Reflections on the Digital Humanities: A Conversation with Alix Keener

The Digital Humanities has existed as an institutionalized field of research at Stanford for now more than a decade, drawing undergraduates, graduate students, and researchers from around the globe. This series, a collaboration between Arcade and Stanford’s Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis, spotlights leading research in the digital humanities at Stanford, and asks key contributors to reflect on the expansion of the field, its culture, and the major misconceptions that remain.

Why has this field sparked so much public engagement in its projects and debates? How has the digital humanities changed what it means to be a more “traditional” humanist? And how is the field engaging new developments in technology like artificial intelligence?

In this interview, Interventions editor, Charlotte Lindemann, speaks with Digital Scholarship Coordinator for the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis and the Stanford University Libraries' Center for Interdisciplinary Digital Research, Alix Keener. 


CHARLOTTE LINDEMANN: Can you tell me a bit about your role at Stanford and your journey into the digital humanities?

ALIX KEENER: I am the Digital Scholarship Coordinator based jointly in CESTA and in the Stanford Libraries, in the Research Data Services Group (RDS), and also the Center for Interdisciplinary Digital Research (CIDR), which is part of RDS. There are a lot of acronyms! My title also can encompass a lot of things. I’m based in CESTA, that’s where my office is. In the library, I’m also part of different groups like the Humanities and Area Studies Resource Group. I serve as the digital humanities librarian and curate that collection, the DH and Digital Scholarship collection. I purchase materials for that collection as well.

In terms of what brought me to the field, I had been working in university press publishing and academic libraries for a little while and initially thought I wanted to keep going down that route and be more on the publishing side. I went to an iSchool, the University of Michigan School of Information. And while I was in school, I got interested in New Media Studies, which led me to learning about this newish field called digital humanities. I went to a digital library conference and Glenn Layne-Worthey, who was at Stanford for a really long time, was the DH librarian, and is a very well-known figure in the field, he gave a presentation on digital humanities. That’s one of the first things that got me really interested in and excited about DH. Bringing together DH and libraries, and seeing the potential for that and where it could lead, that was what got me excited. And now here I am at Stanford, in a role adapted from Glen’s former position.

I switched tracks a little bit while I was in library school and got excited about the potential of being a digital humanities librarian, which was a very new title. As you probably know, defining the field is a topic that comes up all the time, and there are lots of jokes online and websites and even edited volumes just devoted to defining what we even mean by “the digital humanities.” My pocket definition that I’ve come up with over the years is two-pronged. I usually will say it’s using computational methods to explore “traditional humanities” questions and/or taking a humanistic lens to new technologies and critically interrogating them. And there are lots of people who do both.

People make jokes about going to international conferences and having to explain to the border control person what DH is, and how do you sum that up? Actually, as librarians, we face the same kind of thing all the time: just having to explain to people what being a librarian is, and the fact that I don’t read books and shelve books all day.

I’m curious, from your perspective, as a digital humanities librarian, how you’ve seen this field evolve since that first conference? Is there anything happening right now that you’re particularly excited about?

My background is in scholarly communication and publishing and open access, and that’s still very much an interest of mine. Being an academic librarian, that’s always going to be core to my work. So, the work that’s being done right now on copyright and policies around the Digital Millennium Copyright Act by the Authors Alliance is really top of mind for me. And then there are several Mellon-funded researchers, including Professor Mark Algee-Hewitt here, doing work on copyright and the rights of researchers, particularly when it comes to text and data mining and literary text analysis. The work that is coming out and will come out about that—both at the research level and also the actual policies from the US Copyright Office around DMCA—is going to be massively important for lots of researchers, not even just in DH. Especially because so much humanities work takes in copyrighted material as its data.

DH tends to, increasingly, use methods that might require reproducibility in the way that the sciences have in the past, especially in text and data mining. You need an answer to that question of reproducibility when you’re using Text Data Mining (TDM) methods and text analysis on in-copyright material. Right now, there are so many complicated considerations around what you can share. The work that’s being done on those questions is something I’m really excited about right now. And I’m grateful to be able to support the Literary Lab on those projects. I’m also really excited about the broader questions about fair use and public access to cultural material and research and what it means to just buy a book and own that content, how that is somehow so much more complicated now with digital publishing and eBooks. All of that. It’s super interesting as a librarian. As more people want to do research on literature in the digital space, it’s gratifying to be able to make that easier for people, and then for people to read about it and find out about what’s possible and come with new ideas.

It’s interesting to hear how the legal nuts and bolts—they’re still so important—but they’re somehow following the research, they’re still catching up.

Yeah, exactly. And I think that it’s something about DH. This field is often compared to the sciences where it is seen as a given that scientists can share their material. And that comparison hits at something interesting. These are still very real legal issues for us, and there could be real implications to how they get decided, one way or another.

We’ve touched on it a little bit but how does the notion of the public, in terms of public access or public engagement, factor into your thinking as a digital humanist and librarian?

The open access part is definitely very important to me. I’m also interested in the history of web development in the digital humanities and the experimentation that involves. Often that means that DH work is scholarship that’s freely available to people. That is, if they have an internet connection and access to computers—but otherwise it is freely available, unlike research published in gated academic journals. On top of that, DH projects are often about things that are appealing to the public to or speak to the moment and the current landscape of concerns. Jim McGrath and Alicia Peaker led a project at Northeastern about the Boston Marathon bombings and created an archive of public experience around them (Our Marathon). That’s very much something that belongs to the community. And then there are different digital humanities projects about creating technology and building things that help people publish work. One platform is called Mukurtu, and it is for and by Indigenous communities to share their cultural heritage and to make sure, in a different way, that it is gated, because there are things that only people within those communities should have access to. There’s a lot in the digital humanities that intersects with libraries or cultural heritage organizations and communities.

I’m curious whether different centers or institutions have a kind of house style, maybe certain favorite techniques or tools or ways of structuring projects. Is that something you’ve encountered in your career? Is there some particularly Stanford style of digital humanities, whether that’s the result of Silicon Valley or whatever it is?

Every place has its own flavor, and my sense is that it’s influenced by what people are specializing in already. At Stanford, there’re a lot of medievalists, so a lot of the projects have tended to be on medieval topics by nature. Being situated in Silicon Valley is also interesting because DH has its own similar issues with techno-solutionism. Actually, it’s interesting that that doesn’t come through more strongly at Stanford, at least from my perspective in the time I’ve been here. But on the other hand, I think because there’s so much talk about data science and the new data science school at Stanford, it’s great to see that the administrators and faculty all recognize the importance of the humanities in data science and computation. Especially now with generative AI and the apprehension around what that’s going to look like in the next few years, and how important it is to have humanists in the loop. In the broader tech landscape, I do think there could be more recognition of the importance of humanists.

And then also, at Stanford, there’s such a long, rich history of building things, in the library too, of building exhibit software like Spotlight, and ways of displaying information like Palladio. It’s been great to be at a place that has that history. And I think that has engendered a spirit of building things from scratch which is great to have as part of the culture.

How is your own work impacted by that spirit of building things?

The collaborative nature of the digital humanities is really near and dear to me. It doesn’t always play out that way, but even so, the camaraderie around DH on a human level really drew me to the field in the beginning and has kept me in the field for a while. There are aspects of DH that could seem intimidating, especially to someone who comes from the humanities side and feels like they need to learn these tools or to learn how to code or these things that are very unfamiliar and can be really difficult to learn. They were difficult for me to learn! I had to take a Python class in library school and it was challenging.

Worst grade on my transcript.

Yeah, same for me, I think. And definitely some tears involved. But then there’s also this aspect of DH work, when you do figure it out, I like that troubleshooting process. Figuring something out on your own and having success, I don’t get that same feeling from writing an essay. Or maybe it’s different. But having a community where it feels like you’re learning together, that’s valuable. So much has been said about the humanities and the lone scholar working away by themselves. But learning together and uncovering things together—not just workshopping each other’s work around a table, but everyone having a real stake in the outcome, there’s something different about that. As someone who is support staff and who supports a broad range of topics and projects simultaneously, facilitating that kind of genuine collaboration is something that is really fulfilling in my own work.

To what extent do you see technical skills and expertise as a condition of working in the field?

I think it’s become more complicated. There was this whole debate about “hack versus yak” in the beginning, when DH was becoming a bigger thing, and people saying, like, you have to learn how to code, or you have to know how to code in order to call yourself a digital humanist. And then there was a lot of pushback on that. Part of it was because the people saying it, that you absolutely have to code, were mostly men.

So, the pushback was about inclusivity?

Right. But then I think, on the other hand, I do think it’s important if you are a researcher doing a project that’s using some digital method, whether it’s visualizing something or even thinking about how to structure your data, that it’s important to at least have an understanding of how those things work. Just like with any scholarly field. So, I don’t think it’s as black or white as “hack vs yak.” But a little bit of both. You should have an understanding of the methods that you’re employing along with how to situate them theoretically.

That makes sense to me. And the fact that we need to be critically aware of what we’re doing, shouldn’t be used as a gatekeeping device or to intimidate anyone.

Do you feel that the digital humanities has changed what it means to be a “traditional” humanist, here or elsewhere?

It seems like DH has become more integrated in some ways. I had a professor who compared “digital humanities” to people saying, “the electric toaster.” Now, we just say “toaster.” It does seem to have become more integrated in certain departments, like GIS and data visualization in History, people are doing that more and more and it’s no longer surprising. Or computational text analysis in literary studies is now very much a thing. I hope that also means that digital humanities scholarly production will be more accepted and count toward promotion and tenure. That is still lagging so much right now. And I hope that there will be more recognition and credit for digital dissertation work, so graduate student digital projects don’t have to be a supplement on top of the traditional dissertation.

That’s true, that would be so valuable. Though, I wonder if there’s an implicit assumption, when we talk about the future of the digital humanities and how the digital humanities will change the humanities, that that change is for the better. Is it necessarily for the better? Is that something that’s come up for you at all?

Yeah. It’s something I think about a lot with websites. People were so excited about the promises of web technology. But websites also break down, and now we have to deal with so many broken web components of older projects. There’s a good lesson in there about how things don’t last forever, even technology. And about how the newest technology might not always be the best choice for the project. You don’t always have to make a shiny new website, it could be a blog post, or an article, and that’s totally fine. Just because the technology is new doesn’t mean it’s necessarily better, or a better fit at least, for certain kinds of research outputs.

That’s such a great point. I feel like technology always seems to promise to save us time or save us work, but if it’s always breaking, then someone has to fix it.

My own research interests are much more, in a traditional social science sense, about how people work together and especially, about questions of labor and collaboration across the academic hierarchy. There’s a lot to draw attention to there. In this field, there’s the labor of preparing the research materials and getting the data in place and ready to study, whether that’s library collection development, whether there are existing collections that are ready for research, or whether there are items you need to acquire. And then there’s the whole question of keeping websites up, of web infrastructure. In a lot of ways, web publishing is so much more complicated now. New developments in web infrastructure have not necessarily made it easier. And there’s still the question, which is a whole other conversation, of whose job that is: who is responsible for the work of publishing and maintaining those websites. That’s still very much a question.

Personally, that’s what I’m still so interested in and really invested in. Publishing, scholarly communication, and the infrastructures that support it. That’s what libraries do, that’s what university presses do. People are doing it on their own too, centers are starting to stand up infrastructure for publishing. And I think that’s really important. But it’s still an open question of who is doing that labor and who, at a certain level, who is investing in making that possible at the higher levels of administration. Both investing funds and having people who are doing that work, whether it’s building or maintaining the software, the websites, or hiring positions or creating teams or groups whose job it is to think about these things explicitly. If digital publishing is a goal, then you have to make it happen with the same kinds of infrastructure and resources.

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