I recently gave a talk at Brown University on “Institutionalizing Digital Scholarship,” and upon reflection it struck me that the lessons I tried to convey were more generally applicable. Everyone prefers to talk about innovation, rather than institutionalization, but the former can only have a long-term impact if the latter occurs. What at first seems like a dreary administrative matter is actually at the heart of real and lasting change.
New ideas and methods are notoriously difficult to integrate into large organizations. Institutions and the practitioners within them, outside of and within academia (perhaps especially within academia?), too frequently claim to be open-minded but often exhibit a close-mindedness when the new impinges upon their area of work or expertise. One need only look at the reaction to digital humanities and digital scholarship over the last two decades, and the antagonism and disciplinary policing it is still subject to, often from adjacent scholars.
In my talk I drew on the experience of directing the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, the Digital Public Library of America, and now the Northeastern University library. The long history of RRCHNM is especially helpful as a case study, since it faced multiple headwinds, and yet thrived, in large part due to the compelling vision of its founder and the careful pursuit of opportunities related to that vision by scores of people over many years.
If you wish to digest the entire subject, please watch my full presentation. But for those short on time, here are the three critical elements of institutionalization I concluded with. If all three of these challenging processes occur, you will know that you have successfully and fully integrated something new into an organization.
At first, new fields and methods are pursued haphazardly, as practitioners try to understand what they are doing and how to do it. In digital scholarship, this meant a lot of experimentation. In the 1990s and early 2000s, digital projects that advanced scholarly theories eclectically tried out new technologies. Websites were often hand-coded and distinctive. But in the long run, such one-off, innovative projects were unsustainable. The new scholarly activity had to be routinized into a common, recognizable grammar and standardized formats and infrastructure, both for audiences to grasp genres and for projects to be technically sustainable over time.
At RRCHNM, this meant that after we realized we were making the same kind of digital historical project over and over, by hand, we created generalized software, Omeka, through which we could host an infinite number of similar projects. Although it reduced flexibility somewhat, Omeka made new digital projects much easier to launch and sustain. Now there are hundreds of institutions that use the software and countless history (and non-history) projects that rely on it.
To become institutionalized, new activities cannot remain on the fringes. They have to become normalized, part of the ordinary set of approaches within a domain. Practitioners shouldn’t even think twice before engaging in them. Even those outside of the discipline have to recognize the validity of the new idea or method; indeed, it should become unremarkable. (Fellow historians of science will catch a reference here to Thomas Kuhn’s “normal science.”) In academia, the path to normalization often—alas, too often—expresses itself primarily around concerns over tenure. But the anxiety is broader than that and relates to how new ideas and methods receive equal recognition (broadly construed) and especially the right support structures in places like the library and information technology unit.
The story of anything new often begins with one or a small number of people, like Roy Rosenzweig, who advanced a craft without caring about the routine and the normal. In the long run, however, for new ideas and methods to last, they have to find a way to exist beyond the founders, and beyond those who follow the founders. RRCHNM has now had three directors and hundreds of staffers, but similar centers have struggled or ceased to exist after the departure of their founders. This is perhaps the toughest, and final, aspect of institutionalization. It’s hard to lose someone like Roy. On the other hand, it’s another sign of his strong vision that the center he created was able to carry on and strengthen, now over a decade after he passed away.