest at this past year’s Convention is how many sessions took the digital humanities in stride and presented research done using those techniques without the angst prevalent in previous years, although there was angst to be had if it were wanted. The use of these techniques and methods of study is not received uncritically and issues surrounding tenure and promotion are real. Librarians find themselves drawn into these questions when asked about the thorny topic of alternative metrics, a topic I find even more difficult to take on than copyright : I cannot simply say “I am not a lawyer.”
The novelty this year was the proliferation of papers on electronic literature, whether it was the “Liminal Textuality of Comments in Code,” literature through social media, the changes wrought by platform migration, or games, or “_ebooks, Typography, and Twitter Art.” I continue to be concerned that libraries are not preserving literature (or non-fiction, for that matter) created in or drawing from these media. And there is still the unanswered question of cataloging and access.
Other sessions dealt with topics that you might associate more readily with the MLA : literatures from around the world, comparative literature, language studies, theory, performance studies, comics, bibliography and our very own Libraries and Research in Languages and Literatures forum. All are inflected by changes in modes of study, research tools and techniques, and new discoveries. Even as the Humanities and perhaps none more so than literature are under stress, even within academia, the MLA continues to promote the values of its members and advocate on their behalf. The 2015 Convention theme, Negotiating Sites of Memory, offers scholars and librarians rich possibilities for interaction.