Spencer Keralis’ Illinois Experts Profile
Have you ever thought about what really goes into supporting digital scholarship? Well, some may say it takes a village but here at the University of Illinois it’s bigger than that. It Takes a Campus. The Scholarly Commons will be interviewing experts across campus about all the new and exciting things that are happening to support digital scholarship. We will sit down with a specialist to learn about what they do, how they do it and why they got started working in their field. Hear what we mean when we say it takes a campus to do what we do.
Mallory Untch: Hello and welcome back to another episode of “It Takes a Campus.” My name is Mallory and I am currently a Graduate Assistant at the Scholarly Commons and today I am joined with Spencer Keralis our Digital Humanities Librarian here at the University of Illinois. Spencer, hello and thank you so much for being with me today, at least virtually.
Spencer Keralis: It’s good to see you, Mallory.
Mallory: Would you mind explaining what your definition of Digital Humanities is, what it fully entails because I do think it can be quite broad and people can have different interpretations of really what the field is as a holistic…thing?
Spencer: Sure, I think within Digital Humanities there’s kind of like defining Digital Humanities is kind of a genre piece, like it shows up in every publication and every special issue and everything where people are like “What is Digital Humanities or what are Digital Humanities? Is it plural? Is it not? So, I think that it’s important though that, to have a definition of Digital Humanities for institutional reasons, right? So, what, because what counts as Digital Humanities can be really fraught for especially for junior scholars or for graduate students who are trying to get some exposure and some experience in it. And also, for libraries institutionally, defining Digital Humanities will define what you’re going to be investing and supporting, as well.
So, the definition that I’ve become most comfortable with over the years is the one that we use in the Digital Frontiers community. Digital Frontiers is a nonprofit that I manage that has been working in the Digital Humanities intersection between DH and libraries for almost ten years now and we say that Digital Humanities “is the creative development and use of the digital resources for Humanities research, teaching, and learning.” And that’s been what we’ve been using for the last several years. One thing that that leaves out, though, is Scholarly Communications and Digital Publishing. Not just Open Access Publishing but this innovative platform-based Digital Publishing things like Omeka and Scalar and even WordPress has become really important over the last several years and I think it’s becoming increasingly important as we moved into a more distributed digital environment and as the need for Open Educational Resources (OER) in Open Publishing becomes greater. So, I think there’s a lot that the Digital Humanities community can do to intervene in that space and it’s really important for us to be not discounting that work and not undervaluing work that is published digitally.
Mallory: Yeah, from what I understand in the Digital Humanities there’s a side for publishing, so, using platforms like Omeka and Scalar, like you said and then there’s also this computational side of the Digital Humanities which is the text analysis and text mining, things of that nature. Is that right? Obviously, it’s not as black and white but can you talk about how they kind of work together?
Spencer: Well, unfortunately, they kind of don’t. I mean there’s been there’s a real sort of separation between the two and so you’ll have a scholar, like our own Ted Underwood who does large-scale corpus analysis, quantitative analysis of large bodies of text and he publishes…it’s right here, I’ve got his book, the monograph, you know, a paper book that, you know, is not interactive, not, no access to the underlying data no…it’s a static physical object. And I think there should be more of a connection between that kind of the computational, quantitative work and the…that work should be published in digital form to help expose the underlying data, to share the algorithms to make it more effective scholarly communication. So, I think that disconnect is something that like maybe your generation of DH scholars is going to have to bridge because with the demands of tenure and things like that my generation has largely failed at doing that. So, I think there’s a real opportunity though to start bridging that divide. And I think Academic Presses have to get on board with it, as well.
Mallory: Yeah that makes sense and I do think that a lot of Digital Humanities is in academia or do you think there’s a way for DH to be working outside of the academic world?
Spencer: I think that part of the problem is with the label DH, right? So, there are, I know tons of people in public libraries who are doing Digital Humanities projects, but they don’t call them Digital Humanities projects. They just say, “I’m doing a digital exhibit for this community based on our collections” and as far as I’m concerned that’s Digital Humanities but it doesn’t need a label to be and it doesn’t need the label to be relevant and valued and important for the community.
Within academia, I think we make the mistake of siloing things off too much. Like, Public Humanities has this now community of practice that’s growing and growing interest in it. Community-centered research is a thing and Digital Humanities is a thing, but I think those three things need to be talking more. And to make A. the tools more readily available to people beyond the walls of academia to be able to do not only quantitative analysis and things like that but to do digital publishing and so, and I think that we kind of have a little bit of a responsibility especially at a public institution, a land-grant institution to be bridging some of those divides and getting some of these DH methods and Scholarly Communications methods into the hands of the general public.
Mallory: That makes a lot of sense. So, working with the label of Digital Humanities, where is that line, I guess? And I guess you’re saying that there isn’t really a line, it’s just about someone calling it a DH project or not. So, I was wondering, like, when is it a DH project, when is it just like a general research project?
Spencer: Yeah, I mean, it’s the Gertrude Stein thing of “A rose is a rose is a rose.” A DH project is a DH project is a DH project.
Spencer: I mean and there are scholars in the Humanities in this institution who are doing work with digital methods and digital primary sources and producing digital outputs that do not, would never label themselves as a digital humanist and would not show up at a DH conference, you know. So, I think that there’s been some, some stigma around DH. There was the perception of DH as being really cliquey in like the early 2000s that it’s never quite been able to shake and there’s also a kind of reluctance in, especially amongst senior faculty in the Humanities to recognize digital products and digital outputs as legitimate research.
There was an Ithaca S&R Report recently that, on “Supporting Research in the Languages,” in Languages and Literature and it was really awful like the way people they were…part of the problem with the report focused on senior faculty. The 80% of the respondents were tenured and so there was very few voices from junior faculty or, and no voices at all from teaching faculty. So interventions in digital pedagogy and in Digital Humanities were really devalued by the respondents to that report and of course, it presented those findings really uncritically as though they were just facts which unfortunately can be really damaging for those of us who are sort of toiling in this space because it makes it look like the work that we’re doing is totally misrecognized and not valued.
Which is institutionally like not necessarily the case but there are, of course, you know some faculty that just won’t recognize anything, it’s that kind of infantilization and hazing of the academy where if because I went through this you have to go through it too or because this is how I was successful this is the only model for success that there is and that’s really short-sighted and honestly like that’s not what the academy is supposed to be like it’s supposed to be about creativity and although, I hate this word innovation. And when you stick to models of scholarly communication that are over a hundred years old and models of peer review that encode bias and abuse and insist on citation politics where the same old white men get cited over and over in order to state in order to establish your credibility that’s not creativity and that’s not Innovation. it’s profoundly anti-intellectual.
Mallory: I totally agree. I totally agree with you. I always say when I tell people I know you, I’m like he always has something interesting to say. I guess that kind of leads me to where you fall into this role in academia as the Digital Humanities Librarian. What does that mean? What do you do as a Digital Humanities Librarian and is this a common position in libraries or are people, digital humanists, usually working in other fields?
Spencer: So, one of the things that I found is that Digital Humanities as a librarian, as a focus of librarianship is emerging as a field. Just like Digital Humanities, even though it’s decades old is still emerging as a field. Partly because it is so diverse, partly because it’s undergoing a lot of growing pains in terms of pressure from, important pressure, from the women and scholars of color and other marginalized voices asserting themselves within the field and that’s super important. Librarianship is also crucial to it because really like there is no DH without digital libraries like you’ve unless you have digital primary, digitize primary sources and access to that underlying data you got no project, right? But it also, I like the title of the podcast, “It Takes a Campus,” because it really does like I can’t do everything for anybody and I can do and some people I can’t do anything for it but I can find out who the person is that can do something for them.
So, within the libraries, we don’t host platforms. We don’t host projects, but we work with Research IT Web Hosting Department to make sure their faculty’s projects can come to life. We do have the IOPN (Illinois Open Publishing Network) Scholarly Publishing arm but that’s really for sort of like sustained book-length kind of projects. But for somebody who wants to have a website for their research or an Omeka site for their class, Research IT manages that; I help with the library instruction side, getting them familiar with the technology and helping the students feel confident with it and providing some training to the faculty to get them up and running. But the actual sort of hosting is handled through a different department. And so, I’ve only been here a little over a year and it’s taken me a fair amount of time to sort of get to know what the landscape was of resources. So, getting to know who the experts are over in CITL (Center for Innovation inTeaching and Learning), getting a relationship with folks in ATLAS (Applied Technologies for Learning in the Arts and Sciences) over in FAS and with the, of the great team in the Web Hosting Department at Research IT and just sort of getting a sense of who’s got what stuff where and who their constituencies are.
So, it’s a, it’s been a really interesting process to get to know that because I was at the University of North Texas for 8 years, so I had solid institutional knowledge there. Here, I’m kind of like still trying to figure things out. So, it’s a lot of getting questions, figuring out if I know the answer and if I don’t know the answer, figuring out who to get the person to. So, in some ways it’s, it can be a little frustrating because I don’t have a lot of sustained contact with any given project, especially if it’s not something that we are directly involved in but it is productive in that we get people to the right place and get them, get their research or their scholarship moving and have a real good will experience for them on behalf of the library. So, there’s, there is, had been a sort of misconception that we don’t support DH well here, I don’t find that to be the case at all. I think we do it in a way that is sustainable because we can’t do everything, and the library should not be doing everything for everybody. There are other centers of excellence on campus and we shouldn’t be duplicating efforts . But we also need to be a good player in the community and recognize those centers of excellence, pass them business when we get it and they’re going to reciprocate when they get questions that we are able to answer or projects that we are able to support.
Mallory: Mhmm, and we’re really fortunate being at this university like as large as it is, we do have all of these different resources to be passing people along if that’s the way to say it but that is really where our podcast title came from because we were talking about oh, like you know it takes a village to like raise a kid but you know the University of Illinois is like it’s over 50,000 people on campus, students, faculty, staff, et cetera. We’re bigger than some villages and so it takes a lot to work with people. And the students and the researchers here are working on some large-scale projects and so it’s awesome that we do have these resources and these people and these groups that can support it.
Spencer: Yeah and you know, one of the things that we, that I have found is that the projects that need us the most, that need me, and the Scholarly Commons and Research IT Web Hosting are not the big data projects. You know, the big data projects have funding, they’ve got the supercomputing center, they’ve got you national and international collaborators so like they don’t, they’re not going to be the ones that are coming to us for a lot of assistance but it’s the small and medium data projects. Projects that rely on the underlying text data from some of the resources that we subscribe to. You know because a lot of our primary source databases, we have the underlying text data available for scholars to do text mining with through Gale and Proquest and Adam Matthew and some of our other vendors and they wouldn’t otherwise have access to that, that data, especially for these small projects that maybe don’t have funding yet, that don’t have teams of researchers. It’s just one person and maybe a graduate assistant who are sort of getting started or that the scope of the project doesn’t necessarily need big data but without the resources that the library has, they wouldn’t be able to do that work. Likewise, for teaching like we’re, there’s so much robust support for pedagogy on this campus with CITL, Research IT and the expertise in the libraries. It’s a, it’s a really great place to be….to experiment with digital pedagogy and to be working with those resources in your classrooms.
Mallory: Do you get a chance to work on your own DH projects? I know you just worked on something about cat memes, is that right?
Spencer: Yeah, so I am an accidental digital humanist. I am not trained as a DH scholar, my background is in early American literature and book history, history of the book so, and I got in I got into this because I was down the deep, dark hole of dissertation and got a job offer from the University of North Texas for a Council on Library and Information Resources position working on research data management plans and at that point the job market was not as bad as it is now but it was pretty bad and so I was like I’m going to take this job and I’m going to see what it’s like and see what happens and you know ten years later here I am, still going. So, most of what I know, I’m kind of an autodidact and a lot of folks who came into DH at sort of the same time I did are also autodidacts and we all sort of taught ourselves as we’ve gone along. That said my research is really centered on like media history and so the cat memes thing was sort of drawing off history of the book stuff from that I worked on in my dissertation and merging that with sort of new media studies. I don’t use a ton of what I would consider DH methods in my research. I am working on a text mining project right now but it’s sort of that sort of LIS focused where, where, JJ Pionke, our Health Sciences Librarian, and I are looking at 30 years of LIS literature from the passage of the Americans with Disability Act and looking at how the engagement with disability has evolved over the course of that period. So, we are working with text data and we’re doing some text data mining, I’m doing some qualitative analysis of research data management plans with some other folks that I’ve been with for years but in the end but in terms of my book history stuff, it’s more about sort of like Media Theory, Media Archaeology that informs that is informed by DH methods although the research, the main research method is actually pretty traditional book history kind of stuff so.
Mallory: Yeah that is interesting because I think that when you say you’re working with JJ especially it made me think that like DH is such an interdisciplinary field and it brings together you know, humanists and maybe other types of scientists and Humanities is in the title, obviously, Digital Humanities but does it limit to just the Humanities fields or do other fields bleed in? Or have you ever seen a project that kind of merged together to really contrasting fields trying to come together on a DH project?
Spencer: Yeah, so, the thing to remember about Digital Humanities is that none of these methods originated in the Humanities. You know, Text Data Mining has been around a long time. Computational Linguistics was a thing before I was born, even, so it’s not new. Corpus Analysis and things like that have been for a while and they were derived from collaborations between linguists and computer scientists. Sentiment Analysis came out of marketing research. You know, Digital Publishing has, you know, been around for a long time and that was mainly driven by marketing and digital content design in the computer science and other places.
So, what we’re doing with DH is sort of bringing those methodologies to bear on Humanities research questions. That said like most of, or many of my clients or patrons that I work with are not humanists. I get folks in Economic and Business and Education who are doing projects within their disciplines that are using Text Data Mining or Data Visualization or GIS and things within their disciplines and not necessarily with any sort of Humanities valance at all. So, in some ways like I’m afraid that for some folks seeing Humanities in my title could be a barrier to them coming to me for help but which is one reason why I think we rely on Scholarly Commons for referrals is because you say “This is your guy to get access to this text data” instead of having them just having to scroll through the library list and say like “Humanities? I’m not going to talk to Humanities guy.” You know, so it’s a… but at the same time Digital Scholarship Librarian is so broad its almost vacant of meaning.
So, there’s no good title. The most important thing is that we know how to find, that people know how to find the resources that they need and the coordination that the Scholarly Commons does, really helps with that regardless of what my title is. You know, my title could be Easter Bunny as long as you guys get me, get people to me when they need me, that’s the important thing.
Mallory: Yeah we can just change all the Librarians, too, because I feel like some people they do you get confused because as librarians we obviously know what we do as librarians but a lot of people don’t know how to use the libraries or the resources that we have, especially like I just ‘said, like at a large institution like this we’re lucky to have a DH librarian and a Copyright Librarian so like distinct in these fields it is true that people can get deterred from getting help or they just see that and they don’t know that you can help and that’s what’s great, again, about having this giant community we all know who to push people to. But I guess one of my final questions that I just want to leave this with is what inspires you about this field? Why do you, why do you continue to work in Digital Humanities?
Spencer: Because it’s a job and the job market is still terrible. Like first and foremost like this is a gig right this is a this is a thing that I do to pay my bills if you know it’s not necessarily germane to my primary research interests but it is intellectually stimulating I am always learning. I never stop learning and I think that’s super important just to keep like your brain fresh, right? So, but I think the thing that’s most inspiring to me about this field is how passionate and how devoted and how angry many of its practitioners are that they absolutely reject stagnancy and they absolutely reject bias and they absolutely demand inclusion and equity and accessibility and which means that the field is progressing.
It’s not stagnating the way I see some sort of traditional forms of scholarly communication and traditional forms of research doing. Where it’s just replicating the same ideas over and over again where you’re just doing the same thing that your dissertation advisor did, that their dissertation advisor did, that their dissertation advisor did. Digital Humanities is compelling people to step outside of those little buckets and the fact that we have some amazing people in the field like Miriam Posner and Thomas Padilla and Roopika Risam and Kathy Harris and Rebecca Frost Davis and Matt Gold, who are and Lauren Klein, who are pushing the field forward. You know, it’s like my heroes list there, Dorothy Kim, Alex Gil, Jackie Wernimont, you know it’s the people who are insisting that these other voices are heard and that these projects are used for the common good for social justice and for improving the world.
That’s what’s inspiring to me and then that’s going a range of things from Rebecca Frost Davis and Kathy Harris and Matt Gold and Jentery Sayers Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities Resources Toolkit that I helped curate an entry for, all the way up to like Alex Gil and his collaborators who did the Separados Project documenting the money trail of I.C.E. facilities across the country. You know, that’s diversity that you find in Digital Humanities and that’s the pressure that it’s putting on the sort of stayed and conservative aspects of the academy as a whole but also the more conservatives elements in the Humanities and that’s what I think is cool about DH. That’s the stuff that I want to be involved in.
Mallory: Yeah, that’s very inspiring, at least for me and I think, from how I see it that DH is a very valuable way of demonstrating your research. It’s not just putting something online and saying “Hey, this is digital and it’s in the Humanities, this is Digital Humanities!” It really is, like you just said it’s really broad and progressive. Actually, this year, I don’t know if you know this, is the 10th Anniversary of the Scholarly Commons and Thomas Padilla is, we’re giving an event and he’s going to be speaking virtually at the event.
Spencer: I did know that actually.
Mallory: Yeah, yeah, it’s a big deal at the Scholarly Commons that we’re ten years old. That will be happening in October for all you listening.
Spencer: I wish Thomas was able to come though.
Spencer: Doing this all social distance nonsense…I’m getting tired of it. I need some people.
Mallory: It’s hard. I’m getting very tired of it. My cats love it though. They really do.
Spencer: Yeah, mine is right above my desk in her little window hammock right now.
Mallory: Well, Spencer, thank you so much for talking with me today I really appreciated our conversation and I was really excited to talk to you on behalf of the Scholarly Commons, I’m sure everybody is interested in what you have to say but at the Scholarly Commons we do work with a lot of researchers for Digital Humanities and we work very closely with Spencer so for those of you listening if you’re interested please do visit us at the Main Library and this semester we’re live online so you can “Ask a Librarian” on our website and we love to chat so be sure to reach out. Spencer, thanks again.
Spencer: Thanks Mallory. Take Care.
Mallory: Thank you, everyone, for listening.
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