The DH Lab as a living oxymoron

by Fabian Cremer and Thorsten Wübbena

Newly established DH Labs in research institutions often find themselves in a field of tension – of simultaneous and contradictory expectations, goals and missions. We would like to discuss these contradictions within their context and their implementation in concrete work, based on experiences (both failures and successes) from our own DH Lab, as we aim to offer good practices (and unsolved challenges) from the strategical and operational levels of lab management.


The IEG DH Lab had the opportunity to take part in the Workshop at the ADHO Digital Humanities Conference 2023 named “Labs for Labs: a participatory workshop on digital lab practices in the humanities and social sciences”. Invited by The Plant (Maastricht University) and King’s Digital Lab (King’s College London) several workshop participants came from a variety of types of laboratories, demonstrating the diversity of these infrastructures at the midst of the “laboratory turn” in humanities research. While each DH Lab had its very own concept, structure, goals, genesis – the group easily identified common challenges and practices during the knowledge exchange. This post sums up our lightning talk at the workshop and reflects on the input and discussions from all participants in the workshop.

support | collaboration

Can you provide reliable support while being acknowledged as a collaborator? If a DH Lab offers support and services for research, these tasks are often not recognized as research activities themselves. The hierarchy between service and research can lead to unrecognized, unacknowledged and even completely invisible work. At the core of digital humanities, there is true collaboration.

“Digital Humanities = Co‐creation”
(Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0)

Maintaining the eye-level in collaboration is a constant challenge, as many colleagues confirmed. Two strategies seem to be helpful:

  1. Communication: A DH Lab formulates its own understanding of collaboration and partnership a) in principle in portfolios, self-descriptions, self-concepts; b) case-specific in project charters and project designs; c) continuously through continuous management and communication within projects.
  2. Autonomous research: Labs with their own research (and own questions) and a living practice of collaboration find it easier to present themselves as partners at eye-level and to raise awareness of the concept of distributed scholarship. Also make sure, time for own research is defined in the job descriptions.

generic | tailor-made

Providing digital infrastructure is a common task for DH Labs, which was also true for most of the labs present at the workshop. And there is a shared problem: The DH Lab usually aims for standardized infrastructure and tools, which are well developed, easy to maintain or are already offered as a service from others. However, a typical research project usually desires or needs something, that helps immediately and fits exactly the use case of the research. How to ensure that Labs efforts remain effective and scalable when generic infrastructure deployment is not a one-size-fits-all approach and customized solutions are desirable but costly?

Presentations and discussions in the workshop showed, there is no blueprint for this issue, as scalability and tailor-made solutions heavily depend on the resources and competences as well as the approach and mission of the respective DH Lab. Our idea is that we embrace requests for individual solutions but seek to look for simpler (sometimes less comfortable) solutions. We also seek to turn a request for a specific tool into a joint approach, in which all partners learn something new, as learning is always an appropriate return for investments. And for reusability we try to turn products into processes – which unfortunately requires again more investments in documentation and further developments. The downside of this approach is that it is a goal rather than a measure. Another stumbling block remains: Often, what is technically possible is also seen as the achievable goal for a project, and actual implementations are perceived as a downgrade. Reversing this deficit view proves to be difficult. Minimal Computing in Digital Humanities could be a major contributor here (check out a recent DHQ Issue on this topic).

traditional | digital

Would we publish this blog post to a history blog? Probably not. But the IEG’s DH Lab follows multiple goals: advancing traditional humanities research and doing advanced digital humanities research, preferably at the same time with the same persons and the same resources. How would you survive at both a history and a DH conference with the same topic? We are faced with the situation that we are doing a lot of things in projects that we will not show at a DH conference because they are not innovative enough for the field and also do not present it at a history conference because there is often no room for innovations that “only” concern advances in the digital work process. However, applying and developing digital humanities methods is probably not a 24/7 job. We are also interested in knowledge transfer activities and further developments in the field of historical scholarship. Doing both requires time for both and skills for both, so we are always limited in the use of resources for DH methods and also in historical expertise. We accept the situation. At the end of the day, the things we do remind us of what is broadly “applicable.”

embeddedness | autonomy

Can you join a club and still play by your own rules? Our DH Lab is a sub-unit within a traditional historical research institute, which can lead to some structural tensions: The main organization seeks to keep its structures and habits. The “laboratory” has the task of doing new, unconventional, experimental things to explore developments and evolve (not revolutionize) the organization. Therefore, the lab needs both: close ties to the organization and to colleagues, but also plenty of space for experimentation and its failure.

Therefore, we actively try to implement “organizational ambidexterity” and “embeddedness” as our key concepts. Anchors in the institutional core that embed us are:  joint projects, events, working groups, intellectual exchange, engagement in institutional bodies. We still strive to remain a free-floating autonomous group, having dedicated DH projects, events, etc. and a dedicated office for joint lab activities, of course. More details about this approach revealed our poster at the DH2023 “Change Agents out of place. Organizational Ambidexterity and Embeddedness as Key Concepts for DH Units in Humanities Institutions”.

permanent | fluctuation

Stability and flexibility are two common themes in any “lab.” But flexibility creates a problem when it comes to researchers’ contracts. If labs depend on fixed-term contracts, what makes a sustainable lab? In the IEG’s DH Lab, all the positions for postdocs and third-party funded staff are fixed-term, while the positions for the head of the unit and research data management are provided as permanent contracts. While it is benficial to have new staff joining the lab on a regular basis, the permanent tasks and the long-term strategy would require people to stay and the fixed-term contracts affect working conditions and attractiveness of the DH Lab. Though, from inside the Lab, we cannot solve this challenge and while we do not accept it, we acknowledge it as an issue and try to find ways to “deal” with it. To some extent, the situation is reflected in our lab concept: The people who work in the lab define the lab, and the lab changes with the people who work there. The lab as an infrastructure should become a “possibility space” for each individual. This makes long-term planning and competence building insanely difficult as personal / staff skills and goals can change any time, the lab is basically a “container”.

“Have one’s cake and eat it too”

(Organizational) ambidexterity does not resolve the problems and contradictions mentioned above; it merely helps to endure them, to remain capable of acting, and to have a balancing effect on the structural tensions in everyday life at Digital Humanities Laboratory.

Cite this article as: Fabian Cremer and Thorsten Wübbena, "The DH Lab as a living oxymoron," in Digital Humanities Lab, 03/08/2023,

Bildnachweis: FriedeWie at wikimedia commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Fabian Cremer (2023, 2. August). The DH Lab as a living oxymoron. Digital Humanities Lab. Abgerufen am 17. April 2024, von

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