July 13, 2014

Applying New Digital Methods in the Humanities, British Library, 27th June 2014

‘Applying New Digital Methods in the Humanities’ was a one-day workshop held at the British Library on 27th June 2014. The dhAHRC organising team brought together a wonderful mixture of librarians, journalists, software engineers and academics, both Digital Humanities experts and researchers applying digital methods. Jumping in at the deep end, the morning’s papers focused on Digital Humanities as a discipline. Professor Melissa Terras (UCL) gave an excellent keynote on ‘Digital Humanities Through and Through’, where she contested the idea that Digital Humanities was a field that was only a decade old, arguing that people have been using quantitative methods in the Humanities for centuries. Terras maintained that the research questions and critical awareness of Humanities scholars remain the same, only our tools and society have developed. Dr Jane Winters (Institute of Historical Research) then spoke of her experiences of ‘Big Data’ from three interdisciplinary projects. Winters was sensitive to the weaknesses of macro data and its ‘fuzziness’ with issues such as spelling, but demonstrated that data on such a large scale reveals changes which might have passed unnoticed, which in turn can inform new research questions.

The morning then took a decidedly medieval turn, with papers by Dr Stewart Brookes (KCL), Dr David Wrisley (American University of Beirut), and Dr Jane Gilbert (UCL), Paul Vetch (UCL) and Neil Jefferies (Bodleian). Brookes presented his team’s DigiPal Database of palaeography in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. They have classified and logged all the separate elements of a manuscript letter and their variants, which allow scholars to identify a manuscript’s provenance, date and even scribe, as well as to view the evolution of practices. Interestingly, the methods behind DigiPal have now been extended to other languages from other centuries and have even been applied to examine paratextual elements such as illustrations. This was really useful in demonstrating quite how flexible the methods of Digital Humanities can be. Moving towards Francophone culture, Gilbert and Vetch spoke about how Digital Humanities techniques have been employed on the AHRC project ‘Medieval Francophone Literary Culture Outside France’. Their paper was appropriately named ‘I was but the learner; now I am the master’ and really put the accent on collaboration between the research and Digital Humanities teams. Their result was the creation of a novel method to analyse different physical versions of the same text. This was arguably the most helpful session of the day because it really underlined the importance of communication between different specialist skill sets. Remaining with manuscripts, Jefferies talked about the ‘Shared Canvas and IIIF’. This is a DMSTech project with numerous collaborators such as the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France with a two-fold aim: maximum manipulation for the reader who can re-piece folded manuscripts and review multiple images with their own annotations, whilst maintaining minimum movement of data.

The afternoon started by focusing on the contribution of the ‘citizen’. Martin Foys (KCL) and Kimberly Kowal (British Library) recounted how they use crowdsourcing for Foys’ project ‘Virtual Mappa’. This was followed by Chris Lintott (Oxford) speaking about his experience in creating and continuing Zooniverse.org. Lintott and his team realised the human brain was far more accurate in identifying galaxies than a computer, and that human brain power could be harnessed for the benefit of science through the development of fun activities allowing an individual to contribute to the world of research. This has since been extended to multiple projects from a various disciplines and countries.

The last two papers by Jason Sundram (Facebook) and Rosemary Bechler (Open Democracy) moved the day to focus on digital methods and culture more generally. Sundram explained how he combined his passion for programming and classical music to analyse Hayden recordings, which in turn affect the performances of his quartet. Rosemary Bechler then ended the day with a keynote on how digital methods are driving a revolution in journalism that prioritises the audience. She contended that whereas the passive audience was told what to read in the past through the dominance of the front page, this is now being replaced by social media, which create ‘hubs of interest’ and a much more dynamic, dual relationship between journalist and reader, allowing for a transnational flow of information.

Although the day could have benefitted from a reverse programme order, offering a softer introduction to Digital Humanities, it was an incredibly useful experience. The combination of numerous research projects and various standpoints within the field of Digital Humanities was thought provoking. However, regardless of project or position, four key points were reiterated across the papers:

  1. You do not have to be a programmer to use Digital Humanities; programmers can be built into funding bids. However, make sure that they are employed for the right amount of time (i.e. so they are not overworked or twiddling their thumbs).
  2. Make your digital methods re-purposeful for other projects.
  3. Envisage how your data will be stored and archived after the end of the project.
  4. Most importantly, critical research questions continue to drive Humanities research, not the tools.

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  • Thanks for this short blog by Dave on this entry

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