Panel 2021: Digital Humanities & Libraries

The following draws heavily on the Science Policy Briefing 42 Research Infrastructures in the Digital Humanities published by the European Science Foundation in 2011 because it changed my view of libraries, helped me to understand the term “infrastructure” in the context of the Humanities and showed me the divisions which the Humanities and libraries have to overcome. I allow myself to cite from this text and to order the citations in such a way that they form the argumentation which underlies this panel. For each citation the page number where the citation can be found is given.


Humanities and physical RIs

“it was in the field of Humanities that the idea of an RI was first born […] as early as the 3rd century B. C., the imperative to collect, organise and conserve the knowledge acquired in the service of the advancement of knowledge gave birth to the first ever ‘Information Centre’ in the form of the Mouseion, a cultural centre, university and library founded in Alexandria under the successor of Alexander the Great. The positive consequences of this ambitious venture soon became obvious, as the production of various RIs in the form of Grammars and Lexica proliferated.” (3)

“This early success of RIs in the Humanities […] inspired a range of activities which were to foster an emerging system of knowledge and emphasise the importance of collection, organisation and conservation in serving subsequent scholarly development, not exclusively in Humanities. Examples of such activities include, inter alia, the creation of medieval libraries and, later on, the formation of art collections.” (3)

These early ‘databases’ provided material for subsequent phases of RIs in the Humanities. To name but a few examples, the advancement of editorial ventures as well as the intentional and systematic collection of knowledge on a glossographical and encyclopaedical level opened a line of tradition from Medieval to Modern times” (3-4)

The Humanities and physical RIs (…) exist in a symbiotic relationship with one another. Physical RIs collect, order, make accessible and reusable the primary and secondary sources that form the basis of scholarly work in the Humanities and give Humanities scholars access to wide-ranging human expertise, for example, subject librarians or information professionals. Upon completion of the research process […] the research outputs of Humanities researchers, e. g. monographs, journal articles, scholarly editions or reference works such as dictionaries are then absorbed back into the RI and the research and creative cycle starts again.” (8)

“Humanities researchers have particular requirements of RIs. […] In Humanities, artefacts of, inter alia, human culture, expression, interaction and imagination form our ‘datasets’; data tends to be collected and heterogeneous in content and format.” (5) 


“Today, most RIs are engaged in digitising their holdings.” (9)

“making our cultural heritage accessible in digital form plus its sensitive interlinking with other resources opens a new frontier for Humanities research for addressing ‘grand challenges’ in the Humanities themselves and at the interface with other research domains” (2)

“Indeed, rich and robust digital RIs in the Humanities are a support to researchers in addressing also the hard science-driven grand challenges of our time such as is the case of historical databases used for medical research or archival resources informing climate change research” (12)

“digital RIs […]  in turn, collect, order, make accessible and reusable our digital datasets” (9) 

“it is not proposed that digital RIs will or should replace traditional RIs. The relationship that exists between the digital and analogue resources is complex and dynamic” (13)

“far from making library professionals obsolete, the availability of digital resources and research infrastructures are making their service and expertise all the more necessary – as scholars working in digital and analogue formats require all the more advice about judicious selection of resources” (13)

“the overall definition of RIs in Humanities needs to encompass both physical and digital RIs in order to facilitate new research in established subject areas, and lead to the creation of new subject areas” (4)

Digital Humanities & Libraries

“such developments are […]  resulting in a new kind of symbiosis between physical and digital RIs on the one hand and the Digital Humanities research community on the other” (9)

“In the traditional Humanities, pronounced dividing lines have existed between archivists, cultural heritage professionals, scholars and library and information professions. In the context of digital RIs such dichotomies are now being broken down dramatically, as Humanities researchers engage ever more in the re-mediation of cultural heritage, by participating in digitisation projects, for example.” (15)

The document itself cites from page II of the Editorial, Wido T. van Peursen has written for the book Text Comparison and Digital Creativity, edited by Adriaan H. Weel,  Ernst van der Thoutenhoofd and himself and published by Brill in Leiden 2010:

“[…] the creation of digital objects – be it images of inscriptions or manuscripts, electronic versions of ancient corpora, or collections of secondary literature – is a crucial part of

humanities research. It is more than just preparation for research. This is a fundamental difference between data-bases as they are used in the humanities and those that are used in the natural sciences. The way in which inscriptions are photographed or in which text corpora are transcribed and encoded, is crucial for the way in which these research objects will be studied in the future.” (2)

“Humanities in Europe, which is often bound by various national languages, will benefit from greater access to a culturally broader and more varied set of empirical data” (9) 

“Humanities scholars have an interest in asking questions that are not confined to specific cultural areas. Indeed, the Humanities have a responsibility and a unique position for answering more general questions about human development, such as how languages function and how societies have developed over time. Theoretically informed, comparative

and transnational research gains from access to large datasets that are not all from the same culture and are multilingual. Being able to access data from various linguistic areas is thus crucial.” (32)

“The problem is not only a problem of linguistic variety, but rather one of different ontologies and taxonomies. The world is categorised and made meaningful in different ways in different cultures. Conceptual clarity and, as a consequence, reliable interpretation and comparison of cultural products presupposes high awareness of problems of varying taxonomies.” (33) 

“Absence of such data sets threatens to make research in the Humanities too confined to data that is easily available or that reflects narrow national contexts and developments only.” (9)

A Proposal and a Conclusion  

The documents comes among others to the following proposal and conclusion:

“The development of RIs in the Humanities that reach across linguistic borders and provide access to large multilingual datasets from different cultures to inform comparative and transnational research.” (40)

“RIs for Humanities can be developed only as a result of a multidisciplinary collaboration of expertise from across the disciplines […]: 

  • Library and archive professionals to draw on their knowledge of physical and digital RIs and related issues such as curation and preservation;
  • Digital Humanities researchers, adept at working at the interface of Humanities and Computing, for example, to create computational models of humanities sources and engage in other aspects of the digital remediation, analysis, theory and philosophy of sources;
  • Computer scientists and software engineers to, for example, design appropriate technical infrastructures (such as networks, architectures, repositories, mechanisms for long-term preservation) and software;
  • Information specialist to engage in the kinds of knowledge elicitation and information behaviour studies that can make explicit the research processes of the various disciplines of Humanities;
  • Humanities scholars to engage actively in collaboration with colleagues listed above and, informed by new developments in technologies, to delineate the needs and requirements of the Humanities community in a continually reflective process.” (9-10)
  • “The establishment of partnerships and productive alliances across communities and institutions (scholarly community/libraries/ archives/museums) based on equality, a shared working vocabulary and mutually beneficial collaboration (…).
  • The identification of shared obstacles to alliances between librarians, archivists, curators, on the one hand, and the academic community on the other.” 
  • […] (16)

Panel discussion

On the background of the above I would like us to discuss above all the following questions:

  1. Are the Digital Humanities and their needs being taken into account when libraries think about their changing function and when they digitise and make available their holdings? How are they taken into account? Why aren’t they taken into account? How can or should they be taken into account? How is or can a partnership and productive alliance between libraries and the Digital Humanities community based on equality, a shared working vocabulary and mutually beneficial collaboration be established?
  2. How do the libraries presented on this panel contribute to the development of RIs that reach across linguistic borders and provide access to large multilingual datasets from different cultures? How do they take into account the differences in ontologies and taxonomies? Do they involve members of the Digital Humanities Community in their endeavours? 


Moderation: Elisabeth Burr


  • Elisabeth Burr „Introduction / Presentation of panelists“ (5 minutes)
  • Short statement by panelists (5 minutes each)
  • Discussion among the panelists (ca. 25 minutes)
  • Open discussion with the floor (ca. 30 minutes)