Creating Space: The Digital Matters Lab at the
University of Utah
If your institution does not already have a dedicated digital humanities lab, you may wish to ask for funding to start one. First, it is worth considering what works and what doesn’t when trying to establish such a space. Rebekah Cummings, David Roh, and Elizabeth Callaway studied the example of the Digital Matters Lab at the University of Utah to consider what factors contribute to the success or failure of a digital humanities lab in the context of a library. Their study is illuminating because they discuss an initial failed attempt at locating such a lab in the Marriott Library and a subsequent more successful attempt a decade later.
They found that the 2007 attempt at creating a digital humanities lab failed for a number of reasons:
Despite early administrative buy-in, staff enthusiasm, and limited technological support, it was never able to summon a critical mass of engagement with campus partners. Post-recession funding required library administration to shift its focus to sustaining core library services, and campus assessments revealed a lack of interest and understanding of digital scholarship services.5
These lessons were not immediately transferrable to the second iteration as the impetus for the Digital Matters Lab came from another department on campus. First, the group had to learn the history of the library’s efforts. They then interviewed scholars from other universities who offered the following advice:
- 1. A lab is a community. A strong community will be reflected in an active, vibrant space. To do so, the lab should be a democratic environment empowering students and staff. Moreover, staffing and expertise should take precedence over technology and decor.
- 2. Strong relationships with a supportive administration are necessary. Not only does administrative financial backing alleviate the need to rely on grant funding, but the importance of political capital should not be overlooked.
- 3. The mission should be driven by local needs. Some centers build tools, some support faculty, others digitize content, and still others emphasize teaching. Rather than trying to do everything in an unfocused manner, strategize, and be selective. A narrow and focused mission should guide priorities.6
As they moved forward, they focused on sustainability of the lab, ensuring that what they built would be useful for years to come. These lessons learned can be useful to any group considering establishing a similar space, whether that space is located in a library or elsewhere.