Laurie Taylor and Cultivating Caribbean Knowledge

In this episode, I spoke with Dr. Laurie N. Taylor. Taylor is the Senior Director for Library Technology and Digital Strategies and Chair of the Digital Partnerships and Strategies Department, as well as Editor-in-Chief of LibraryPress@UF at the University of Florida, George A. Smathers Libraries. She also serves as the Digital Scholarship Director of the Digital Library of the Caribbean (dLOC). We spoke about the origins of dLOC and the transformative potential of this collaborative project. While it is a project you may not be familiar with, the ideology and principles at its core are sure to resonate with anyone concerned about the questions of access and power it represents.


Caribbean History, Digital Humanities, Library

The Conversation

Chambliss: Laurie, thanks for joining me.

Taylor: Thanks for having me.

Chambliss: I always like to start out these conversations with this very basic question that’s super hard but, nonetheless, I’m going to ask anyway. How do you define Digital Humanities?

Taylor: I like some of the easier definitions of Digital Humanities. Digitization is getting at digital form [and] Digital Humanities is what you do with it. The humanities have always been about [the] social, cultural, and a bigger world. How do we have a better world? And there’s always the political and social impact of our work. And so, digital humanities work, I would also say, is digital scholarship, which is also public scholarship. It’s how we are public intellectuals in the digital age.

Chambliss: That is a pretty good definition. Everyone’s got slightly different [ones], so every definition is okay. I would have said this in the introduction but I want to go over it a little bit more. You’re the chair of Digital Partnerships and Strategies at the University of Florida’s George A. Smathers Library and you’re also the director of the Digital of the Caribbean or dLOC. People might know dLOC, especially people who know digital things. I think of it as like a long-established project. But how long ago did the dLOC start?

Taylor: It started in 2004. It’s 15 years old and, for most digital projects, we talk about them having a lifespan that is more like dog years; every year counts for seven years. If [a] project stays around for three years or five years, that is a huge amount of time and impact. dLOC 15? dLOC is super established at this point.

Chambliss: One of the great things about dLOC is, when you start engaging with it, you recognize it operates on multiple levels. One of the things that’s really intriguing, I think, when we think about digital humanities projects, is that some of these projects go back to a kind of tool-based perspective. Someone has made something, which I often shorthand as “the Death Star problem.” I build the Death Star, I blow up planets. I built this thing, I use this thing, and that’s my digital humanities project. How did this thing do this thing? On the other hand, other people are, for lack of a better term, applying digital techniques to a humanities’ problems. I think about this in terms of things like distance reading and data visualization. People have a corpus of material, all the Shakespearean people who do analyses of texts and things like that. But the dLOC kind of sits in the middle of that in a weird way because it’s both a  tool that people use, but it also increasingly is a space where new knowledge is being created. I’d like you to talk a little bit about dLOC as this sort of evolving digital project that straddles this line between an object that was put together and involves a number of institutions in the Caribbean and also as this thing that generates knowledge about the Caribbean.

Taylor: Yeah, the history of dLOC [is] really awesome for this. [It] was envisioned by Judith Rogers, who’s now the retired director of the University of the Virgin Islands Libraries. So, as the director of those libraries, she had libraries on three islands: St .Croix, St. John, [and] St. Thomas. To get to St. John, you’re taking a water taxi or a ferry. To get from St. Thomas to St Croix you’re flying; you’re taking a sea plane or you’re taking a commuter plane. That’s not a great way to move materials within the Virgin Islands. And then also anywhere in the Caribbean, you have the people who live locally, but the diaspora is worldwide and there are far more people in the diaspora than locally. As she saw the Internet come about in the ‘90s, she was like, “I think this Internet thing’s going to stay and I think we can use this to our advantage.” She envisioned how we [would] do this for shared governance and how do we [could] do this to train our people locally to build community and capacity for all of our islands—for all of the Caribbean and for the Caribbean presence in the world.

We have core needs for preservation and access. We’re in hurricane season half a year, always. How do we make sure materials are preserved, [that] they’re accessible, [that] they’re shared? And there are materials that are defined that we see as important that we’re sharing with the world. [It’s] not  a vendor coming in and cherry picking. [Rather, it’s] setting up the format for shared governance, always with the eye towards how does this build community, how does this build capacity? Because one of the things you have is people don’t have enough opportunities for training locally and you have people train a librarian and then they leave the Island. A lot of places will talk about [how] we only have four trained librarians on the Island, we only have two trained archivists. How do we build the community across the Caribbean? And then, how do we have all of the additional benefits of this? Setting up the shared governance model with all of the partners, where partners retain all rights to materials, partners select what to digitize and the training, and supporting everyone in doing cross training so that we can do preservation and access of materials. Then working with a scholarly advisory board for what does this mean? What are we doing, how else can we understand this?

And so, early on, a number of literature scholars—Leah Rosenberg has always been a champion on this—said we don’t have access to enough early Caribbean literature. And, right now, so much of the canonical understanding is that Caribbean literature begins after independence. It begins with Windrush. And that’s not true. There’s a lot of Caribbean literature before that, but if we don’t have access to it, we can’t tell those stories. [So], let’s create some lists and let’s start getting access to it and, then, let’s actually change the field. And so, we’ve done that, which changing the field, being able to say that, is really amazing. We have enlarged our understanding of the canon. And now people can teach these materials in their classes. These are written about. It’s actually changed the understanding of early Caribbean literature. Then, how do we use that to continue to grow? Some of the needs with Digital Humanities [are] you need the tools, but also how do we use them? How does this make sense? How do we grow the community further?

We’ve done a number of different trainings and workshops. Right now, we have a National Endowment for the Humanities [and] Digital Humanities Institute grant for Caribbean Studies. We had an in-person institute and we’re moving into doing virtual sessions that will be recorded on different practices and concepts. Then, everyone coming (all of the participants) will be creating teaching materials that will then be available in dLOC for more teachers to use. So, how do we create these virtuous cycles where people are using dLOC and being part of the community, engaging with the community, and sharing more materials?

Chambliss: So, that’s a really complicated answer because dLOC is a really complicated thing. I want to go back and think a little bit about what you just described because I think this is really important for people. One of the things I think is really interesting, and one of the reasons I want to have a conversation about Digital Humanities for this season Reframing History, is that, when people say, “Digital Humanities,” they tend to have a very narrow definition of what that is. In part because they think of it as, in particular, using a tool to make a thing. This has a lot to do with a kind of media fixation on Digital Humanities. Not to say the projects that appear in Slate Magazine, for instance, in their annual roundup of digital humanities projects, aren’t good projects. It’s just that a lot of those projects are defined by a kind of high-level, almost like a brute force use of digital tools around a particular question. There’s a research question here, that is X, Y, and Z and the project produces something that’s really accessible in a very particular way.

The more subtle kind of projects, I think, can often be associated with libraries. And, I think we get into the role of libraries as a kind of center of digital humanities activities, which is something we probably should talk about more, in part because one of the recurring themes of all these conversations is hidden labor and there’s also a hidden resource burden in Digital Humanities, right? So, the hidden resource burden, I feel,  often falls on libraries. [In] my personal experience, libraries are very important in terms of digital humanities work and the libraries’ resources, as people tend not to know who are not in academia [that], every year, the demand on library resources grows. [This is] because the technology grows [and] the cost of access to the basic thing (subscriptions) grows. And then, when you start adding on the cost of creating something like dLOC, which bridges core responsibilities of a library as a repository, as a place of scholarly communication [and] scholarly community—as a place of learning—you have this extra burden on the library and the infrastructure in the library.

I think one of the things that’s happened over the last 20 years that has really changed is the role of librarians as drivers of Digital Humanities. Although, the public doesn’t necessarily recognize how librarianship has shifted in relation to these discussions. The public is [generally] unaware. If you say “librarian” to the average person, they have one of probably two or three images in their head. This gets at these questions of professionalization. And this is also one of the questions associated with Digital Humanities. If you are a professor, an academic on a tenure track line, and we can talk about the different roles assigned to the teaching faculty, here. We have things like fixed term and people can be stuck in a “contract” job for 20 years. Or, you can be an adjunct, which is even worse. But, when you add in the complexity of Digital Humanities, there are these multiple roles that are assigned. And again, humanities is often associated with a single person spending a lot of time to make a thing. Whereas science is often teams working together, funded by governments who make a thing that’s important. And I say that deliberately because everyone goes, “Well, they’re there in a lab. They must be making something important,” which is part of the reason I think we use terms like “digital humanities lab.” We use it to signal to people that these group of humanities scholars, who [are] supposed to be alone but are working together, are in fact doing something. Each one of them is doing something, but our infrastructure often is not set up to recognize that. This is the one of the weird problems associated with that. And with a project as big as the log, you must have to think about this all the time.

Taylor: Yeah, yesterday I wrote a support letter for someone who’s going up for promotion to explain the value of [the] digital work she had shared through dLOC. So, that usage counts [and] that’s also what it means, how it changes the field. You know, other feedback, because how else are you going to know that? When you’re doing public intellectual work, how does that get captured? How [does] that get supported? Having [a] team who is aware of these concerns and who understands no, it’s not enough to have technology. You have to have the whole community support apparatus related to it.

I was on another call where someone was offering to do a workshop on Wikipedia editing and my question to the person was, “Okay, that’s awesome. Yes, we would love to have you do that and support it through dLOC. Does your department and your institution understand the value of this work? What supports do we need? Do you need a letter? Do you need me to call your boss? What supports are needed?” For her, it was already understood, so she didn’t need additional supports. But some of this, when you talk about humanities scholars, it is the monastic tradition. You’re a monk, you’re going to go work in your little cell, you’re not going to talk to anyone. That tradition, that stereotype continues to affect us. And so, when [we] wed the Digital Humanities with public intellectualism, what does it mean to be engaged in the public sphere and to try and to benefit society?

So, then that also helps us frame some of the questions on technology because, too often, our world is set up techno utopian, [like,] “The innovators, they’re the ones that make everything work.” Okay, but I don’t really want an innovative sewer system. I want the sewer system to be safe and to work. There are things that [are] not a question of innovation [but are rather] a question of making sure you’re doing it right and you want standards, and you want [to] set processes.

We also see this with conversations on minimal computing. Alex Gil, who’s at Columbia, has done a lot of work on the lowest level technology that will support the need. This is also like small is beautiful [in that] what’s the appropriate technology? Like, you could have a supercomputer do this stuff, but is that what you need and is that the right thing to do? You could innovate and change all this stuff and rework it, but is that what’s the best thing for the community and how do [we do] it? How [do we] make sure it’s sustainable, it’s maintainable? All of those questions go into how we do our technologies and how we do our communities. What’s best for the community in terms of sustainable [and] maintainable? How do we make sure we surface the hidden labor and how do we make sure we then have supports in place to give people credit for their work?

Chambliss: That’s a really good answer. And one of the things that’s really interesting to me is, because of the dLOC structure, it’s a kind of liberatory infrastructure [and therefore] it’s bringing together these institutions. And, when you talk about minimal computing, this is so important because a lot of the audience may not have the tools to experience the full effect of some of digital humanities projects. I’m often mindful of this when I think about data visualization. Like, the people who might most be interested in massive data visualization of the Black experience, which is something we can totally do, may not have a computer that will allow them to see it.

One of the things I always, always had to think about at my former institution is [whether] there’s a paper version of this. How am I going to get this to actual people who talk to us like when we did this project in class? Maybe radio is the way to go. I actually think podcasting is a great thing because pretty much everyone has a radio, that’s like a proven technology. They can listen to it. Even a podcast now, due to penetration on the mobile platform, most low-income people have access. Not everyone; there’s a caveat here, but a lot of people. And so, that’s one of the reasons I think a podcast is the DH project, even though that’s a debate too.

But dLOC is effectively a multi-unit, global-South-centric digital project that has been sustained since 2004. I’m curious, that liberatory ethos, is that always smooth and easy?

Taylor: It actually kind [of] is easy. You know, in the US, when we talk about libraries and professionalization, you hear things like, “Oh, you don’t have a master’s degree in library science.” Those conversations have been smaller in recent years, which is good. But in the Caribbean, dLOC was born of ACURIL, the Association of Caribbean University Research and Institutional Libraries, which was formed [going], “Okay, we’re going to be independent nations where we’ve just become independent or we’re fighting for independence. We’re fighting against colonization. We will not be ruled by these queens and kings and outsiders. So, [we want] self-governance, self-determination, [and] liberation for our people, which means we need to have access to the people’s information. We need to share the culture of our people in the world. We need to have control of our destiny. And that means that we need libraries. Okay, we’re going to make ACURIL.” And then, from ACURIL, dLOC is [like], “Okay, how do we do this in the digital age for sharing our information, for building us?”

You have a long history of really fantastic librarians, who are freedom fighters [and] social justice fighters; people who are [like] “How do we make the world a better place and how do we do it through the concept of libraries?” That has continued through today and the other thing is, it’s cheaper for libraries to have dLOC than to not have it. The amount of content everyone has shared, if we were to buy it from a vendor, the University of Florida wouldn’t be able to afford it alone, much less the other 70 partners contributing to dLOC [or] the entire world. And it’s better for us to have everyone have access. This is a true common situation, where the more people that have access, the better it is for all of us. And so that part is not the hard part.

Chambliss: The question that grows from that is, with the dLOC up and running as an entity and [it] running for so long, you mentioned dLOC has helped redefine the literature around the Caribbean and [that] it does this through multiple ways. That’s the other thing about the digital humanities project, the “so what” question. You build a Death Star and you blow up planet, but why? With dLOC, it’s a little bit clearer [in that] “We’re trying to make clear the complexity of literature in the Caribbean,” but there’s more going on in the process. There are different modes and different ways you guys are doing that. Can you talk a little bit about the process of making within the context of dLOC?

Taylor: What are the core needs from the community? Starting there, so many of the partners have core materials that have to be preserved. They need to be made accessible. We also need this training for our staff. We also want to know more about what scholars are interested in so people can better teach West Indian literature and teach Caribbean literature. We have these researchers who are coming from Canada or we know that, in Canada, a huge a number of our folks have settled there and they don’t know about their literature. They don’t know about their history. Grandmothers don’t have stories to read to their grandchildren. They don’t have photos of home to share. How do we do that? How do we make that more possible and how do we engage?

Chambliss: That’s exactly what I mean. There’s a preservation element that is very clear. You have the member groups and the way the dLOC works [when] the member groups put stuff in. And, therefore, it’s accessible to users. But then the other side of that is scholars who are searching for questions. So, if you’re a scholar of the Caribbean, how do you find out about the dLOC? Do know about it through your library? I know you do fellowships and workshops and things like that. It’s like an ecosystem at some level. I think people need to know about the ecosystem. Does that make sense?

Taylor: One of the things we face is how do you reach everyone? Because, at some level, who is not connected to the Caribbean? The history of the Caribbean is the history of slavery, the history of capitalism, and it’s the history of the world. It about where the trade winds blow. How do you scale that? We have our designated core community with Caribbean libraries, archives, museums, cultural institutions, and publishers. So that’s our first designated community preservation access. The next thing is community capacity. How do we grow our next generation of library, archival, cultural heritage, [and] information workers within our communities? And how do we reach out and connect to others beyond that and cultural heritage, information professionals, and scholars?

And then there’s the diaspora and there’s everyone, because how do we represent the Caribbean to the world? Working with folks in the past couple of years, we’ve really started upping our social media game. We have Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. Twitter is a great way to meet scholars. We do presentations at different academic conferences. Whenever we hear about Caribbean Studies related digital humanities projects, we catalog them so they’re available in dLOC so that we can drive folks from our community [and] make them discoverable and find-able. That is another way we help connect across the community. People will say, “I Googled my stuff and I found that y’all are driving traffic to my site. Thank you.” We have a dLOC newsletter that goes out. We do community events in person. We’ve done a bunch of them in Miami’s Little Haiti area. We’ve done a bunch in Haiti. How do you make all of these things work? And so, we tried to do it all.

Chambliss: You do everything with a staff of how many people?

Taylor: Miguel Asencio is the one dedicated, fulltime dLOC staff member. He is at Florida International University (FIU). Dr Hadassah St. Hubert is also at FIU. She’s a Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) postdoc. The rest of us are parttime and how do we all contribute to the greater whole.

Chambliss: One of the things about digital humanities projects is the evolution, the life cycle. DH projects are never “over,” especially if you’re doing it alone. It’s worth noting most DH projects are under-sourced and under-labored; there’s not necessarily a lot of people involved with them, which is part of [the] reason they’re never over. The person has [to] find time, there’s no DH jobs per se. They do have jobs with DH responsibilities attached to them. We can talk endlessly about this, but [there’s] not a lot [of] departments of Digital Humanities with tenure track lines in them. That is not how it works. There’s that element, but then there’s the question mark around institutional things, right?

[And] dLOC is a really strong institutional thing. It’s been around in the DH…forever, since 2004. And if you were looking for something dating from 2004 on the Internet that is still a thriving project, you can’t find it. It’s dead. What’s the future of dLOC? Is the plan to continue to evolve it? [It’s] an organic thing by its very nature, right? Like, the very nature of it is organic. Like, it continues to grow, to evolve. In terms of planning for the future, how do you see it? What’s the discussion about dLOC’s evolution and sustainability and the places it may go?

Taylor: How do we amplify everything we’re already doing and then how do we also think about our line of flight? Let’s look to the stars and look at that trajectory for where we want to go. Where we want to go is: how do we do the work in terms of empowering our scholars, supporting our graduate students, supporting librarians, archivists, and supporting greater understanding about the region? [It’s] a huge mission and we’re all digitizing materials for preservation and access. We are finding more grants to do even more of that. How do we then scale those and look at those ongoing technical updates? If you look at the DLOC site, it’s dated, and that’s part of minimal computing but computer standards have evolved. We’re working on doing an update for the site. Hopefully it will be done in the next year. Having it more updated and then, after that, we’re not completely clear on it. We’ve got the scholarly advisory board, who will [help] inform where we go. We’ve got all the people working with the NEH Digital Humanities Institute for where we want to go in terms of teaching.

But one of the things we’ve also been looking at is the shrinking of [the] academic job market [and] the super standardization of K-12 schools where teachers have less flexibility for teaching things. How do we insert the Caribbean, which is already there but hidden, into other areas? One project is looking at materials related to the Morant Bay rebellion in Jamaica that’s [also] really important for Victorian studies and people who do British literature. How do we connect those? Because, in terms of building community, if we build the library collections, we build the teaching resources [and] people have them together. Then, how do we connect the researchers? Often our folks will say, “there’s one Caribbean studies person in an English Department of 40 people.” Who do they get to work with? How do they get to collaboratively teach? And since digital humanities projects do require more labor, how do they envision that when they’re alone? How do we put in place the conditions that will foster and make possible those collaborations at a local level? Collaborating doing Zoom calls [and] collaborating with people at a distance, totally possible, but it’s so much easier if you can do it in person and locally.

Chambliss: Yes, that is really a question mark, especially for a subject area specialist. As you say, you’re often the only person doing your thing, especially in the contemporary landscape. They don’t hire a bunch of people doing things [like that] anymore. They hire one person to do this thing and often they’re doing this thing across a large historical period, which decades ago would probably not happen. Faculty covered the same geography, but they had their subfields, be it Victorian or Modern, and those people had geographic ties. Now, the department hires one person. A lot of institutions, as we know, don’t have the resources and faculty lines are not being replaced, which gives rise to questions about the neoliberal university.

Taylor: Yes. How do we push back against the neoliberal university and the devolution cycle of privatization? We need to be public intellectuals to do that. But…that means we have even more work. [It’s] more work on people who are already overstretched, overworked, covering multiple areas, covering more classes, working more than they ever have before. The research from 20 years ago was that an average English professor was working 60 hours a week. When you consider the service, all of the different letters that you’re doing, the student mentoring. What we have to be able to come together to make that more feasible so we can do the public intellectual work to fight the devolution every cycle.

Chambliss: Yeah, and that’s presumably [what] could be a benefit of DH work. It can be a magnifier. This is one of the things we hope for when we think about how the Digital Humanities is amplifying community. It does amplify some of these vital questions and conversations. I always try to keep these things short. This is a good place to stop. If people are looking to know more about dLOC, the web address is…

Taylor: You can email us. We’re always available through Twitter, Facebook, anything.

Chambliss: Thank you taking the time to talk to me for Reframing History.


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