Fostering and Sustaining Diverse Digital Scholarship

min read
The CNI Interviews Podcast | Season 2, Episode 4

The American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) established the Commission on Fostering and Sustaining Diverse Digital Scholarship in 2021 to improve support and access to and sustainability of digital resources and humanities projects related to social and racial justice. James Shulman, ACLS Vice President, and Maryemma Graham, Founding Director of the Project on the History of Black Writing, Lead of the Black Book Innovation Project, and Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Kansas, discuss the findings and recommendations of the Commission's report, which is expected to be released next year.

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Gerry Bayne: This is Gerry Bayne at the Coalition for Networked Information Spring 2023 Meeting. And I'm joined today by Maryemma Graham, Founding Director of the History of Black Writing and the Black Book Interactive Project at the University of Kansas. And James Shulman, Vice President of the American Council on Learned Societies. Thanks for joining me today.

Maryemma Graham: Thanks for having us here.

James Shulman: Great to be here.

Gerry Bayne: I'll start with you, James. What is the American Council of Learned Societies, and what does it do?

James Shulman: The American Council of Learned Societies has been around for 103 years. We were founded, brought together by a number of the learned societies, academic societies with whom we work closely. So now we work with seventy-nine of them, support their work, from logistics and practical matters, to reframing their intellectual fields. At the same time, we're widely known for a set of fellowship programs, some that we fund ourselves, others that we carry out on behalf of other foundations, touching all sorts of stages of scholar's career. Recently, we've been doing a lot of work around institutional change in the humanities and this work, this commission grows out of that interest.

Gerry Bayne: Great. Could you please describe the work of the ACLS commission on fostering and sustaining diverse digital scholarship, why was it convened, and what's the mandate?

James Shulman: It really grew out of impulses from Patricia Hswe and Don Waters at the Mellon Foundation, and Brett Bobley at NEH, where they were just concerned about the well-being of digital projects and resources that they'd funded over the years. And as we worked with them to develop the projects, this project, a project on how to make sure these projects were stable and taken care of, since they're widely dependent on, we also realized that at this time, and given what's been happening in our society, focusing on issues of racial and social justice made the project much more interesting rather than less interesting. So it's still about how to care for and sustain these projects, but with a real intense interest in fields that have been understudied, people who haven't had opportunities and inequities that affect some institutions and some scholars more than others.

Gerry Bayne: Can you talk about your involvement, Maryemma?

Maryemma Graham: Yes. So I've had a relationship with, a longstanding relationship with NEH and more recently, with Mellon, through the history of Black writing. So we are not quite as old as ACLS, only forty years old, but in fact it has been very much involved in the same issues for these forty years. We were a collection development group that wanted to identify and recover a lot of lost and understudied text, Black literature in particular. I was a graduate student at the time, and I realized that my passion was to continue that work. And so we went from collection, development or recovery work, to preservation, and that of course included the digital mandate that was really the best way to keep from losing these texts yet again.

So it was really important for me to be a member of the commission that was formed because I had lots of thoughts, lots of experiences up and down, we've had tremendous success. But HBW has been at the forefront of these kinds of inclusion efforts and has been very public about the importance of the work and has been actively engaged in building a community of scholars who think in the same vein. So I'm really glad that I had this opportunity as my career began to phase into retirement, so this was a great way to think about, with other people, what it means to be doing this work, what works well, what do we need to continue to do.

Gerry Bayne: Great. And speaking of the commission, who are some of the commissioners serving on the body, and how is this makeup determined?

James Shulman: We spoke with a lot of people about who would be most insightful and wise and creative and strong-minded about looking at the wide range of issues that this project unfolds. So the commissioners range from, probably of the twenty-one, there are probably twelve or thirteen scholars who've built things, there are some who have built things of great and enduring value and others who are still earlier in their career. We have some representation from different types of institutions. Johanne Wu comes from a community college, and whereas she says the community is the college. And so there isn't the same tension of town gown relationships because ... so we are lucky to have people who bring the practice of digital work into all of the questions that surround how to build these things, how to sustain them, why they matter, how they build fields.

And so we have a set of scholars, we have some people from publishing, from libraries, some people who've worked on trans-institutional efforts. So there are many more people we could have had because there are a lot of people who've really planted the fence posts that we're trying to connect in this kind work, but it's been a pretty extraordinary group.

Gerry Bayne: And this is for either of you. Can you talk about some of the commission's key findings so far?

Maryemma Graham: Well, I want to start because I think James has given a really good overview of that, we're going to be talking about with the commission. But one of the concerns is that there's a large digital community out there, but there's this concept called the digital divide. So it's an uneven community, many elements of the community are well-developed, really clear about what the work is and the work that has been done, the work that needs to be done. Other elements of that community are sadly in need of greater resources or dissatisfied with the kind of work they have been doing, either individually or collaboratively. We have been involved primarily in a collaborative effort and recognize both sides of that. We see really great work being done, we see the unevenness of work, and therefore for me, it's a long-term effort to say, "Okay, we know what we've done. Let's figure out how to do it better. And if we have to do this again, let's get it right."

Gerry Bayne: Mm-hmm. Is there anything you want to add to that, James?

James Shulman: Well, there's so much to do. As Maryemma said, the inequities throughout the system are clear to anyone who's done this work because it's so hard to do. It's forging new ground in everything. I mean, when Maryemma started her project in 1983, she had to figure everything out, and that's how it is for scholars today. They have to figure out, if you're going to be doing oral histories, you have to figure out the mechanisms and the systems for capturing the data and for cataloging it. You have to figure out the data ethics of working with living people or recent generations. You have to deal with the politics of working outside of the academy. You have to figure out how to maintain these and how to make them available. You have to be able to market the product or the project and market yourself. And you have to do all that while building a traditional career and doing everything that you must do on your daily life of traditional scholarship and teaching and service.

So there's so much to do, and as Maryemma says, for institutions that haven't been able to support this work, it's not just a matter of rebuilding all the infrastructure that you will find at a University of Texas or a University of Kansas or a Princeton, because that's not going to happen. So there's a really need for some collective solutions if we want to bring other scholars and other people at other institutions into this work.

Maryemma Graham: And the complexity is all cited, so that if you began a project and you're using systems and platforms you recognize were created without the work that you do in mind, so you have to then figure out, and you're not the specialist in the area, you're not the engineer or the technician. So you need to go to the people to find out, say, "This doesn't work for us," and explain to them why it doesn't work. And together, try to figure out what systems work better for the capturing, the preserving, the descriptive metadata. All of those things have to, in effect, be reinvented to fit a particular body of information. And this is historical. So it's not just what happens in this particular area of work, it is ongoing. So each time we peel off a layer, in a sense, there's something else there to be changed or revised. So the work is difficult, it is long term, and it requires a lot of people and a lot of funding.

Gerry Bayne: When can we expect to hear more about the commission's finding and recommendations?

James Shulman: The report and the products of the commission will be out this year. So these are busy folks, we can't keep pulling them together, they like being together, but they've got other things to do. So what's been really powerful is the sense on the part of the committee that yes, there will be a report. Yes, there will be recommendations. Recommendations will both be near term and long term because this work isn't going to be ... we're still in early days. I mean, we're, as a collective system, we're making choices now that will affect how robust this work will be twenty years from now. On the other hand, people and organizations are looking for guidance on what they can do to improve things now, so there'll be near term and long term. But the other thing that the commission has been really forthright about is it can't just be a report and every commission says, "Oh, we don't want to just have a white paper."

But one of the things that will end up coming out of this in the near term is a sense of the networks that are in place, the networks that aren't in place, the networks that need to be bolstered and the networks that need to be brought together. And that's actual work, and that's what CNI is so important as an oasis to bring together people who do like things and people who do very different things. But that kind of collective fabric is underdeveloped, and so some of these collisions of networks are going to start happening soon.

Gerry Bayne: Did you want to say-

Maryemma Graham: Oh, I was going to say, I do think that this could not have been done any earlier. For instance, we have been doing the sort of training for digital scholarship and research now for about eight to ten years. And so there is a larger community that has experienced what it is that needs to be done and can give us some sound advice about what they can do. So we have networks, you're right, the network aspect of it is crucial. We would not have had that kind of network. We would've been trying to figure it out. But the network is critical. So having this at this moment is, I think, absolutely right. And you're not doing it yourself, you really are involving other people who are both users and researchers. We know much more about that. Before it wasn't as clear who are the users.

We now recognize that we do the work we do, we are part of that community, but it's much larger. But not just the librarians, community organizations, early career professionals, senior professionals who are shifting careers. So we have to think about how the community responds and helps us in guiding the way forward. And hopefully you don't have to redo it over and over again because in many instances, we've paid attention to this before, we thought we had it right, we thought we were making ... we made some progress, but there wasn't enough of a community to recognize or to identify what some of the weak areas are, other areas that needed to be significantly strengthened so that they could be more effective.

Gerry Bayne: Speaking of community, the last question I'll ask you, is people doing this work, should they get in touch with you, should they get involved, and if so, how?

James Shulman: We are going to be holding a few more focus groups. We've had over twenty. Four with librarians, three with publishers and platforms, department chairs in history and English, deans of humanities, clear fellows, HBCU librarians, grantees from various programs at ACLS and at Mellon. So we're interested in, very interested in hearing from people in the community who have something both to contribute and also to vet. I mean, we're going to be sharing this work widely before we release it. Obviously, we don't want to miss anything big. So yes, the stay tuned, draft of report in the next few months and then a full report at some point this year.

Gerry Bayne: Thank you both for your time. Very much appreciate it.

Maryemma Graham: Great. Thank you.

James Shulman: Thank you.

This episode features:

Maryemma Graham
Founding Director of the History of Black Writing, Lead of the Black Book Interactive Project, and Distinguished Professor
University of Kansas

James Shulman
Vice President and Chief Operating Officer
American Council of Learned Societies