What's a Librarian?

Contributed by Vika Zafrin Institutional Repository Librarian at Boston University
May 07, 2011
veek's picture
Part of the Cluster:

Vocations, Identities

Growing up, my very clear idea of what a librarian did was this: act as intermediary among books and patrons. That understanding gradually evolved into an awareness that librarians received specialized training and that libraries were not just places but institutions, possessed of their own inner lives.

Working in a library for two years has shown me the beautiful organisms they are.  In an age of exponential information growth, libraries somehow manage to apply vast knowledge about organizing that information to create tools that enabling us to find whatever is needed.

This is a challenging time. Many people with specialized library expertise are working on intricate problems. And I'm a digital humanist, as much humanities scholar as networked geek, working in a library without a library degree. Like most other digital humanists, I arrived to where I am by a route both new to higher education, and deeply rooted in it.

This essay will outline the "alternative academic" path I've taken, through an untraditional PhD in the digital humanities, to an equally untraditional library position (from which I moved on six months ago to another library position, managing BU's institutional repository). Along the way, I will discuss the divide between research and service, validate decision-making based on happiness in one's personal life, and address particular digital humanities projects and communities and the lessons I learned within them.


I applied to Italian studies graduate programs right out of college.  When acceptance and rejection letters came in, my decision to go to Brown University seemed a no-brainer: they had the Decameron Web project. It was about Italy, and it was online — and I wanted to work on it. This happened. I matriculated at Brown and almost immediately got involved with DWeb, which was based in my department.

Two years in, I was a regular contributor to DWeb, doing text encoding as well as website design and maintenance. At the same time it became clear that, while I might make a decent Italian teacher, I would be unhappy pursuing life as a scholar, at least in the U.S. tenure-based system. I talked to my advisor about quitting. He was supportive: better to quit and retain my love for the subject than to stay and lose it. He advised me to think of a Master's thesis topic.

That was the last time I felt like a professional failure. Within the following six months I discovered three things. One was the field of humanities computing. The second was that my institution was one of its U.S. hubs: I'd been part of it for some years, doing semantic encoding and web design for the Decameron Web, but hadn't put two and two together. The third discovery was that my university allows its graduate students to propose and pursue their own programs of study, if they find that none of the institutionalized ones fit their interests.

Perspective thus shifted, and inspiration hit. My Master's thesis turned out to be a website that made an argument using a combination of HTML code and scholarly humanistic language.1 I don't know how I talked three senior scholars into backing me as a dissertation committee in my proposal of a Special Graduate Studies PhD program to the university, but it happened. I took a year off to create the program, got it approved, came back from leave in 2002 to undertake the work, and defended my dissertation in 2007.  (Two of those five final years were spent managing our NEH-funded Virtual Humanities Lab, for which I took another leave.)

After graduation, I was unemployed for eleven months and before finding my current position at BU. Over the past two years this position has mutated, as such things tend do — but more on this later.


What I learned in graduate school about the digital humanities and alternative career paths came through four venues: the Decameron Web project, the Virtual Humanities Lab, my dissertation project, and the DH community.

Decameron Web

Decameron Web gave me my first experience in text encoding. It was a pretty hardcore, if controlled, introduction. SGML (Standard Generalized Markup Language) was the main tool of the trade, and we were following the encoding guidelines of the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI), already extensive in 1998.  The DWeb encoding itself was reasonably intricate. It required some decision-making: for example, professions and social roles in Boccaccio's Decameron were sometimes ambiguous.  Aside from some rudimentary search-and-replace, I did all the encoding by hand. Tricks for doing this faster came later.

Working on this project, I learned about crafting web resources. The basics of web design and editing, yes—but also questions of audience and discoverability of material informed the fundamental redesign of the project site in which I took part.

It was DWeb, too, that gave me my first taste of what happens (or what happened then) when humanities academics are uncomfortable making a scholarly argument through text encoding.  SGML was an unfamiliar expressive medium for most involved, and its declarative nature seemed to imply too much empiricism, leaving too little room for the subjectivity usually taken for granted in the humanities.  For several years the team combed through the code again and again, arguing about the finer points of our classifications. All of that intellectual work was invisible on the website throughout the period.

Since then, thought about semantic encoding both at Brown and elsewhere in the field has evolved. There's been discussion of the importance of embracing and foregrounding subjectivity in this medium, of separating code from empirical work.  In that context, code should be treated as any other academic writing and made available for formal and informal peer review. 2 To date there are no dedicated tools that make online conversations about code very efficient, and sharing it is not common practice in the digital humanities.  But all the recent attention this topic has received is bound to resolve into tools sooner rather than later.


Out of DWeb and its sibling Pico Project was born the Virtual Humanities Lab, a project that I managed for its two NEH-funded years in 2004-6. VHL had the ambitious purpose of doing two things: encoding some fairly long, intricate, historically-significant texts; and then putting them on the web together with an annotation engine that would allow users to view and comment on our code.

By the time VHL got funded, the eXtensible Markup Language (XML) was in widespread use, so we went with that over SGML. And we decided to try something different from what we'd done before: idiosyncratic encoding. The idea seemed logical.  None of us knew the intricacies of these texts; we would learn them in the encoding process. We had some hunches about what would be encoded, but most of the work ahead was nebulous. We decided that the tag set would have to emerge from the encoding.

So I sat down with my three encoders (an Italian Studies scholar, a historian, and a graduate student in Italian) and taught them the few basic rules of XML. We then spent some time talking about what they wanted to communicate and propose to their colleagues through the encoding. Once we had that, I set them loose on the encoding—using whatever tags made sense to them. No TEI, no pre-existing tag set.

In this, VHL was my first taste of experimental humanities work.  We took risks, learned a ton, and mostly succeeded in doing what we had set out to do. It wasn't exactly equivalent to Google's twenty percent rule: Google allows its employees to spend a fifth of their working hours pursuing personal projects. But VHL came remarkably close in its impact on the participants' views of what constitutes humanities work, and its willingness to invest significant resources into working differently and seeing what happens.

Perhaps the most useful lesson I learned from that project was how to act as a go-between with traditional humanists on one side of a project, and a software design team on the other. The humanists produced deliverables, without which the programmers could not do their part. (This is a working process largely unknown in the humanities.) And the software engineers, in addition to building the infrastructure for both the site and its annotation engine, later translated our encoding into a TEI-compliant tag set. I am told this was not an easy process, but it was also indispensable. If the humanists whose expertise we were trying to distill in code had had to learn TEI encoding guidelines, we might not have ever gotten off the ground. We certainly would not have gotten as deep into the actual expression of scholarly thought based on close reading. And starting out with no pre-existing tag set was liberating in terms of what actually got encoded.


That peculiar experience with VHL made a big impression on me, and I adopted the same approach in coding my dissertation RolandHT for recurrent themes and imagery. This worked well. It went smoothly enough to allow me to spend adequate time collaborating with a web programmer on designing the interface, and writing the critical-reflective half of the dissertation.

I gained an immense amount of useful knowledge from building and writing my dissertation. Like every graduate student in the humanities, I learned how to undertake a book-length project and see it through to completion. Project management was also an important lesson; accountability to oneself is very different from accountability to others.  I filled out my bag of research tricks, too, including becoming skilled at online research, at keeping up with the latest coding tools, and at regular expressions — a kind of shortcut that speeds up repetitive encoding (think of typing Roland's name several hundred times).

In other words, I learned everything that any other dissertating graduate student learns, and added to that a slightly different—expanded—set of tools.

The DH community

No scholar is an island, and in digital humanities that's particularly true. It's a small but quickly-growing community of scholars and administrators who always seem to want more time for conversation than we have, whenever we get together.  I discovered this community by serendipitous accident. In June of 2001, a colleague at Brown sent email alerting me to an annual conference (then called ACH-ALLC), being held in New York City that year. I'd had no plans to do so, but hopped on a bus and headed down to NYU to check it out.

It was different from any academic event I'd ever attended. With only about 300 people present, it was electric. Discussion time at paper sessions was jealously guarded and clearly valued. Coffee breaks were many, and long enough to meet people, who sought you out just to find out what you were working on. Knowing that I was about to leave for a year in London, to work remotely with DWeb and apply for the Special Studies PhD program at Brown, my colleague introduced me to the humanities computing folks from King's College London. They asked about my research, told me a bit about theirs, and next thing I knew, they were inviting me to be a visiting scholar at their Center for Computing in the Humanities. We can't offer you any money, they said, or anything else really — but we can get together and talk about work, and you'll probably get into more libraries.

I was floored. This kind of thing just didn't happen in the academe I'd known before. But this kindness, this openness turned out to be a core characteristic of the DH community — and a core value consciously upheld. Senior scholars act as mentors to their juniors. There is open discussion about the job market, and practical advice available to those entering it. Intellectual rigor is both prized and—this is the unusual part—evenly divided between research and administrative positions. (I'll come back to this.) So many people are pursuing so many projects that, given enough drive, you can find one—or four—to participate in.  Work actually performed is valued, noticed and put to rigorous scrutiny that manages to leave most people feeling inspired and not beat down. The collaborative and collegial DH environment creates ample opportunities for scholars to find their own voices, test their ideas, and create new knowledge.

It's hard to pin down what being around digital humanists has taught me so far.  Mostly it's the meta-stuff.  How to collaborate.  The languages that higher ed administrators, scholars and librarians speak—and how many of us fit into more than one of those categories. Where to look, whom to ask, for certain kinds of information. How to think out of the box. How to politely ignore arbitrary barriers until they break down or I get thrown out—and so far, the latter hasn't happened.

After school

So, in 2007 I graduated; wanted to keep working in the digital humanities; didn't feel either qualified or particularly desirous of a tenure-track position in Italian; oh, and I wanted to live in the Boston area. Tall order.

This is where I made a decision that in most academic circles would immediately label me as not serious about working in academe. I decided to move back to Boston from Providence and stay here, to privilege some aspects of my personal life over my professional prospects. This meant passing up some sweet opportunities, mostly for post-docs that would have undoubtedly been fun—but would have meant not seeing my friends or their growing children, never quite feeling at home, and always looking for ways to get back to Boston. So I stayed, and eleven months of unemployment later was hired into my current position at BU.

I can't exactly recommend this course of action to anyone else. For one thing, while digital humanities job opportunities are on the rise, in any reasonably small area they're still incredibly scarce. You'd think, this can't be right. You're in Boston, for goodness' sake, CollegeTown USA. But you've seen how these things go. It's both administratively and conceptually hard, fundamentally to change the way research is done, and viewed, and funded; and that's exactly what DH is doing in the humanities. So it's slow to catch on in institutions where it doesn't already exist. DH needs significant investment of resources—both time and money—that are scarce even in the best of economic circumstances.

Counterbalancing that for me were several things. I was never a particularly good scholar in the traditional humanities. The tenure track would've killed any love I had for scholarship: nothing against the system: I came to realize it was just a personality mismatch. And also, all of my communities—not just the academic—are important to me. Sacrificing one of them altogether is what would've happened had I chosen to live elsewhere after grad school. That would have made me unhappy and unproductive. It would have been bad for everyone.

So I followed a particular bliss, without any idea of what opportunities would present themselves, aware that I was risking finding nothing at all in my field. One consequence of this decision was sinking even deeper into debt on top of my graduate school loans. This is a real consideration: if increased poverty and/or debt for the sake of a professional gamble is just not an option, emotionally or otherwise, then it's not an option. You see why I can't recommend this geographically-limited course of action to anyone else.

All of that said, scholars deciding to go the alt-ac route could scarcely find a better field for a terrifying experiment than the digital humanities. It's growing in influence and visibility. So many corners of humanities and social sciences are positively affected by DH work that its importance to more traditional scholarship will only increase. As it does, scholars will need support, people to build things with them, people with whom to consult, people who speak hacker and humanist and funder.

So… librarian? Really?

Well, see, it's complicated. My official title is Digital Collections and Computing Support Librarian, based in one of BU's several schools and colleges. This title, right here, is where things get dicey for digital humanists, and for that matter digital librarians. It's hard to assign a single pay grade to all of what we could be doing in our positions. It's hard to categorize us within existing administrative structures in higher education. Mine is considered an information technology job, and although I draw both on humanistic and IT knowledge, overall that seems like its correct classification. On the other hand, as my title and others' experiences suggest, most IT work is often conflated with technical support.  In my case, this aspect mostly involves desktop support and oversight of classroom audio-visual and networked technologies.

I like doing tech support. I'm good at it, and it's gratifying work. I get to help people out and at the same time demystify computing a bit, help them be more comfortable with the electronic tools of their trade. In an institution with so many humanities scholars working in a field with no particular love of computation, I view this work as laying the foundation for more, and more intricate, digital work than what already exists.3

However, doing digital scholarship and tech support creates two significant hurdles. The first is a matter of perception. Tech support is viewed in a completely different register by scholars than, for example, research and development. This is how it should be, since the two are fundamentally different pursuits. Most people I encounter on the job have never met a person doing both at the same time in an academic setting. Since most of their interactions with me revolve around tech support, they tend not to view me as a resource for more intellectual pursuits like pedagogy and research. 

As I said, that's mere perception, and perception can change. Just over two years into my job, I've developed working relationships with some members of the faculty, and we're doing interesting things that benefit from my DH expertise. The other hurdle is rather more serious in its persistence.

Support of over a hundred desktops and roughly seventy faculty and staff is officially supposed to take twenty-five percent of my time. I'll pause here to wait for those of you who have ever done tech support to stop ruefully laughing. It never works that way. When a computer catches a virus, or when someone can't print or access email, or needs permissions to access certain shared files, or is a new employee needing setting up—that all takes precedence over whatever else is going on. And it's a double-whammy, too. These incidents (to use support-speak) are frequent and erratic, and they occupy an unpredictable amount of time each day. By the very nature of their unpredictability and relative urgency, they tend to fragment the day in such a way as to make it difficult to concentrate on writing, coding, reading, or thinking—quotidian activities of many digital humanists.

It's possible to acculturate oneself to this mode of working, and I'm guessing, for some people, it's possible to be able to switch into scholar-mode at a moment's notice. The administration at my school has been fantastically receptive to the idea that we need more IT staff: I've had a half-time colleague for several months now, and it's been brilliant (if not quite liberating yet: we're still working on infrastructure).  But ultimately the conflation of these two sets of activities signals a certain institutional mindset that positions DH entirely within the service sector, instead of in the interstices between that and scholarship, where it belongs. That liminal place is an institutional blind-spot where the digital humanities field has not yet asserted itself.

Slowly driving a wedge into a big wall —so that you can make space for something good and useful —can be dispiriting, even if that something is inevitable. When this wedge-driving works, however, it's also the most exciting stuff I've ever done professionally. So I take the trade-off, and it doesn't feel like an "alternate" career. It feels exactly right.

And what are you doing with your days?

Wearing my digital librarian hat, I've done a delightful variety of things at BU.  I've overseen digitization (through the Internet Archive) of just under a thousand books from our Research Collections, and am working on digitizing a lot more in-house.  I was part of a team that made the Digital Common, BU's institutional repository, happen.  I've presented workshops on social media in teaching and research, and on the basics of digital literacy, to students and faculty university-wide.  With two co-authors, I wrote a paper on re-imagining the library and presented it at a DH conference.  I've begun to figure out how to require, accept, and sustainably archive electronic theses and dissertations. I've migrated the School's website to a different platform and I've re-organized it for better information flow. As part of the School's administrative cabinet, I've contributed to the past year's intense ten-year strategic planning process, ensuring that digital scholarship is part of it. I bring humanities scholars' concerns to university-wide academic IT support meetings.

…And what's a librarian?

I still don't know.  I do have some operating assumptions, which will change as I learn more.  This is how I see it right now.

Librarians are keepers and sorters of information, as formulated and/or recorded by the human mind.  Librarians are the scribes of their world. Classifying intellectual product is a science, an activity, a principle that can never be static; librarians endlessly recombine descriptive elements in an effort most accurately to represent what we know.

This job is requiring me to think big-picture about the nature of information, and of the electronic tools which make it progressively easier and more effective to navigate the vast stores of information that are growing at a breakneck pace. Coming as I do from a humanistic and digital-humanities background, I can guess at which of my quotidian revelations may be of interest to humanities scholars. Conversations I have with faculty, students, and staff at BU and elsewhere are enriched not only by these moments of genuinely new understanding, but also by clear recognition of what is new or not obvious to people in their own lines of work.

In an ideal world, my work time would be split among experimental recombination of knowledge, talking to people about their research, and making things.  It is difficult to pursue all this and do IT support at the same time. But easily the most gratifying moments of my job involve the practical application of knowledge I've gained in it to catapult scholars' thinking about their research topics.

It would be unproductive to merge this bridge-like identity with the conceit of a One True Path to new knowledge. Libraries and librarians are less gatekeepers and toll collectors than routers. As a librarian, I think about how to classify and deliver information; my digital humanities training gives me both a knowledge-base on which to build tools and a contextual awareness of how the humanistic mind works.  Handy.

  • 1. That was quite an inefficient way to do anything, and I don't recommend it.  But it was the best thing available to me at the time, and turned out to be a brilliant exercise in making an argument using both code and English.
  • 2. For more on this topic, see Jeremy Boggs' excellent blog post "Participating in the Bazaar: Sharing Code in the Digital Humanities"
  • 3. To be clear: comfort with computing here varies widely, and we do have some online projects, foremost of them the History of Missiology site.