Celebrating a Labiversary
I woke up this morning to the news that it's Amanda Visconti and Brandon Walsh's 6-year anniversary at the Scholars' Lab. Were I closer to UVA, I'd have spent lunchtime hunting down whatever local variety of celebratory snack is the custom, and bringing it by for some impromptu celebrating. Being in California, however, the best I can do is spend lunchtime in my writing hammock, typing out a little blog post.
I don't even remember when or where exactly I met Amanda and Brandon, or whether it was online or in person first. I remember seeing the news that Amanda had taken on the role of managing director at the Scholars' Lab while I was working at UC Berkeley and trying to figure out my own future with DH. (I thought at the time it was over, and I was wrong.) Seeing an organization make good hiring decisions is always a joy, and I was curious to see what Amanda would do with this one, which came with a long and famous history that I could imagine being a blessing or a curse. How do you take over leading something that everyone associated with Bethany Nowviskie, its charismatic founding director? How do you keep the programs and practices that are working, without becoming mired in the past? How do you deal with legacy projects that people have feelings about, without it taking over your life and making it impossible to do new things? I think about these things a lot, still, recognizing that in my own organizational context we have perhaps done a less good job of defining what we are and what our work and priorities and ethos is in the present, often leaving the broader DH community to their extrapolations from DH at Stanford circa 2010.
The Scholars' Lab was the last place I visited before the world ended, in January 2020. I was glad to have had the chance to see it how it originally was, before the major renovation in the library. But what surprised me most of all (beyond even Amanda's incredibly delicious homemade bread) had nothing to do with the space: it was the people, and the vibe. The staff seemed to genuinely enjoy one another's company. Library organizations like DH labs can very easily become complicated places, with fraught questions of funding (hard or soft money), titles, power, ranks, prestige, credentials -- and I saw none of that. I'd like to believe that I have a good enough sense of these issues that "being on good behavior for the visitor" wouldn't have worked to paper things over. It felt like an organization that worked, that their motto of "people over projects" wasn't lip service, and putting people first had the effect of projects and programs that were better.
There are many things I've come to really appreciate and respect about the Scholars' Lab in its current model. Amanda and Brandon laid out many of those things in a recent blog post on designing community-forward spaces, which I'd argue should be mandatory reading for anyone thinking about creating this kind of digital scholarship space in the library or elsewhere. It's given me food for thought myself, with regard to how I run my own Textile Makerspace. But there are other things that you need to read between the lines to see. I appreciate how Amanda advocates for their staff -- and my sense is the staff advocate for and support one another. I appreciate what seems to be a lack of drama in general, and a cultural tendency to foster young scholars who are deeply collaborative and share that practice of mutual support, rather than building themselves up into singular superstars with a drama monarch side. I appreciate the transparency of the Scholars' Lab, their talking through their process (even when things don't work), their willingness to think through big and small challenges out loud, in public through their blog.
The last decade has seen, around the world, the rise and fall of various centers and programs and organizations related to digital humanities. There are moments when it feels like alt-ac staff have a fundamentally impossible task before them: to somehow make all this work -- ideally in a way that you can still feel ethically good about, despite limited resources, most of all limited time. The truth is, at the end of the day, most projects won't live up to the wildest dreams that inspire scholars to pursue them. As Élika Ortega recently put it, there's nothing more ephemeral than a website. If we take the often-used "lab" metaphor seriously, so much of its value comes from what people learn and take away with them, rather than what, concretely, it produces. Labs are frequently training vehicles for people who will walk out the door and into something else, maybe something they couldn't have planned for or imagined, but the lab gives the skills to get there. Perhaps they'll even thrive enough to create such a space for the next generation. What Brandon and colleagues have done with the Praxis Cohorts -- being willing to go beyond the "cohort = project" model and think more expansively about outcomes -- is worth us all taking seriously. How important is it actually to tally up numbers of projects for a metrics dashboard somewhere? What do we gain and lose with a project-oriented framework? If the takeaway from a lab is learning, are there better ways to get there? I suspect the route to an answer comes from considering the people first, where they're at, and what their needs are. And while funding is fickle and there are no guarantees that any organization is sustainable, one of the fastest routes to organizational instability is a mass exodus of staff.
Making an organization like the Scholars' Lab a place where people want to come to work, where they're excited about their jobs, where they can bring their whole, authentic selves if they desire, is incredibly hard, and it's work that's never done. I'm firmly convinced that the gnarliest engineering challenge is still ultimately simpler -- and what's more, creating whiz-bang technical things is a fast track to recognition and reward, whereas most of the labor that goes into making a good workplace happens behind the scenes, and invisibly. But it is no less real, and its effects are -- to my mind, at least -- so much greater and more significant than the technical achievements that get funding and awards and accolades. As Scott Weingart put it (jokingly, in one sense, but those of us doing this work also know it's true), "The real DH is the friends we made along the way." And it is truly an honor to be able to call Amanda Visconti and Brandon Walsh my friends.
Happy Scholars' Labiversary today to them and to the whole Scholars' Lab community!