Interview by Athena Pierquet

In my search for people who work/study/use or interact with physical spaces in the Humanities as part of the “What is a Media Lab?” project, I had the opportunity to speak to Ann Hanlon of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries Digital Humanities Lab. The DH Lab was an intiative launched in the Fall of 2013 as part of a collaboration between the UW-Milwaukee Libraries, the Center for Instructional and Professional Development (CIPD) and the College of Letters and Science as an interdisciplinary collaborative space within the library. Ann Hanlon, Head of the Library’s Digital Collections and Initiatives, was kind enough to answer all of my questions about the project and gave me a discursive tour of their space.

1. What does the Digital Humanities Lab look like?
What spaces, both physical and virtual, are available for members to use? Are there any particular objects or tools associated with these spaces?

The DH Lab is located on the second floor of UW-Milwaukee’s Golda Meir Library, the main (and only) library for the UWM campus. The space was formerly a computer lab, and then quiet study space. It is surrounded on two sides by floor-to-ceiling windows, and on a third side by glass walls that look out on the Music Library and a collection of childrens books. The fourth wall is a temporary wall that is bolted shut. The space is large, and includes seven round tables that seat four to five people each. There is a podium and several other tables and chairs, and one large HD monitor (55″) for presentations. There is no other dedicated computer equipment in the room.

We are developing a virtual sandbox for the Lab. This is based on CUNY’s DH in a Box project. We hope to expand on their code to build a virtual lab, essentially, so that our patrons could access DH tools like Omeka and Mallet for workshops, and eventually, classroom projects, from anywhere. Ideally, patrons would come together in the Lab to learn to use these tools.

2. How are the spaces of the Digital Humanities Lab used?
Is the use of lab space structured? How is knowledge produced in the lab? Does it have any material aspects?

The Lab is loosely structured, and this has been one of its chief benefits. Despite our lack of equipment, faculty, staff and students regularly use the Lab for scheduled meetings and presentations and panels. The Lab has been most useful as a space for informal presentations, meetings, and brown bags. Knowledge is produced through discussion and collaboration, and bringing together people who otherwise might not work together — faculty and staff, and students, from departments across campus.

The space is really primary right now, as opposed to any research projects or class projects that are coming out of the lab right now. We did have one collaborative project with a community partner, called “Stitching History from the Holocaust.” In partnership with the Jewish Museum of Milwaukee, we created a digital exhibit in collaboration with their physical exhibit. The physical exhibit received a lot of press from outside the university, which led to an increase in our own funding for the project.

Right now, we’re focusing on building events for the space: designing workshops and providing infrastructure. We’re still building up the skill-sets: staff, physical infrastructure. These skill-sets include data management and repositories, like Omeka (an open-source exhibit software from the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George-Mason University).

How does the space work differently from other library spaces?

It’s a closed space, which surprisingly makes it more flexible in terms of use. It’s a more formal “open-but-closed” space. It isn’t used for classes, but rather meetings and events around digital humanities.

3. How is the Digital Humanities Lab structured?
Who are the organizers and users of the lab? Where is the Lab situated in relation to the university’s infrastructure? Is the Digital Humanities Lab associated with any university research groups or projects?

The Lab is organized primarily by the Library. It has one Coordinator (me), and recently an Advisory Board was assembled and charged with oversight of programming and long-term planning by the Provost. The Advisory Board is chaired by a faculty person from the History department, and includes faculty from English, the School of the Arts, the School of Architecture and Urban Planning, the School of Information Studies, and the Libraries, as well as a graduate student (History). The Lab is a hybrid, perhaps, in relation to the University’s infrastructure. It is likely best recognized as part of the Library, but has strong relationships with several university research groups on campus, including the Center for 21st Century Studies, the Social Science of Information Research Group, the Community Engaged Scholars Network, and the Digital Arts and Culture certificate program.

Would you be interested in working with other DH Labs?

Yes! We’ve worked with other research groups on campus to “pool cash” to bring in scholars from other universities. Generally in the form of panels, like one we had in February on critical data history.

4. What is your role in the Digital Humanities Lab?
How did you become associated with the project?

I am the Head of the Library’s Department of Digital Collections and Initiatives. I became involved with the Lab through our Strategic Planning process, where I proposed the Library should lead regarding DH. In connection with that part of the plan, I helped convene a group of faculty who we knew were active participants in the campus’s Digital Futures initiative, and asked them what they saw as the Library’s role. The faculty proposed the Library as the logical home for DH, and that space was one of the key components to raising visibility and fostering DH research and project development. Through that meeting, I worked with another staff person from a related department to begin designing the space, but more actively, begin developing programming and workshops for the Lab, and planning for future infrastructure — including technical as well as administrative.

Editor’s note: The UWM Digital Futures initiative was part of the university’s strategic initiatives plans for teaching and research. The initiative was meant as a yearlong conversation on emerging technologies and their impact on the university. In 2010, three focus groups (Teaching and Learning, Research, and University Operations and Services) were asked by Johannes Britz, Interim Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs to consider the opportunities and challenges of new technologies and digitally enabled processes and recommend action steps for UWM. The key issues the initiative addressed were: the adaptability of the organization in adjusting to technological innovation, ethical issues related to new technologies, best practices in utilizing new technologies in administration, the impact of digitization on how we conduct research, and the rapid pace of change in instructional delivery (including developments in online and blended instruction, the ‘consumerization’ of the learning experience, the development of personalized learning systems, and the increasing use of simulation technologies). While the Digital Futures initiative predated the interviewee’s involvement with the project, I asked her about how the initiative shaped the Lab’s development.

It’s had an impact on how we wrote the library strategic plan in 2012/13 and contextualizing the DH Lab (which was a product of the Digital Futures initiative) through the working group’s recommendations around teaching and research.

We’ve had a lot of support from the faculty for this lab and they’ve been extremely tolerant of the establishment of this lab. We provide the space and the skill-sets and the technical infrastructure, and we’re looking at the rest of the university for skills to share and incorporate for more peer-to-peer formations.

6. What are your impressions of the Digital Humanities Lab’s use of space?
Can you imagine ways the space could be changed or improved? How would that affect your group’s research practices or knowledge production?

I can imagine the space taking on more useful equipment for collaborative work, but not becoming crowded with permanent machines. The space is often empty, and my greatest hope is that we’ll secure funding for permanent staff to operate services out of the Lab. This would also include retraining our Library staff to offer their expertise in related areas via the Lab on a regular basis. The main effect additional hours, staff, and equipment might have on knowledge production might be an increase in integration of DH tools and methods in undergraduate and graduate classes, which would in turn, I believe, lead to more robust faculty research and possibly, grant-funded projects. However, classroom integration is likely the biggest beneficiary of any additional development of the space.

7. Has working with the Digital Humanities Lab changed your own thoughts on how space is used in humanities research?

Yes — it has made it clear to me how important space itself is. That has been the rallying cry for our own DH Lab. It’s a modest space, but it’s very existence has increased visibility for DH on campus and brought together faculty and staff from across departments to identify under the single banner of DH and to imagine projects and initiatives that would otherwise have been bottled up in individual departments. The space has served a sort of “stone soup” purpose, in that we provided the space, and everyone else has brought their skills, networks, projects, and questions to the Lab to help form what it is today, and what we hope it will become.