Building a Digital Humanities Program: Collaboration Key to Program Growth

This member update was provided by Bonnie Allen, Dean of James E. Walker Library at Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro, TN.


A library does not need a wealth of archival material in its collection to create a digital initiatives program. The demand for access to archival sources to support the curriculum and research can lead a library to take on the role of providing infrastructure to expose collections that would otherwise remain hidden, and to ensure that they are sustained. I have had the opportunity in two institutions to use the expertise and infrastructure of the main library to bring collections held in archives external to the main library into a visible digital environment that contributes to the mission of each institution.

At the University of Montana, Missoula, through a partnership with the university’s Department of Native American Studies and the Smithsonian, my library financially supported graduate students spending time at the Smithsonian to digitize on-site thousands of documents and to organize the documents into searchable and sustained digital collections within the main library. The documents were important to the University of Montana’s academic programs, and to the institution’s history and relationship with the tribes in the state. The project focused on tribal history and all documents within the Bureau of Indian Affairs related to Montana tribes during the settlement of the state in the early 1900s. These documents became part of the Natives of Montana Archival Project (NOMAP). It is unlikely that these documents would have had visibility or rapid use in scholarship had we not undertaken this project with the collaboration of the Smithsonian.

When I arrived at Middle Tennessee State University in 2012, as the dean of Walker Library, the digital initiatives had been limited to collaborative projects to create digital collections. These projects had been endeavors of high quality, with minimal institutional funding, supplemented by grants. The development of these projects had been driven by a few committed faculty in the library working with a small group of faculty and state and federal agencies.

Archival collections at MTSU are kept outside the main library, with two key collections at the Center for Popular Music in the College of Mass Communication and the Al Gore Research Center and University Archive located in the College of Liberal Arts. Within this decentralized organization, the archives continued to grow collections but were limited by their small staff, space, and budgets. Accordingly, they had not been able to develop technology infrastructure to bring web access and visibility to their collections. I quickly realized that no matter what the organization chart, the archives and the library shared common goals for access, visibility, and sustainability.

Perhaps because archives existed elsewhere on campus, the main library had not developed unique archival collections. It did, however, have a relatively young rare book collection focusing on book arts and civil war materials. The main library had library faculty with a track record of developing digital collections in collaboration with area universities and campus offices and had developed their expertise and made use of the library’s technology infrastructure to support an expanding electronic collection of its licensed materials. As a result of this organizational arrangement and history, the main library had infrastructure and the archives across the campus had content.

Collaboration between the archives and the main library became the natural and best means of growing our digital initiatives and meeting some institutional goals for greater access and visibility of the campus resources. As an institution we needed to launch a digital institutional repository, and with the prominence of the Center for Historic Preservation graduate programs there was a great opportunity to grow a digital humanities initiative through collaboration. The embedded archives in the colleges, along with programs in Public History and Historic Preservation, had created a model for graduate student interns working in the archives as well as a need to include greater learning opportunities for these interns in working in digital archives.

Agreements across campus were then struck to form the Digital Partners, a collaborative venture led by the main library to develop programs with the archives. Since 2012, bridges have been built from the library to the archives and relationships established—and re-established—as leadership in the archives changed and new staff were added to the library. The Digital Partners have become an energizing and collegial group, with increasing success in grants as the result of the collaborative agreements, and the greater opportunities for visibility of the collections.

Within the past year, a digital scholarship librarian was hired to coordinate and promote a digital scholarship laboratory in the Walker Library. The IR was launched a little over a year ago and now has more than 5,000 objects including a complete run of MTSU dissertations. We have invested in digital preservation, updated our servers and software for digital collections, added journal hosting services, and are steadily moving forward to increase digital humanities activities in the form of instructional seminars in the application of technology in scholarship and the use of GIS to visualize data. The graduate students in Historic Preservation and Public History are a ready and willing audience to use the lab and to begin the next gen scholarly output through the efforts of the digital partners.

Because of the collaboration, the priorities of the university are better met and its expertise and technology infrastructure are better used.


MTSU Digital Archives

JEWLScholar, the MTSU digital institutional repository

Did you enjoy this post? Please Share!


Related Posts

NDSA Updates Strategic Activities

As part of the NDSA’s broader organizational alignment activities taking place over the last year, the NDSA Coordinating Committee recently charged a small group of

Skip to content