The Future at Digital Humanities 2013

Mike Furlough, Associate Dean for Research & Scholarly Communications, Penn State University Libraries
Mike Furlough

This Event Update was provided by Mike Furlough, Associate Dean for Research & Scholarly Communications, Penn State University Libraries.

When the American Historical Association endorsed extended embargoes for history dissertations on July 22, it reacted to anecdotal reports that some publishers will not consider manuscripts based on an openly available ETD. I will not recite the arguments made by the AHA, nor the many critical responses, nor will I go into detail about how they have responded to fear by reinforcing a status quo rather than attempting to address causes. However, I will note that it contrasts starkly with discussions at the previous week’s Digital Humanities 2013 conference, organized by the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations (ADHO), and hosted this year by the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities (CDHR) on the campus of the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. This is a meeting that bestowed high honors on sage Willard McCarty, who reminded his audience “failure is our most important product” and went on to outline a far-reaching history of humanities computing and vision for the future of digital humanities. It was a meeting that celebrated its young scholars and sought to address the factors contributing to the conditions that make their future in academia uncertain. It was a meeting that critically examined the shortcomings of the field even as it celebrated its achievements. After a week of all that, AHA’s announcement was like a bad hangover.

I did not see many faces at DH 2013 that were familiar from the DLF Forum, code4lib, or other meetings. That’s not surprising, especially coming on the heels of Open Repositories, held in PEI earlier in the month. Nevertheless, the overlapping spheres of the digital humanities and digital libraries were apparent in the presentations and the audience. Several colleagues (mostly librarians) noted the large number of attendees from libraries, archives, and LIS and I-schools, many of whom also presented on topics that would fit at the DLF Forum. The conference began with a keynote from David Ferriero, the Archivist of the United States, who introduced the international audience to the Citizen Archivist Dashboard initiative, and referred to Ken Price, local co-host and leader of the Walt Whitman Archive as “my favorite citizen archivist.”  Attendees could choose among several presentations about the use and presentation of large-scale digital collections, including data modeling for text mining, user assessment, and quality assurance of the products of mass digitization efforts. In their presentation, Matthew Kirschenbaum and Alex Chassanofff, provided an introduction to the Bit Curator project while also linking digital archiving and forensics to a long history of materialist approaches to textual and bibliographic scholarship.  Ryan Cordell and his colleagues presented the initial results of their analysis of the Chronicling America collections to identify reprinting practices in 19th century newspapers.

Inclusivity and openness were overriding themes throughout the meeting At the start of the conference, ADHO announced that it had formed a working group on inclusivity to promote “the development or refinement of policies, protocols, and informal practices meant to welcome more diverse constituencies to ADHO.” Inspired by code4lib, the Association of Computers in the Humanities sponsored its first-ever round of Newcomers Dinners, resulting in 15 small dinner parties for over 100 attendees at area restaurants hosted by conference veterans.  I even spoke with teachers who came from their private secondary schools explore how to introduce digital scholarship methods to their upper-division students.  Organizers did not provide an attendee list,  but the consensus at break-times was that the faces in the crowd presaged an expansion of the field and its demographics. “I used to know three-quarters of the attendees here,” a twenty-plus year veteran told me. “This time I think I know only about 25%. And that’s a good thing.”

The agenda included a number of programs that examined issues of gender, race, and power dynamics in the field, inspiring extended back-channeling on Twitter. Some outlines of these inquiries into DH’s relative openness can be gleaned from a podcast featuring Lee Skallerup, Jarah Moesch, and Chris Long, which extends the dialogue at Skallerup’s and Moesch’s paper titled “Digital Humanities: Egalitarian or the New Elite?” In an excellent closing keynote titled “Is There Anybody Out There? Building a global Digital Humanities community,” Isabel Galina noted that an ethos of openness and collaboration sits at the very heart of digital humanists’ conceptions of themselves, but that “over the past few years this community has become aware that [it] isn’t so open, universal as it thought it was.” Galina, of the Instituto de Investigaciones Bibliográficas at the National University of Mexico (UNAM), went on to outline a number of practical things that presenters and organizers can do to make international attendees more welcome at future meetings. (The Australasian Association for Digital Humanities and the Japanese Association of Digital Humanities are joining the multiple organizations that already make up ADHO.) Other presentations widened the context for this discussion of inclusion and elision to focus on systems of canonization of literature and scholarship. Kathi Inman Berens’s “Judy Malloy’s Seat at the (Database) Table” explored the reception history of Judy Malloy, a pioneer of electronic literature who has been elided from histories of the field through discovery algorithms and publishing standards in addition to more familiar gender dynamics.


Following the ADHO’s presentation of the ten young scholars who were awarded bursaries (essentially travel grants), one attendee remarked that “this generation of digital humanists is the first to be formally trained. The rest of us were all self-taught.” Options for this training have included the Digital Humanities@Oxford Summer School, Digital Humanities Summer Institute at University of Victoria and HILT (Humanities Intensive Learning & Teaching—formerly the Digital Humanities Winter Institute), hosted by the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities. Many librarians have availed themselves of these events but they may be too specialized (and costly) to meet the need for some existing career librarians, who could benefit from more exposure to topics such as data curation and e-science support. Some places have therefore developed tracks for themselves. Nora McGregor, a member of the Digital Scholarship department at the British Library, offered a short paper on a program of short courses introducing  digital scholarship concepts to the nearly 300 curators who work at the BL. The fifteen one-day workshops in the series offer a potential model for other programs, both at the local level and perhaps from some of our professional organizations.

I missed the dh+lib-sponsored meetup, but twitter reports indicated a big turnout. Informal alliances and potential regional networks at the intersection of DH and Libraries are in the offing; during Friday’s “SIG Slam,” a brief pitch for a Special Interest Group on Libraries and DH won approval and new interest, suggesting that future DH meeting will continue to see increased involvement from the DLF and wider libraries communities. Still lingering, however, is the question of how libraries and technologists work with and support digital humanities researchers. One of the most memorable talks I have ever seen was given by Quinn Dombrowski, who used her post-mortem, titled “What ever happened to Project Bamboo?” to fearlessly recounted the difficult history of this ambitious project, which was led by technologists and heavily criticized by digital humanities researchers from the very start. The intensity of that criticism and suspicions of motive led to the project’s discontinuation in 2012, and the Q&A briefly resurrected these debates. In various forums, Barbara Rockenbach and Trevor Muñoz have debated another variation on hack vs. yack:  librarians supporting DH vs. librarians doing DH. To me, the presentations at DH 2013 showed that there is not a clear or fruitful distinction to be made here.

That said, those of us in libraries and archives face a very practical question: when it comes to DH, where and how do we focus our energy?  Let me propose one answer:  graduate students. Katina Rogers made a compelling case for a new emphasis on the graduate curriculum and programs beyond to prepare these students not only for life as scholars, but as intelligent, engaged members of any profession. Given the difficulty of the academic labor market, it’s no longer appropriate to refer to our graduate students as the “next generation of faculty.” Some of them may be. But more importantly, they will be the next generation of us: the professionals who value education, research and the preservation of cultural heritage.  For those of us who focus on promoting change in academia—in the curriculum, in research methodologies, in the labor market, and in library services—engagement with and support for graduate students presents the chance to intervene and work with some of the most energetic and creative people on our campuses.

What can library-based support of graduate students do for them? I submit to you the best presentation of new research that I saw during the entire conference: Courtney Evans and Ben Jasnow’s  “Mapping Homer’s Catalogue of Ships.” In only ten minutes, they clearly and powerfully outlined how their spatial-linguistic analysis apparently confirms a theory of narrative structure in The Odyssey and suggests potential locations of lost cities. Evans and Jasnow explained that the visualization of the geographic relationships among sites described by Homer led to their insights  and surprised even them. This paper won the conference’s Paul Fortier Prize for the most outstanding presentation by a junior scholar. Where did two graduate students in classics receive their GIS support?  From the Scholars’ Lab in the University of Virginia Library, home of the Praxis Program, which focuses explicitly on preparing students for a range of careers through hands-on learning of DH methods.

Digital Humanities 2014 will be held in Lausanne, Switzerland, and presents opportunities for more DH plus the 3-Cs of Switzerland: chocolate, cheese, and CERN.


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A monthly round-up of news, upcoming working group meetings and events, and CLIR program updates from the Digital Library Federation. See all past Digests here. 

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