June 18, 2018

Digital Humanities Find New Home at VA Tech Library

There’s a new place to learn inside Virginia Tech’s Newman Library in Blacksburg, VA: a three-room suite and office known as the Athenaeum, which first started hosting digital humanities programs in November 2017. The library already had a number of very popular studio spaces, but the addition of the Athenaeum generated a fair bit of attention. The grand opening on January 26th was well attended and the space is regularly booked with speakers and workshops on podcasting and data visualization, as well as traditional classes.

Unique spaces

The suite contains a large modular classroom, a smaller boardroom, and a sound-isolated media studio. An advisory committee made up of faculty, library staff, and the director of the new Center for the Humanities schedule the rooms, choosing programs and classes that will make thoughtful use of the space and available technology.

The classroom, which can hold 54 students, is equipped with seven screens for projecting media and connected devices. Three or four undergraduate courses meet regularly in the space while others come for one-time visits. There are also plans to host special events including a Digital Humanities speaker series and the Douglass Day transcribe-a-thon, a national event held in honor of Frederick Douglass’ 200th birthday to transcribe the Freedmen’s Bureau Papers. For smaller groups, the boardroom seats 12 and is well suited for hands-on workshops and teleconferencing.

The media studio is already a boon to oral history projects on campus. Because of the sound isolation, it is easy to record interviews and other audio there. The Virginia Tech special collections, which are located nearby, house many oral histories including several related to Appalachian history and culture. An ongoing project started by the English department called “VT stories” collects oral histories from the college’s alumni.

Role of the Library

The Athenaeum was born out of conversations between the dean of libraries and the college provost. Although it falls under the jurisdiction of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, it is intended to be open to all students and faculty across the college. Digital Humanities coordinator Christopher Miller, who oversees the Athenaeum, says, “the conversation has been really balanced… I wouldn’t say there’s been any sort of dominant voice.” The Digital Humanities often overlap different academic departments, and therefore frequently find a home in the library. The University of Iowa Libraries, for example, contain a Digital Scholarship and Publishing Studio.

Miller’s role, which was created in 2017 to run the space, falls under the umbrella of digital publishing at the library. The department is deliberately multimodal in its outlook, and Miller says the Athenaeum “meets faculty and students at the point of aspiration.” He sees the changes in the publishing industry as running parallel to the way humanities faculty interact with new digital tools, like those provided in the new space. Furthermore, this new space fits into the ongoing conversation many librarians, include those at Virginia Tech, are having about changes in the profession and how the library can support people who make and create things in a variety of formats.


Cate Schneiderman is Outreach Coordinator & Reference Librarian, Iwasaki Library, Emerson College, Boston

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