A strong argument for actual and virtual libraries as “Humanities Labs.”

Christine de Pizan schooling the menz.

Christine de Pizan schooling the menz.

Historian and Dean at Cleveland State University Liz Lehfeldt describes her modest proposal for her “lab in the cloud” over at Inside Higher Ed today (h/t Susan Amussen on Twitter!), making an argument for humanities scholars to talk about libraries and digital resources as the sites of our research:


We know what a scientific lab looks like and requires, but what about the work of historians and literature scholars whose labs are far-flung, overseas, and sometimes even reside in the cloud, in the form of electronic resources?

.       .       .       .       .

So let’s embrace the vocabulary of our scientist colleagues. Let’s talk about our labs and how flexible and efficient they are. I’m no Pollyanna. I don’t think this conceptual shift will result immediately in more funding for the humanities or a greater valuing of humanities research. But I do think we risk the further erosion of the status of our work within the academy unless we come up with new and more resonant ways of talking about it.

I’ve made this argument on this blog before, way back in the previous decade, but I was focused on libraries as physical (rather than virtual) spaces, and books (rather than digital archives or subscription services.)  Lehfeldt does a much better and more thorough job of talking about libraries the way humanities scholars use them now, just six years after I made my argument about calling the library “the humanities lab.”

The only place I disagree with Lehfeldt is in her emphasis on how comparably affordable the Humanities Lab is by comparison to science labs:

But, some people will be quick to argue, my lab doesn’t make money for the university in the form of external grants — or if it does, those grants are typically tiny when compared to grants in the sciences. To that, I reply with the following: my lab is remarkably efficient and flexible. The cost of a research trip pales in comparison to the costs incurred in helping a new bench scientist start a lab at a university.

And if you make a small investment in a collection of online primary sources, I can reach a staggering number of students. Because my lab is a flexible, almost virtual space, and students don’t have to occupy the physical space of a science lab, I can expose even more of them to the research opportunities that these electronic repositories create. All 75 students in my Western Civilization survey can begin to learn the transferrable skills of identifying a research question and leveraging the evidence to answer it. All 35 students in my upper-division course for majors can further hone those skills and habits of mind.

It’s counterintuitive in the humanities, where we adapt all too speedily to poverty thinking about university resources, but I actually think that getting the university to invest MORE MONEY rather than LESS in the Humanities Lab will be a better long-term strategy.  In universities (as opposed to management consulting, for example) sunk costs become an excuse for spending more money to keep programs going.  After all, it would be a shame to cut off funding this year, or next year, or in four years, to the Humanities Lab after we’ve already invested so much!  (Amirite?)  There must be an effective balance between noting the lab’s efficiency and reminding administrators just how much has already been invested in it.

I also wonder about Lehfeldt’s strategy of bringing undergraduate students into the argument.  Scientists actually get prestige out of the specialized mystification of their labs–so could associating our labs with teaching undergraduates (rather than producing specialist knowledge and graduate training) potentially undermine our efforts?  I suppose these are questions whose answers depend on the specific institutions where we work, so I’d love to hear from you all, dear readers, any thoughts you have about Lehfeldt’s article or my comments here.

So, go read the whole thing, and bookmark her blog, Tales Told Out of School.  (I’ve been meaning to do that myself!)

10 thoughts on “A strong argument for actual and virtual libraries as “Humanities Labs.”

  1. Yes, well she also accepts that the grants in the sciences pay for themselves, but they actually all cost universities, because indirect costs do not match the actual indirect costs. So they cost twice. Sigh.


    • Exactly!!! Money is an index of institutional commitment, and we’re too fearful of asking for what it takes. It’s like we’re all extras on the set of Oliver, when he asks for “more?”

      Why shouldn’t universities pay for humanities research, since it’s a contractual requirement for us to keep our jobs?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. When I taught the first half of the world history survey at a school with a decent library, I would actually use about 25% of class meetings as a “lab”. I had the student work on projects using the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England. They had to identify individuals they found interesting in the database, go to the library to find the primary sources, and then we spent class time working through them. It was great.

    Sadly, the place where I now occasionally teach has a crap library. So no more history lab.


      • right? it’s reasonably easy to play with, you can always find a topic a student will be interested in, and almost all the primary and a large majority of the secondary works are in modern English. it’s like it was built for undergraduate research.


    • Jason, as a librarian, I want to stand up and applaud that assignment. Online primary source collections are NOT cheap, and we’re having issues with faculty asking us to buy collections, but then not using them once we have them. It’s especially exasperating when faculty then encourage grad students to develop dissertations in areas they (and thus, WE) aren’t able to support, when the sources we HAVE purchased access to (because they relate to stated research/teaching interests) languish for lack of use.

      One of my big goals right now is to design instruction exercises that draw on our existing primary-source databases, to give students opportunities to at least get their feet wet with these databases. I’ve been teaching a very fun 1-credit honors course which has been as much “lab” as I’ve been able to make it, and it’s been a great opportunity for designing primary-source exercises.


  3. Historiann: Thank you so much for engaging with my essay and argument!

    The cost comparison I had in mind was the startup cost of a bench scientist’s lab v. sending me to the archives a few times (as Heather notes, ventilation hoods and all that). But I take your point: I am guilty here and in other places of not making a big enough ask for humanities funding. And I think your point about continuity of funding is really important. That was what struck me about the RSA/ProQuest controversy: people had come to rely on these resources for their research and teaching and to have them just disappear–poof!–was catastrophic in some cases.

    As to the strategy of bringing undergraduates into the argument, a few thoughts: (1) I partly did it because I was so very struck in the Twitter debate about the loss of EEBO access from ProQuest by how many people used EEBO as a tool for undergraduates. (2) My institution puts a LOT of emphasis on undergraduate research (as you suspected, it is institution specific); and too often, what they mean by that is science and maybe social science research. So I wanted to get undergraduate research in the humanities on the table.


  4. Quick comment: I, too, would like my university to invest more, not less, in humanities research, but (here I’m with Liz) it still can be a good rhetorical strategy to observe that the money involved would be less than the university forks over for science. A few years ago my university declined to buy a very attractive bundle of online resources for about $180,000. Your “sunk costs” argument applies: the university had already invested a few million by giving me tenure, and I was only one of a batch of tenured faculty who would use these resources in their research and teaching over the next twenty years. Moreover, Liz’s point applies: this sum would not be big by science standards.


  5. As a scientist, I hesitate to get involved in this conversation, but am going to jump in anyway because there seems to be some misunderstanding about how things work in the sciences.

    Re sunk costs: Yes, universities invest huge amounts in labs, but it is absolutely understood that these expenses should be recouped via indirect costs. And if they aren’t, you may be in trouble when you go up for tenure. And after that initial set up, you are on your own to keep that expensive lab up and running. So this idea that the university should continue to support something financially that they have already invested in? Sounds nice, but I don’t think it happens unless the university sees it bringing in still more money in the future.

    Stupid question: do you get charged IDC in the humanities?

    As for the prestige from the specialized mystification of our labs … lolwut? Do you mean we benefit from keeping undergrads out of science labs, because it makes us look more exclusive and special? Well, no. There are tremendous incentives to get undergrads into our labs, for our curricula, from funding agencies, etc. Plus they are fun to have around. But there are limits to how many undergrads you can accommodate. It takes a lot of time and money (usually not provided by the university btw) to train and then supervise them. I would argue that they need to be much more closely supervised than if they were working with digital resources, for safety and liability issues, plus you don’t want them lighting your expensive equipment on fire or pouring your expensive reagents down the drain. (Alas, I speak from experience). That is probably why we have lab courses, so undergrads can have similar experiences but in a much more controlled environment. Maybe that would be fun to try: propose a lab course in the humanities.

    It’s interesting to think about why we limit “lab” to refer to a physical space in the sciences. You know, plenty of scientists travel to work in the field or with museum collections, or work exclusively with online digital resources. I’ll go out on a limb and say the first online research databases were in the sciences (NIH probably). But we would never refer to that work as a virtual lab or lab in the cloud. Although we might refer to a room full of computers as a lab, so….


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