Introduction: “Tracing the Movement of Ideas”

by Alyssa Arbuckle, Aaron Mauro, and Daniel Powell

A Framework for Understanding Social Knowledge Creation

In The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea (1936), Arthur O. Lovejoy defines a subdiscipline commonly referred to as the history of ideas. Intending this area of inquiry to be a field that broke from the doctrinal lineages of particular philosophical schools and their attendant “isms,” he presumes that the foundational logic underpinning most systems of thought can be roughly grouped. Lovejoy argues that once the surface level differences and contemporary concerns are removed, there are in fact a limited number of truly different systems of thought. Lovejoy’s provocative work immediately garnered accusations of reductionist and relativist thinking. Believing in the primacy of the dialectic, his act of declaring a foundational moment of discursive analysis seemed to confirm his thinking.

As his title suggests, Lovejoy’s particular brand of Christian-inflected Platonic dialectics posits that the metaphor for the history of ideas is a chain; whether we speak of Plato’s allegory of the cave, or the Renaissance vision of a great chain of being linking all of creation, Lovejoy’s use of dialectics relies on a sequential and ordered hierarchy of thought. It is grounded firmly in the communications technologies of its time (the 1930s), predating the advent of truly mass media in the postwar West, much less the deep interconnectivity of many twenty-first-century digital cultures. Lovejoy’s thinking is hierarchical rather than networked. This appeal to hierarchies is no longer congruent with the nebulous networks of postmodern knowledge creation and transfer. Since the 1960s, the network has been touted as a metaphor for knowledge: Roland Barthes, for example, theorized the telephone as both a “cluster” and a “sequence” (1977, 94, 109). The scholarship contained in volumes 1 and 2 of Social Knowledge Creation in the Humanities is of a different order. The unifying argument for the work is that the speed, ubiquity, and diversity of online platforms, tools, techniques, and interactions have generated and continue to inform distinct cultures of knowledge creation that champion Open Access (OA) publication, iterative process-based development of outputs, and broadly collaborative methods of authorship. Taken together, these sociotechnical changes have fundamentally reshaped how knowledge creation, exchange, and use occur in scholarly environments.

These methods—made possible by global information and communication networks—are simply not reducible to Lovejoy’s conceptions, and often defy scholarly attempts to account for the actions of large groups in developing new ideas. Lovejoy’s governing metaphor was the chain; many scholars today consider the network as more emblematic of contemporary information flows and exchanges. Sociology and psychology have both studied the ways in which complex systems of thought emerge from a network of individual actors (Social Life and Social Knowledge), and Social Network Analysis (SNA) is rapidly emerging as the ur-discourse for the twenty-first century. John Scott’s Social Network Analysis has now entered its third edition since 1991, and corporations and governments routinely mine social media data to target consumers, citizens, competitors, and criminals. Regardless of whether these activities are fully sanctioned or understood by the public, there is a growing awareness about how technology and culture intersect in the age of the network. In academic scholarship, this means that the tools and techniques of networked data analysis have begun to link disciplines in new ways. Due in part to the prevalence of social media in everyday life, the sense that academics who work in collaborative teams are agents within a complex system is deeply familiar and even affirming. Understanding our agency and the ways in which technological systems shape our acts of knowledge creation, dissemination, and reception is a key component of this new disciplinary landscape, relevant both to the self-organization of the university and to its wider role in society at large.

Volumes 1 and 2 of Social Knowledge Creation in the Humanities address such widespread and systemic changes by bringing together diverse scholarship illustrative of this emergent ethos. These volumes extend John Maxwell’s concept of open, agile scholarship:

The embrace of the Open Web and its native agile approach opens up a space in which, rather than specifying outcomes and audiences in static terms, we allow for ongoing interpretation and intervention, where we allow our work, our ideas, our prototypes and models, to live and evolve ongoingly, past our own imagining of their value. What kind of scholarly discourse will we see when the outputs of our work become not only accessible, but truly open: reviewable, revisable, reusable, remixable, by an unanticipated audience? This is the larger promise of truly open scholarship. (2015)

The collaborative research group Implementing New Knowledge Environments (INKE; has refined these ideas under the rubric of open social scholarship. Defined by INKE as “creating and disseminating research and research technologies to a broad, interdisciplinary audience of specialists and non-specialists in ways that are both accessible and significant,” open social scholarship traces its roots to Open Access and open scholarship movements, as well as public-facing citizen scholarship and contemporary online practices (“Victoria Gathering 2017”). Taking open access as a starting point, and building on the work of open access advocates and organizations (Meadows 2015), open social scholarship asks: what happens after widespread access to research is granted? A founding premise of the field asserts that access to research data is not enough; research must also be presented in formats and in contexts that encourage public interaction and participation in a multitude of ways.

There is significant overlap between the terms open scholarship, social knowledge creation, and open social scholarship, and each phrasing emphasizes a different aspect of the same set of phenomena. Open social scholarship, at the moment, best captures the shared emphasis on collaborative processes and open, iterable output. Unified more by a shared ethos and set of practices than by any explicit disciplinary boundaries, this volume discusses open, networked, social knowledge creation and scholarship in terms of the local, the specific, and the limited, rather than a universally applicable and stringently demarcated criterion for any single term. Simply put, open social scholarship is less concerned with laboured conversations about definitions and disciplinary boundaries, and is more focused on adapting a design-based approach that is interested in communities of practice, pragmatic research and teaching, and evolving methods over time.

This introduction attempts to map commonalities among and between ways of doing open scholarship, charting the intersection of three broad and overlapping movements that deeply influence work in this arena: open access, crowdsourcing, and team-based collaboration in digital scholarship. It then moves to consider how these trends combine in humanities scholarship and communication, and ends with a contemplation of technologies as practice in the realm of knowledge work.

Open Access and Openness in Scholarly Work

Social knowledge creation is not possible without the open circulation of information. While this does not necessarily include personal data, an operational ecology of open knowledge work demands that academic resources, publications, and data be as open as possible. In scholarly publications especially, the logic of open scholarship has coalesced around the Open Access (OA) movement. OA publishing offers alternative funding models of editing and publishing services for universities that face budgetary pressures in an unstable global economy. Committing to OA research is both practical and crucial, as it allows those who fund research—i.e., taxpayers, primarily through the mechanisms of governmental funding bodies and institutions— to gain direct access to research output without barriers such as paywalls. OA also facilitates a core tenet of humanistic research: to share, analyze, circulate, and discuss findings widely.

In The Access Principle: The Case for Open Access to Research and Scholarship, John Willinsky defines this ethos as the “access principle,” which demands that a “commitment to the value and quality of research carries with it a responsibility to extend the circulation of this work as far as possible, and ideally to all who are interested in it and all who might profit by it” (2006, 5). From a pragmatic standpoint, OA produces a more efficient knowledge production system, as students, researchers, and other stakeholders can learn from and build on their colleagues’ insights. OA is often perceived as being at odds with traditional publishing models and scholarship practices. There are significant economic considerations in shifting from a system in which a handful of mainstream publishers control and profit from academic publishing to a system predicated on free and open access to research output—as Willinsky notes, access to research has never been simply “an open-and-shut case” (2006, xxi). Although counterintuitive to standard knowledge commercialization and profit models, open access development can provide a cost-effective commercial model by increasing the range of services that organizations are able to provide (Crow 2009; Kennison and Norberg 2014). These organizations may include small publishers and journals, as well as university presses. Increasing the diversity of media and methods used to convey scholarship to the public is a key characteristic of open social scholarship.

Creative Commons, the most well known creator-based licensor, identifies six primary economic benefits to an open model: (1) reduced production costs; (2) reduced transaction costs and legal uncertainty; (3) increased access to innovation and reduced marketing costs; (4) increased first mover advantage; (5) increased “opportunity benefits” and reputation; and (6) sustainability. Under the aegis of Creative Commons, many are now considering how to reinvent existing practices around knowledge work and its output— such as monographs and scholarly journals—within an OA framework, and with creativity and public engagement in mind (Guldi 2013, Saklofske 2016). In “Beyond Open Access to Open Publication and Open Scholarship” (2015), Maxwell calls for an evolved mode of online scholarly communication, which he considers as possessing “a conservative character, highly resistant to structural change.” He criticizes academics for settling for a traditional and limited production system, and urges them to consider more agile, social, and flexible publication models that consider relevance and a reader’s attention—and not just that of an assumed professional academic reader.

A culture of openness allows researchers to become more involved with each other and with other interested stakeholders, including those in the public and private sectors. We take it as a given that there is considerable value in researchers productively sharing their intellectual labour and outputs beyond what have historically been considered disciplinary, institutional, and social barriers in the service of a larger public good. Such openness is in line with increasing the impact of academic work as outlined by various funding and governmental bodies around the world; Research Councils UK articulates academic impact as “[t]he demonstrable contribution that excellent research makes to academic advances, across and within disciplines, including significant advances in understanding, methods, theory and application,” paralleled by economic and social impact that measures “[t]he demonstrable contribution that excellent research makes to society and the economy” (Research Councils UK). The UK Research Excellence Framework defines impact as “an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia” (2012). By working toward widespread acceptance of openly accessible scholarship and considering how to implement and inspire systems for open social scholarship, researchers can move beyond the stereotypical closed circle of their departments and fields, and move into a more open arena that invites and involves many different people. This increases measurable impact, and begins to shift scholarly norms of activity and behavior.

In a twentieth-century context, it made a certain amount of sense to have research disseminated through print publishers: physical production of textual materials was (and remains) expensive and infrastructure-intensive, in addition to the realities of managing the distribution of such materials. The physical needs of print were compounded by disciplines that required increasingly technical visualizations or images. The cost of high quality colour reproductions, for instance, is exceedingly high. For important research of this kind, companies that we often think of as traditional print publishers were the only entities capable of doing such work. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, the Internet has reduced these costs, and in so doing has radically restructured various parts of the production and dissemination process. On the content side, experts invested in their field of study have long undertaken the expensive human work of creating and revising research materials. Peer review is rarely factored into the cost of publication, as it is usually “free” labour from the publisher’s perspective. Increasingly, graphic design, page layout, and grammar checking services can be attained on university campuses, and some web-based systems can automate this work. The technical need for large corporate publishers may no longer be present, yet academic culture has retained a regressive sense of prestige associated with the sort of publication and dissemination that those publishers offer.

The result of retaining a largely obsolete and irrational distribution system is an artificially high cost of access to original research. Paywalled research retrenches the perception of disengaged academics and a cultural elite who are uninterested in the real world. OA, by contrast, champions a breadth of knowledge stakeholders. Researchers, students, patients, cultural workers, governmental organizations, community members, and individual citizens are affected by the nostalgia for paper and fealty to notions of prestige and status. By contrast, digital media are likely the norm for these stakeholders when it comes to accessing music, literature, movies, and every other kind of content imaginable. While digitization is also the norm for scholarly publications, the price has increased well beyond the pace of inflation regardless of decreasing dissemination costs. Periodical costs have increased by over 250 per cent since the mid-1980s, and an annual subscription to the most expensive periodical in chemistry costs $4,488 (Bosch and Henderson 2015). Although the reality is that publishing costs are lower and subscription rates are increasing, academics still donate their time to these corporate publishers to review and edit the academic content that the publishers release. Furthermore, contemporary publishing costs impact what teachers can teach due to a lack of access or burdensome copyright law. Less wealthy countries can be similarly disenfranchised through nationally based corporate partnerships and currency devaluation. While there will always be a cost associated with publication, the current costs restricting public access are unrealistic and unnecessary. There must be a viable model for long-term, sustained, universal access to publicly funded research.

While the free-to-read argument is important, it is equally important that OA allows for large scale analysis. JSTOR’s Data for Research portal is a good start for such access, but a truly OA world would not require restrictions. 1 Full text data mining across many journals and over many years can allow for patterns in research and new directions that are not currently possible because no single individual can read such large collections. HathiTrust’s recently released Data API (application programming interface) is another noteworthy step toward a world in which large scale analysis is the norm, thereby increasing the speed and efficiency of research.2In some ways, scholarly publishing has always been collaborative and dependent on networks of people from around the world to share and improve research. The networks of relationships and the media-specific dependencies are changing. The relationship between paper and prestige is purely a cultural one, but the assumption that paper publications are more rigorous and more valuable will likely be present for years to come. After all, we might imagine our readers thinking, “Why would they have bothered to print them if they were not somehow special?” This aura of paper will fade in time, and the publicly facing and socially engaged researchers will continue to push the limits of academic cultural norms.

Crowdsourcing in Culture and Academia

Contemporary consumption of culture and information is deeply tied to a participatory sensibility (Jenkins 2006; Mahony and Stephansen 2016). Social media has helped to shape public perception about individual actions online, and we as individuals are becoming more and more comfortable in large, complex, and rapidly changing media environments. Those who actively and regularly use social media scan the flow of information and, at times, become a part of it. “Users” and social knowledge creators both create and consume online content. Social knowledge creation is deeply tied to the so-called “wisdom of the crowd.” Crowdsourcing has become a symptom of broader collaborative structures made possible online. The term “crowdsourcing” has long emphasized a primarily business-oriented activity, but in recent years it has grown to include an expansive branch of participatory, public facing collaborative scholarship, and is now integral to debates about certain types of collaboratively produced knowledge in academia and beyond.

As a distinct term, crowdsourcing dates from a 2006 Wired article by Jeff Howe. In that piece, he details “The Rise of Crowdsourcing” as business practice:

Technological advances in everything from product design software to digital video cameras are breaking down the cost barriers that once separated amateurs from professionals. Hobbyists, part timers, and dabblers suddenly have a market for their efforts, as smart companies in industries as disparate as pharmaceuticals and television discover ways to tap the latent talent of the crowd. The labor isn’t always free, but it costs a lot less than paying traditional employees. It’s not outsourcing; it’s crowdsourcing. (2006b)

Going on to write a book—Crowdsourcing—on the topic, Howe promulgates
two definitions for the term on his website:

The White Paper Version: Crowdsourcing is the act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call. The Soundbyte Version: The application of Open Source principles to fields outside of software.

These are radically different definitions, although Howe casually conflates them. In fact, many open source and open access advocates would likely claim that their principles are antithetical to Howe’s “white paper version” of crowdsourcing. Framed as free labour, crowdsourcing can be seen as exploitative and, perhaps at its best, as an inefficient way of tackling academic workflows.3 Crowdsourcing is often turned to by librarians and humanists as a way to facilitate bulk transcription or tagging—a sort of piecemeal work that can represent one problematic model of collaborative production. This is especially striking in the frequent identification of crowdsourcing as practice with Amazon’s Mechanical Turk,4 which pays workers very small amounts to complete small tasks. In disciplines more interested in human computation, algorithmic processing, or programming workflows, crowdsourcing is often taken to mean only the use of Mechanical Turk in algorithmic chains (Lasecki, Rzeszotarski, Marcus, and Bigham 2015; Law and Zhang 2011). Setting aside these debates about labour, however, is necessary because academic conceptions of crowdsourcing have far outgrown the corporate tool defined by Howe in 2006.

Broadly speaking, current usage of the term crowdsourcing has shifted; in academic contexts specifically, humanists often deploy the term with a remarkably different valence than Howe did more than a decade ago. At least as early as 2006, Howe himself began to notice that the term was being coopted by others to mean broadly participatory types of digitally-facilitated interaction: crowdsourcing “is being used somewhat interchangably with Yochai Benkler’s concept of commons-based peer production” (2006a). This separate term—commons-based peer production—was defined by Benkler and Nissenbaum as:

a socio-economic system of production that is emerging in the digitally networked environment. Facilitated by the technical infrastructure of the Internet, the hallmark of this socio-technical system is collaboration among large groups of individuals, sometimes in the order of tens or even hundreds of thousands, who cooperate effectively to provide information, knowledge or cultural goods without relying on either market pricing or managerial hierarchies to coordinate their common enterprise. (2006, 394)

These are rather different cases of leveraging digital connectivity. Crowdsourcing, as originally understood, entailed a large business exploitatively drawing on “the crowd” to achieve a corporate-oriented purpose. Commonsbased peer production suggests something different: namely, collaborative production of cultural or knowledge materials without distinct managerial or hierarchical oversight. This is perhaps easier to see when Benkler and Nissenbaum write that “peer production is a model of social production” (2006, 400; emphasis ours).

Now, crowdsourcing often encompasses commons-based peer production as well as more task-oriented conceptions of the term. This conflation can lead to misunderstandings about what is and is not possible within collaborative environments, especially as straightforward, mechanical micro-tasks (e.g., categorizing, tagging, transcribing, geo-matching) scale up to more complex knowledge creation work (e.g., editing, creating controlled metadata, co-authoring). There are excellent examples of this kind of community-based peer production in the realm of digital humanities that work to blend research participation and undergraduate curriculum. The History Unfolded project, for example, seeks to have individuals retrieve local archival resources from across the U.S. in an effort to digitize and collect newspapers printed during WWII.5 The potential to blend real world business interests with education are also present in the Planet Hunters website, which enables citizen scientists to identify planets on behalf of NASA’s Kepler mission.6 This is the creation of new knowledge, taking shape as the aggregate input of innumerable contributors. Social knowledge creation is a spectrum ranging from smaller, incremental contributions to fully shared intellectual ownership. Cultural production is a collaborative, networked practice, and when such interaction is made localized on a common platform or technical standard, the pathways of social knowledge creation are more easily traced. Central to any discussion of social media and social knowledge is an understanding of how profoundly normal such activity is now taken to be by the public.

These brief examples are also important because they point toward what Henry Jenkins and others have called “participatory culture.” As outlined in a 2006 white paper, participatory culture is defined as “a culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices” (Jenkins, Purushotma, Clinton, Weigel, and Robison 2006, 3). More than existing as a type of subculture, life online is often participatory as a default; in other words, it is not a subset of cultural production, but the inclination of living a connected social and professional life online. History Unfolded and Planet Hunters are emblematic of the shift from individual ownership and an atomized field of production to an ethos of sharing and collaboration. These examples also signal a movement toward blending popular and scholarly culture that is, as many digital humanists have promised, more engaged and public facing. As experiments with crowdsourcing and the expectation to produce increasingly public scholarship illustrate, the humanities are attempting to catch up to where participatory culture and commons-based production have already established substantial histories of practice.

Expanding Ideas of Collaboration

Faculty, students, administrators, parents, editors, publishers, and librarians might be considered broad classes and collections of individuals who impact scholarly communication. Documents in various genres and formats circulate through these communities: e-mails, PDFs, paper notes, dissertations, term papers, print-outs, books, journals, calendars, course schedules, syllabi, and so on. In addition to how these materials move, people move as well. They move to conference centres, to classrooms, to departmental offices, to the library, or across campus to the café. The formation of a scholarly community is complex and can appear opaque when scholars do not reflect publicly on their own practices. Of course, this is not to say that no work has been done. In a 1997 PMLA article, David R. Shumway wrote about the “star system in literary studies,” noting that “[t]he emergence of academic stars, which has occurred only within the past twenty years, marks a fundamental shift in the profession of literary studies” (Shumway 1997, 90). His article ties together popular understandings of Hollywood stars, academic reputation, technological changes in jet travel, guidelines for tenure and promotion, and the rise of theory to explain what is often seen as simply “how things are.” Shumway’s intervention is valuable not for its insights into academic cultures per se, but because it is a mode of self-reflective analysis that provides a useful framing for our own discussions below. Material publications, actual people, specific events, and money are integral parts of academia and the knowledge it produces; Shumway’s article is one way of approaching the formation and sustenance of academic behaviours and communities that are often uncommented on or else silently adopted.

In a similar reflexive vein, Elizabeth Losh has argued that “a document archive as a physical space is constituted by prohibitions on reading” (2004, 374). Losh focuses on the Bibliothèque nationale de France and the British Library to break down how the multiple levels of surveillance, access control, and physical design combine to form strictly controlled and unwelcome spaces. The main thrust of her argument is that such a gestalt cannot help but influence the development of digital libraries and archives; in other words, the politics of space and power bleed through to the creation of new media resources. Losh ends with a call for the type of research that is vital to understanding where the humanities has found itself, and where humanists of all stripes might go: “Perhaps more ethnographic approaches to the subject could be used as avenues to future research, in that our attitudes toward libraries, both real and virtual, as cultural institutions are shaped by shared beliefs about the function of physical spaces for public reading and by our epistemological expectations about how knowledge should be ordered” (2004, 384). Exploring the often tacit and unspoken ways in which scholars work, the materials they circulate, and the spaces they inhabit is crucial to consciously shaping the future of academic disciplines.

In an age of crowdsourcing, digital platforms, and constant connectivity, how do those working not only in the digital humanities, but the humanities more broadly, best remediate and re-present the cultural record? For digital humanists and scholarly editors, this is a pressing question. Remediation, representation, or modelling is an act of editing—as suggested by the fact that Wikipedia contributors are called editors. Scholarly editing has long been the domain of traditional scholars whose engagement with questions of media specificity, technology writ large, and disciplinary standards and knowledge construction has at times been underwhelming. The world of the print edition has reigned supreme in scholarly editing, and indeed in academia at large. But knowledge no longer moves only in the codex, and if we are to effectively bring the textual patrimony of our past into the present then we must understand how that is best accomplished. What’s more, we need to envision the future shape of scholarly knowledge, broadly construed. What should become our guiding principles when we attempt to create knowledge-bearing objects such as the scholarly edition, or to design knowledge production systems? What can digital humanists, librarians, and #altac practitioners learn from initial forays into a scholarly landscape that may in the end operate according to radically different rules than the print-based ecosystem that has dominated for centuries? 7 Based on a number of trends in book history, scholarly editing, and digital humanities, this tendency toward shared ownership and participatory creation should be thought of as open scholarship. Less any final, distinct object than a set of interlocking processes, open scholarship—whether found in the form of articles, journals, monographs, new media projects, knowledge platforms, or data sets—is never finished, and far from controlled; instead, scholarship becomes a site of intersection for a number of activities which, taken together, indicate how “#alt-ac” describes those working on research projects with expert level training but are not occupying a typical faculty, library, or staff position within the university. These are knowledge workers that collect under a hash tag and are a symptom of larger trends in scholarly research labor in a digital age.

It has become a truism that the scholarly production and dissemination of knowledge is facing unprecedented economic difficulties. Among major scholarly organizations, the Modern Language Association (MLA) has recognized that the ground is shifting under formal disciplinary conventions in the humanities, and that the shift in scholarly publishing is being felt acutely by doctoral students just entering the field. The MLA Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature met from 2012–2014, and was charged with exploring “the prospects for doctoral study in modern language and literature in the light of transformations in higher education and scholarly communication” (Modern Language Association 2014). Writing specifically about first academic books, but in a manner that is applicable to monograph publishing in general, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Associate Executive Director and Director of Scholarly Communication at the MLA, writes: “The first academic book is [. . .] in a curious state, one that might usefully trouble our associations of obsolescence with the ‘death’ of this or that cultural form, for while the first academic book is no longer viable, it is still required. If anything, the first academic book isn’t dead; it is undead” (2009). And if this is the case, Fitzpatrick wisely asks: “If the traditional model of academic publishing is not dead, but undead—again, not viable, but still required—how should we approach our work, and the publishing systems that bring it into being?” (2009.).

Although intellectual labour is often perceived by scholars to be unrelated to material production and financial exchange, it is anything but. The field of scholarly production and communication is one in which money and material circulation play a central role. It is the mismatch between internal, highly specific expectations concerning the form and type of scholarship, such as single author, peer-reviewed articles and monographs, and “external” factors such as material production and financial reality that Fitzpatrick addresses in Planned Obsolescence. In her persuasive view, “there is a particular form of book, the academic book—or more specifically (given that marketing departments prefer known quantities) the first academic book—that is indeed threatened with obsolescence” (Fitzpatrick 2009). In her discussions of new ways of facilitating peer review, understanding shared authorship practices, and a number of other topics, she often returns to the claim that what hinders progress in discovering new models of scholarly production is so often not technical but institutional.

We suggest that what the humanities faces is less a material obsolescence than an institutional one; we are caught in entrenched systems that no longer serve our needs. But because we are, by and large, our institutions, or rather, because they are us, the greatest challenge we face is not that obsolescence, but our response to it. Fitzpatrick’s argument throughout Planned Obsolescence is vital because of how it reconceives authorship and textual production. Most relevant to this volume are her views on collaborative authorship, peer review, and the form that scholarly argumentation might take. In their briefest forms, she argues for a system of peer-to-peer review subtler than the current system; a reformulation of authorship that understands the collaborative nature of intellectual production; and a manner of networked knowledge production that fully leverages digital connectivity.

Social Knowledge in Humanities Practice

As much of the content in this volume describes, the way scholars in the humanities do scholarship is changing in response to the ways that those in the academy collectively leverage the fully-formed web infrastructure. Within the humanities, these trends can be most easily seen within the digital humanities, where social knowledge work seems most active. Lisa Spiro has written that “[b]uilding digital collections, creating software, devising new analytical methods, and authoring multimodal scholarship typically cannot be accomplished by a solo scholar; rather, digital humanities projects require contributions from people with content knowledge, technical skills, design skills, project management experience, metadata expertise, etc.” (2009). She goes on to detail a roughly 45 per cent difference in collaborative authorship rates between American Literary History and Literary and Linguistic Computing (now titled Digital Scholarship in the Humanities). The first is a well-respected quarterly publication in literary studies; the second is the disciplinary journal for digital humanities. Although collaborative authorship is perhaps a rough proxy for discussing social knowledge creation more broadly, it is a useful snapshot of a community in practice over time. It is also representative of larger shifts of the sorts discussed by, among many others, Dan Cohen (2012), Kathleen Fitzpatrick (2009, 2012), Nancy Fjällbrant (1997), Jo Guldi (2013), and Ray Siemens (2002).

Digital humanists seem to have adopted the view that better connections between and among scholars, not to mention outside the academy, will and should irrevocably change the ways scholarship is pursued. There remains, however, a tendency to treat social media as a diversion, regardless of how the platform is used. Using online tools to ease collaboration and increase productivity has an additional side effect: by making analytics available to users, scholarly research production has become more transparent and quantifiable. It is now possible to use the user interface of social media in a secure and professional way through collaboration tools such as Slack, Basecamp, or Yammer. The Social Knowledge Timeline tool, created by a team at Penn State and led by Aaron Mauro, offers a way to link these common platforms with version control systems like Github and traditional social media like Twitter.8 The roles and contributions of diverse individuals are much easier to trace in digital media than they have historically been in print. These common platforms allow for an accurate accounting of scholarly work, and produce a record of where insights emerge. Such traces are not new to the digital age, nor are they historically unique. Nevertheless, the evolution of print as a media form has often elided the contributions of multiple authors, textual producers, and the multiplicity of actors operating within and around print outputs. The sharpness of schematic critiques that combine reading and material production into an ecosystem of cultural work are notable in the humanities precisely because they explicitly trouble the flattening effect that print has on the contributions of collaborators, editors, designers, printers, and others.9 Wiki-based publication platforms such as Wikibooks, or content management systems such as WordPress, help to reveal the patterns of social interactivity that have always typified knowledge work. Of course, as much as technology might reveal, technology also constitutes the relations it aids in uncovering. Culture and technology are mutually constitutive. Participating on a wiki makes the wiki work. Without human participation, the system is no more useful than traditional media. Because a wiki is designed to identify needed content, it grows in an organic way as users find areas of the wiki’s knowledge base that is lacking. If an empty entry is found, the user is invited to begin the new entry. Participation is inspired by use. To state the obvious, knowledge creation occurs by knowing what is not known. Social knowledge creation helps build consensus about needed research activity by drawing questions, concerns, and discussion from a broader community in a rapid way. The speed of communication creates a qualitatively different experience for collaborators.

The speed of collaboration is often a thrilling experience for many humanists accustomed to working in isolation; however, it is also the traceability of scholarly work that reshapes social knowledge creation and the traditional hierarchies of universities through this reassessment of authority and contributorship. It must be restated that all research is social. The broadly understood roles of author, editor, and publisher are so often blended today, but when humanities scholars hold fast to strictly discursive concerns and the role of the author, they fail to see the broader cultural impact that technology is having in knowledge production and dissemination. This is not to dismiss core disciplinary concerns. Humanities research must benefit in some way by these new approaches, and these new approaches in no way invalidate traditional methods. However, habituated methods run the risk of isolating scholarly research from their contemporary technology and the cultures that emerge in those contexts. It is impossible to encounter scholarship outside of a technological context, and every technological context should be studied alongside and in relation to a sociocultural one.

Within humanities scholarship, and when referring to the technology produced and used by scholars themselves, exploring these types of relations might appear contentious. A more subtle approach is to understand how social technology manifests itself in local and particular terms, whether in the print shop of early modern England or the academic department of the contemporary university. Concerning digital scholarship, the social nature of scholarly work is evident in the emphasis on collaboration. Many scholarpractitioners in the field take such collaboration as a central tenet of the discipline, and reports and reflections on the realities of digital humanities projects and labs bolster such thinking.10 Despite this emphasis on collaboration, as Spiro’s observation highlights, explicitly social ways of working are still seen as rare, on the whole, within the humanities.

Our challenge as practising humanists is to harmonize socially produced intellectual work with the often rigid and outdated tenure and promotion processes in our universities. Researchers of all ranks should be rewarded in ways that are commensurate with their research output, regardless of their chosen media or methods. Some have claimed that a media and method-agnostic culture will emerge as students resist outdated pedagogies and insist on using new technologies in their education. Our students bring with them deeply embedded patterns of behaviour and thinking that readily invalidate single authored scholarship. When social knowledge creation arrives readymade and normalized, co-authorship and collaboration appear to be logical extensions of the technological context in which many scholars and students live and work every day. Humanists work to understand what it means to be human; in the twenty-first century, that means living connected and social lives online.

Knowledge work can be transparently social, outwardly iterative, and incredibly fast moving. Knowledge-making in the twenty-first century is shifting from long-understood modes of print production to collaborative, social systems of shared production and ownership. Matthew James Driscoll and Elena Pierazzo’s recent collection Digital Scholarly Editing, for example, summarizes social editing in essentially two contexts: the first is the rise of social media connectivity and Web 2.0, and the second is developments in discourses of social textuality (2016, 18–25). The first set of ideas is obvious from the way many of us live our lives (there are nearly 1.5 billion monthly users of Facebook, for instance), and the second is perhaps best described by the work of Donald McKenzie (1999), Jerome McGann (1983, 2003, 2009), and Ray Siemens and collaborators (2002, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2014).

As a set of relationships in academia, social knowledge integrates both social media connectivity and the analytical categories scholars might bring to bear, in the manner of McKenzie or Robert Darnton, on the inscription-bearing artifacts of knowledge work in the humanities. In 2009, Jerome McGann repeated his earlier statement that “[i]n the next fifty years the entirety of our inherited archive of cultural works will have to be re-edited within a network of digital storage, access, and dissemination” (2009, 13). While the time scale may be ambitious, and seems to be more of a provocation than a plan of action, the realities of knowledge production indicate that such a transition is well underway. It must be noted, however, that McGann did not account for the role social knowledge creation has to play in this transition. To take an effective leadership role in this process of cultural remediation and reimagining, scholars must redefine humanities-based knowledge production as an expansive, welcoming process of collective cultural work. Instead of standalone models of individual authors, humanists must embrace a scholarship that is public facing, that integrates diverse groups into creative knowledge-making activities, and that is socially-minded.

An explicit goal of volumes 1 and 2 of Social Knowledge Creation in the Humanities is to lay bare the processes and decisions that form the cultures and communities surrounding digital humanities projects. By imagining “the social” as an analytical construct, humanists can take up a renewed popular role in remediating our “inherited archive of cultural works,” and can reflect on internal practices and explore social knowledge as practice within the contemporary humanities. Approached in this way, social knowledge creation—whether it takes the form of editing, peer review, authorship, project building, or other activities within the ambit of digital humanities work—reimagines the making of knowledge in practical and institutional terms; social knowledge creation acknowledges the historical realities of knowledge work and takes account of contemporary trends in collaborative methods and social ownership of ideas. As an extension of scholarly communication, it cannot exist in the absence of communities of practice. In this regard, it is tied to material production, dissemination, and circulation of the history of ideas.

Digital humanists have a key role to play in designing and implementing platforms and projects that engender a shared public sphere of social knowledge creation. Participatory digital projects, and the collaborative or crowd-based infrastructures that underlie them, are mechanisms by which to re-knit and encourage shared ownership of cultural content. Researchers have a practical view of how knowledge is made and circulated. They see first-hand how disciplinary communities form and disintegrate, and how power is articulated in socially-oriented research groups.

Outline of Social Knowledge Creation in the Humanities Volumes

The two volumes of Social Knowledge Creation in the Humanities are being published in an iterative, unorthodox manner that combines printed outputs with digital publication. The final print form of all materials will be two printed volumes released by the New Technologies in Medieval and Renaissance Studies Series at Iter Press. Volume I of that set is the present document, which includes this introduction and a comprehensive bibliography of academic research on social knowledge creation broadly, and many of the areas touched on here (open access, crowdsourcing, coauthorship, etc.). Volume II will consist of a shorter introduction focused on the five contributions contained in that volume, as well as the chapters themselves.

We aim to simultaneously publish Volume 1 online and in print. In cooperation with Iter Press, the editors are building a website not only to disseminate these materials in digital form, but also to facilitate authorial and scholarly feedback using the well-established CommentPress theme in WordPress. Thus the online version will be open to commentary, feedback, and criticism.

The chapters intended for the printed Volume II will also be released at this time, on the same site. In publishing these materials online and on a platform that encourages open review and feedback, the authors, editors, and publishers hope that these materials will be enriched by such exchanges prior to revision for print publication. These exchanges will be integrated into the final print form, likely in the form of threaded marginal texts similar to glossing. As such, here we introduce both printed volumes and the online site, which will facilitate extended conversation and exchange about social knowledge creation. The introduction to Volume II will address the contributions of that volume in more detail.

Conclusion: Technology as Practical Culture

In their postscript to the second edition of Laboratory Life, Bruno Latour and Stephen Woolgar write that the common assumption of succeeding laboratory studies such as theirs “is that our understanding of science can profitably draw upon experiences gained while immersed in the day-to-day activities of working scientists” (1979, 277). Latour and Woolgar self-consciously chose the term “anthropology of science” in an attempt to denote a particular “presentation of preliminary empirical material, our desire to retrieve something of the craft character of science, the necessity to bracket our familiarity with the object of study, and our desire to incorporate a degree of ‘reflexivity’ into our analysis” (1979, 277–78). To shift discussions of knowledge into discussions of social knowledge, the authors and resources in this volume have reflected on the spaces, technologies, and norms in daily use. Social knowledge production happens in social spaces (the lab, the centre), using social technologies (platforms of communication, research, discovery, analysis, etc.), and employs variants on the expectations and norms arising from specific disciplines. Central to discussions of the changing nature of scholarly communication and knowledge creation is how the infrastructures for making and sharing knowledge in the humanities are shifting.11 The transitions seen in academic libraries are an important early symptom of this largely uncharted paradigm. Overall, the academy needs to better understand the internal systems of validating digital scholarship. Further, there is a necessity for community-based consensus around structuring student work and collaboration between teams, and large projects need to state the processes by which knowledge is made and shared. There may be resistance to this type of introspective analysis, in part because the humanities have always been accused of navel gazing, and also because our methods will demand a great deal of change from university systems around the world. The challenge of institutional transformation is neatly articulated by Geoffrey C. Bowker and Susan Leigh Star in their study of classification:

Remarkably for such a central part of our lives, we stand for the most part in formal ignorance of the social and moral order created by these invisible, potent entities. Their impact is indisputable, and as Foucault reminds us, inescapable. Try the simple experiment of ignoring your gender classification and use instead whichever toilets are the nearest; try to locate a library book shelved under the wrong Library of Congress catalogue number; stand in the immigration queue at a busy foreign airport without the right passport or arrive without the transformer and the adaptor that translates between electrical standards. The material force of categories appears always and instantly. (1999, 3)

This discussion of social knowledge creation is an effort to reveal some of the assumptions that underwrite humanities research by illustrating its emergence in locally specific ways. We embrace, in this volume, an emerging social order in humanities research. We acknowledge and validate the technology and methods that form and inform our academic cultures. We follow in the footsteps of other interdisciplinary scholars. The words of Ursula Franklin, first heard in her Massey Lectures of 1989, resonate throughout the material that follows:

Looking at technology as practice, indeed as formalized practice, has some quite interesting consequences. One is that it links technology directly to culture, because culture, after all, is a set of socially accepted practices and values. Well laid down and agreed upon practices also define the practitioners as a group of people who have something in common because of the way they are doing things. (2004, 6)

This volume, much like Lovejoy’s The Great Chain of Being, represents a foundational discursive moment. But it is a discursive moment that breaks the chain and embraces the organic and non-hierarchical networks that emerge between people. By articulating a definition of social knowledge creation that takes shape at the intersection of multiple trends and scholarly practices, the work collected here is in some sense creating a new area for discussion in digital humanities. Our goal is not to have the final word on this debate, but to provide initial, gestural, and varied snapshots of scholarly practices in flux.


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  • 1. See JSTOR Data for Research
  • 2. See HathiTrust API
  • 3.For an excellent blog series covering many of these issues, see Bentel (2014). For a perceptive analysis of the efficacy of crowdsourcing from an economic perspective, see Causer, Tonra, and Wallace (2012).
  • 4.See Amazon’s Mechanical Turk.
  • 5.See
  • 6.See Planet Hunters
  • 7.Scholarly works might take shape in collaborative technological and social environments.
  • 8. See The Social Knowledge Timeline
  • 9.Robert Darnton’s communications circuit, for example, maps readers, authors, publishers, booksellers, printers, suppliers, and shippers onto a single diagrammatic visualisation of “the entire communication process” of books (1982, 67–68).
  • 10. See chapter 3 (“The Social Life of the Digital Humanities”) in Burdick et al. (2012, 73–98) for an excellent overview of the many ways “the social” manifests itself in digital humanities. Collaborative Research in the Humanities (Deegan and McCarty 2012) is exemplary, and indicative of disciplinary reflections on the nature of collaborative work. See also Siemens’s work on teams in digital humanities environments (2009).
  • 11.Initiatives such as the Canadian Research Knowledge Network’s (CRKN) Integrated Digital Scholarly Ecosystem (IDSE) project demonstrate the comprehensive difficulties of such a shift; the role of libraries, for example, seems to be shifting from that of a body that houses content and provides access to one that aids in co-creating and fostering scholarship. This is one example of how knowledge work happens in a specific, but often tacit, system of standards, expectations, organization, and spatial arrangement.