How Can Libraries and Digital Humanities Spaces Co-Exist?

Over at Hyperallergic, I have contributed a new article on the removal of books from the fine arts library at UT-Austin and the planned movement of books from the libraries at UW-Madison [Article Here]. The tales of these two libraries is an increasingly familiar one, wherein thousands of books are deaccessioned or moved into off-site storage in order to make way for a hip new “makerspace” or mixed-use area. These changes are not only redefining what a library is, they are redefining how we interact with them.

A 3D Print of the Temple of Vesta in Rome from the new Copy + Paste makerspace within the Carnegie Museum of Art (Pittsburgh, PA). The space works along with (rather than in competition with) the Hall of Architecture within the Museum. 

Questions over what a library is (e.g. Is it a book warehouse? Is it a social space?) should also incorporate how the digital humanities can co-exist spatially with books, rather than replacing them altogether. How do we create a trinity within libraries wherein digital humanities labs can work in tandem with books and people?

One step is to recognize that digital humanities labs are still about people rather than machines or data. At the University of Iowa, we have DH specialists at the Digital Scholarship & Publishing Studio within the library that teach students about Omeka, GIS mapping, archive transcription, and 3D printing–but we don’t just set digital tools in a public space and abandon the user altogether. Human interaction is still a glue that binds analog books, digital humanists, and DH methodology.

A touchscreen outside of the University of Iowa’s Digital Scholarship & Publishing Studio within the main library on campus relates the art gallery to the left, with library archives, faculty research from Lena & Michael Hill, and a digital interface. 

The balance between analog and digital is not easy to strike. Certainly no library can ever house every published book and digitization has made thousands of books accessible online. But that doesn’t mean we have to smack a makerspace into a library without thinking of how art, archives, books, and other materials create effective use rather than creating a space for printing tchotchkes.

While there are incredibly effective makerspaces, such as the one housed within the Scholar’s Lab at the University of Virginia, many of them (like UT’s new The Foundry) are slap-dash attempts at putting something trendy in a library with bated breath in hopes that it attracts more visitors.

As I noted in the Hyperallergic piece, the use of 3D models as pedagogical tools goes back to antiquity. Just think of Vitruvius’ use of architectural models to teach engineering. Within the modern world, it was the use of plaster casts in the 19th and early 20th centuries that helped hundreds of students to learn about the art, architecture, and designs of the ancient world.

The Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh has shown relationships between plaster casts and modern 3D printing with their new Copy + Paste lab embedded within the architecture gallery in the museum. Students can view the architecture and then explore how moulds and 3D printing allow us to replicate art. This is how you create an order of operations from gallery to digital printing that allows for makerspaces to function in a meaningful way.

There is indeed a petition on that already has thousands of signatures from local, national, and international scholars and students hoping to save the Fine Arts Library at UT-Austin. I encourage you to sign it and to fight for books within libraries. At the same time, however, I think we still need to have serious conversations about how libraries can create an ecosystem wherein the digital and the analog can harmonize for the good of students, teachers, librarians, and the public.

Before there was 3D printing, there were plaster casts. The Blanton Museum of Art has a number of classical casts that professors and curators teach with in tandem with the Fine Arts Library’s reserves. (photo by Sarah Bond for Hyperallergic). 

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