One of the much discussed topic of the digital humanities as an infrastructure concerns the role of libraries, which are not only the place where knowledge has been preserved for centuries (if not millennia), but also they represent the ideal partner for researchers and research centers, since they preserve most of the objects studied by scholars. Libraries have been identified as major actors for the preservation of digital artifacts (Van Zundert and Boot, 2012; Pierazzo, 2015), and many have engaged in such activities (Stanford Library, Brandeis University, British Library, for instance). In the same time the creation and the provision of digital libraries has now become almost normal, with most research libraries digitizing at least some part of their beholding and putting them online.
Although preservation and digitization are indeed of a fundamental importance, it is arguable that the mission of a library in the age of the digital can be extended even further. At the University of Grenoble a new and ambitious project has started. The idea is to transform the library of Italian Studies (which has a privileged status within the French library system) into a cultural hub, thanks to the tools and approaches offered by the Digital Humanities. The project is called “Fonte Gaia” (happy source), a name that plays with the double meaning of the Italian word “fonte”, which means “fountain” (like the fountain in Siena from which the project is named) and “source” as in the sources of knowledge (the books); the “happy” refers to the conviviality of sharing such knowledge. The project is the expression of a larger consortium of libraries beholding considerable Italian books collections (Paris, Padua, Bologna, Rome, for now), and includes several components, surrounding the provision of a digital library, offering access to books digitized in Grenoble and in the other partner libraries. The digitized books will be offered in correlation with a series of tools and facilities for users: to annotate them; to create digital editions based on the same; to create reading paths and exercises. A funded PhD student is now investigating the functionalities and the ergonomics of an interface offering so many options to the users. The project has a strong pedagogical component: from the involvement of BAs and MAs students in the workflow of production of the eBooks, to PhD studentships, to the hosting of interns from Italy and France, to the organization of an French-Italian summer school for digital editing (starting summer 2016) and workshops; on that context a partnership with the ITN DiXit has been put in place.
In addition to these initiatives, two periodical publications are being proposed: first an informal un-journal (inspired by the format of un-conferences), where a group of early career researchers animate a polyphonic blog on topics rotating around Italian Studies and the time of digital; and second a more formal, peered-review scholarly journal which will be focused on libraries, Italian Studies and digital humanities. While this latter is still at the planning stage, the former has already started in April 2015 with great enthusiasm and success, with encouraging numbers of visits and good feedback from scholars, librarians and the Open Access environments in Italy and France. In fact “Fonte Gaia” adopt a strict golden OA policy for all the contents that are generated under its label, as well as for the content that are harvested; “Fonte Gaia” actively engages in the diffusion of OA policies and initiatives.
On the research side, “Fonte Gaia” incubates and fuels several small and medium research projects, providing support to early career researchers and other scholars in the mounting of digital humanities projects. At moment we have just started a project on metadata standards to open up our content to a linked data approach; two other new projects are in the phase of elaboration, one centered on the private archive of one of the most prominent translator of Italian literature in French between the end of the Nineteenth and the beginning of the Twentieth century, and the second on the census and digital cataloguing of Italian manuscripts possessed by the libraries of Grenoble. Connected to this latter, a module for virtual exhibition will be developed.
One of the aspects that make “Fonte Gaia” standing out from other similar initiatives is a partnership on equal basis between research and teaching centers and libraries. The different sets of complementary competences and experiences are at the base of the creation of a center of cultural animation, as well as preservation and production in a digital context. The pedagogical vocation shared by teachers and librarians are also shaping a unique learning environment with a strong hands-on component coupled with theoretical and ethical teaching. This ethos reflects also on the research and cultural heritage components of the project, making of “Fonte Gaia” a pioneering experiment of bringing together people, expertise and innovation.
This type of partnership is a genuine revolution in the French context, where traditionally the relationship between librarians and scholars is more a matter of a polite sharing of spaces,often verging on indifference, rather than one of active cooperation. In fact, since its inception this equal governance of “Fonte Gaia” has produced astonishment (luckily sometimes curiosity as well) among the members of the two categories as it challenges their tradition, their missions and their working methods. We take this as proof that we have to persevere.