I took the role of analyst at King’s Digital Lab (KDL) just over a month ago. It is difficult to judge whether time flew so quickly because I feel at home or because the pace and rhythm of the place goes tick tick tick...
So what is life like at KDL? Of course I wondered myself, before joining in this new role. It has only been one month, but I can summarise from my own particular perspective.
Premise number 1: I have worked with some of the people in the Lab in the past in my role as research associate for the Centre for Computing in the Humanities (CCH; I was based there in different capacities from 2004-2009). I recognise some of the ethos; I am familiar with the breadth of projects and atmosphere. Yet KDL is an altogether different fish.
Premise number 2: many of the colleagues based here I did not know before my job interview or before actually sitting at my brand new desk, which rather aptly faces Sardinia Street. (Sardinia is the island of my birth).
While the culture of working remotely is accepted and endorsed in the ethos of the lab, I feel the place gives its best when everybody is around. It can become messy with conference calls, keyboards ticking, stand ups, visitors coming in and out, and improvised meetings in one of the corners. But I love the sense of working together. It is possibly one of the benefits of not being a traditional academic department nor a traditional professional service. One has to share – not everything but enough, and frequently enough to make things move. It’s as much a pragmatic approach as a work culture. Certainly, in the spectrum between technical development and research or project management, those of us who lean towards the latter have a lot to learn from the former. Developers have a unique way of solving problems and tackling challenges.
My first finding: what I have found in this room is a team made of generous people with the will to succeed collaboratively. A flat structure where problems are discussed openly, files shared by default, documentation co-edited.
I am chartered mainly to reflect on the strategy for the Lab: where it is going and how it can stay driven by a collegial commitment while following a sustainable approach in the short-medium term. As an analyst, I get exposed to all sort of incoming breezes, both in the sense that I need to pop out there to see how the Lab can be of service or can be involved in co-research and co-production, but also in the sense that I can be a first port of call for all sorts of incoming quests for collaboration or assistance. While the roots for the Lab are planted within the faculty of Arts and Humanities and the liaison with the Department of Digital Humanities (DDH), it’s the whole college that should benefit from our work as well as the digital humanities community in London and at large. I have been attending several events in the past weeks to liaise with colleagues in the most disparate areas of research, from geography and urban development to religious studies and archaeology. Partners are potentially everywhere. For example in the form of funders such as the Wellcome Trust who came to visit the college recently for a day of exchange and discussions, or in the form of institutional research organizations such as the Library of Congress who visited the Lab last week in relation to the Georgian Papers Programme. The Lab is lucky in its position within the college in that it benefits from established channels and networking hubs such as the Culture Institute or the Research Office itself. The broker role, as the Lab director likes calling it, is modest in the outset (listening, facilitating, translating) but is what oils the joints of multi and inter-disciplinary achievements, such as the ones at the core of the King’s Together programme.
My second finding: the Lab is well networked within the college and benefits from support in the faculty and beyond. I know what you are thinking. She just joined. It’s all pink flowers and rainbows. Well, while I will treasure my naivety for the time to come, I have some white hair. There are many challenges to overcome. The Lab has an interesting history of previous incarnations (CCH, DDH, CeRCH), certainly a proud profile of being pioneering digital humanities projects since the early days and of experimenting in complex collaborative endeavours. One of the recent project meetings I attended brought me back to the origins of the technical framework for a very first example of 'crowdsourcing' project engaging volunteers, the Clergy of the Church of England database project. These legacy projects are a boon and a conundrum for the Lab. They often represent the equivalent of the multi-volume academy projects you find in the rest of Europe or in the University libraries across the Atlantic. But we are not an academy. We are a humanities laboratory engaged in co-research and committed both to applying technologies within a responsible agile framework but also to experimenting and innovating.
My third finding: the Lab has a rich inheritance in terms of resources and projects. Building on it means both to ensure a sustainable framework in the long term and to free the Lab practices to innovate and embrace the new.
In the last two years, the Lab has gained a robust definition of roles, something that I am aware was lacking in its previous incarnations. Time will tell whether this setting will work or will need to be adapted in the long run, both in terms of making the staff interested in the work and evolving, as well as in making the projects run smoothly following high quality standards. What remains is that a digital humanities organization with a plethora of hands-on projects being developed simultaneously cannot be made to fit either traditional academic career paths nor a help desk unit.
My fourth finding: the Lab has a common language set around the Agile methodology for project management and delivery solution. This is applied fluidly and will need to be refined but provides defined roles and workflow.
My last finding is that I should get on with my work today! Come and visit the Lab; share your findings.