From an Undergraduate Digital Humanist

21/01/2014 § Leave a comment

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Grace Thomas

“I am an English major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL), with a minor in Computer Science.” After the initial eye-widening or eyebrow-knitting of the questioner, I am asked, “So…what do you, umm, hope to do with that…?” Depending on the person, I either launch into a discussion concerning the critical importance of digital humanities for the future of libraries, or simply smile and state: “Library school next fall.”

My decision to be an English major also came with a personal need to have a “hard skill” job. I needed to quantify my experiences and future career. So with my future set in editing and publishing, I sought out an internship at the Walt Whitman Archive held at the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities. There, I realized I had somehow gotten onto the correct path, with the wrong intentions. My hard skill job was before me: digital archiving and librarianship. That same semester, I added my Computer Science minor and began learning how to program.

When I took into account the skill set I was creating for myself, I needed to decide how to utilize it. I was faced with the choice of a six (plus) year English PhD program where an alt-ac job with digital libraries constantly glimmered just beyond my grasp, or go straight for it by choosing the library science route. In the end, I realized that I want to work with special collections. I want to love books, but not study the content. I want to see a patron’s face light up when they hold an ancient manuscript. I want to improve digital access to collections and information. I want to help people efficiently find what they are looking for. I need to go to library science school for these ambitions to transpire. Beyond that, finances, job placement, and time were practical factors.

At the Digital Humanities 2013 Conference (DH 2013), which happened to take place in Lincoln, I discovered that library and information scholars were just as prevalent as English or History scholars. At first I was nervous because I had considered DH something at UNL and hadn’t realized the full extent of these digital initiatives. With starry eyes, I was humbled by the brilliant scholars surrounding me, but more importantly, inspired. I could see myself speaking at that very conference in the future hoping to contribute my own high-impact research to the growing initiative.

At the perfect library and information science program, I would learn the details of physically preserving rare books and managing special collections, but also learn digital preservation for future access. I began the search for my ideal program by consulting centerNet to find out which schools had ties with significant digital research facilities. Once I narrowed it down from there, I took into account research assistantship opportunities, strong curriculum, and specializations in both digital libraries/data curation and rare books/special collections. I also took the tech out of it and looked at the locations in which I could spend the next three years of my life, asking myself if I would truly be happy there.

My advice for undergraduates is to SEEK OUT an internship or job experience in your interest area. If you think something is interesting DO IT! Email or speak with faculty to see if they are willing to take on an undergraduate intern, even if they don’t have a specified program. These positions will show you a glimpse of your future career, or may lead you to a place you didn’t know existed. For undergraduates interested in digital humanities, LEARN HOW TO CODE, in Ruby, Python, R, (maybe not Java or C/++ unless you are very ambitious). Learn how to mark-up a book that you own in TEI/XML. There are many tutorials online, such as Codecademy, which features Monty Python references in every lesson of Python, and Learn to Code the Hard Way. Also check out Sam Winn’s recent HLS post A Liberal Arts Major’s Guide to Coding for more suggestions. By learning the demands of coding, you will have a more complete understanding of the discipline and will be able to participate in the DH discussion when you can write the programs yourself.

You’ve heard from me, now how about you! Are you a digital humanist heading to library school? If so, what does your ideal program look like and what are your ambitions beyond?

In May, Grace Thomas will receive her BA in English, with a minor in Computer Science, from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She looks forward to focusing her education into Digital Libraries through a Library and Information Science masters program beginning in fall 2014. She also enjoys swimming, reading modernist literature, and attending dance performances. Find her on LinkedIn and follow her Twitter @gracehthom.

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