Meet Spencer Keralis, Director for Digital Scholarship at the University of North Texas

by Ayoola White

Spencer Keralis is in love with metadata. He blogs, he emails, he evangelizes his department to a variety of academic disciplines at his university. He is the Head of the Digital Humanities and Collaborative Programs Unit at the University of North Texas (UNT). He began working at UNT in 2011, in a library position funded by a grant. The next year he took on the newly created role of Director for Digital Scholarship. In 2014, the Digital Humanities Unit was founded. He completed his doctoral studies in early American Literature at NYU in 2016.  . In this short amount of time, Keralis’ job roles and titles evolved to match the new skills that he was developing, namely pedagogy, research, and marketing. The department has continued to grow to match the needs of the UNT community.

With a background in early book culture, Keralis has a special appreciation for digitization, even though the Digital Humanities Unit doesn’t do a lot of that. He points out that, although digitization is not tantamount to preservation, it does increase access. Even if a rare book that is from, say, the 1800s is too fragile for regular handling, digitization allows people to get excited about discovering something unique. His familiarity with the realm of literature is a boon to Keralis in this position, along with his devotion to public service.

The Humanities Unit organizes a lot of workshops and other events. The philosophy that underpins the organizing of these events is “programming clusters,” often inspired by current issues. The flexibility that this framework marks an advantage over the practice of continually having annual events without regard for whether the event is needed or not. The most popular event that the Digital Libraries Unit hosts is the Human Library, which has been running for six years and takes place during National Library Week. The way it works is that a patron can “check out” a person and hear that person’s life stories. Keralis points out that this is a spectacular way for people from marginalized groups to share their perspectives. Another event that Keralis is proud of is the Digital Frontiers Conference, an annual regional conference with an emphasis on being affordable for, accessible to, and inclusive of early career professionals. In his words, “makers and users are brought together.” The conference draws people from a variety of fields—humanities, computer science, genealogy, and library science to name a few—and they all go through the same conference experience together, as there are no separate tracks or concurrent sessions.

A continual challenge that Keralis has faced in his position has been finding proper metrics of value to judge the effectiveness of the department. After all, not all that is measurable is useful, and not all that is useful is measurable. This situation can be especially stressful since metrics are used to allocate funding, which Keralis considers to be “the biggest nightmare” for his department, since the technology and expertise associated with the digital humanities can carry a hefty price tag. For this reason, Keralis is always in “community-building mode” to demonstrate the value of what he and his colleagues do.

In terms of the future of the Digital Humanities Unit, Keralis is hopeful about the community that has been built around it. Specifically, he referenced the high student involvement in digital humanities scholarship, particularly at the Digital Frontiers Conference. He observes that students are frequently on the same panels as faculty. Keralis also appreciates that people from disciplines that are not strictly based in the humanities have become involved with his department. For example, he was invited to a design class, and he was excited by the ideas students were generating about “interrogating race, gender, and sexuality” in their field. Keralis is heartened by the engagement of these emerging scholars.