Digging in the coal mines

‘Digital Humanities: Critical views and perspectives’ workshop

On 14-15 November a group of international researchers and librarians gathered at the Public Library Amsterdam (OBA) to discuss pertinent Digital Humanities issues (programme). Although a wide range of questions was discussed, from the broad ‘what is digital humanities?’ to the more specific ‘what are the benefits of Europeana?’, a couple of recurring themes could be identified.

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An important issue was the provenance of digital projects, a term introduced by Sonja de Leeuw (Utrecht) during her presentation on exploring online television heritage. No scientific or scholarly research is completely neutral, free of values and norms, so it is important to realize where the roots of digital research lie, and what the sources of data include or exclude. Erik Meyer (Oxford), in the session about definitions, asked whether it matters if the digital or the humanities part of research comes first. A technology-first approach can lead to products no one wants to use. But both top-down and bottom-up research can be of great value: it is not always necessary to start with a specific humanities question. Nonetheless, as Sally Wyatt (eHumanities Group, KNAW) remarked in her presentation on about what scientometrics reveals about DH, algorithms always play a key role, whoever instigated the research.

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Elli Bleeker showed, from her practice as contributor to a scholarly edition, that all actors need to realize their equal importance: programmers are not just code-providers to the researchers, but can contribute throughout projects and should be involved more.
The contribution of humanities in digital humanities was another thread in the two-day discussion. Anja Volk (Utrecht) and Rens Bod (UvA) in their co-presentation on patterns touched upon this issue. Rens Bod argued that universal patterns are present in the field of humanities (and are thus researchable by computer), but that they are not always accepted in the humanities community. He envisions a Humanities 3.0, where a positivist and hermeneutic approach are combined. Anja Volk showed the importance of humanities’ researchers deep knowledge in interpreting computational results, as well as estimating their value; by having engineers look through the same lenses, she hopes that one day they will rise above a simple comparison of performance expressed in percentages.

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A series of papers examined the practices and experiences of digital humanities scholars, raising critical questions about provenance, about translating human questions into machine queries, about working across disciplinary divides, and about the purposes of reflexivity in DH research.
Lorna Hughes (National Library of Wales) in her opening keynote lecture discussed the skills that are necessary to perform digital humanities research and argued for the central role of libraries, especially because of the existing humanities knowledge there, not only about research but also about preservation and about reaching non-academic audiences. She compared DH work to work in the coal mines: we need specific methods and tools to work with raw materials.
Ray Siemens (Victoria), in his keynote lecture at the end of the second day, looked into the future and thereby touched upon all of the aforementioned issues. Digital Humanities isn’t going to ‘solve Hamlet’, but rather ‘we solve ourselves through Hamlet’. We do not need something perfect and finished, but something that will take us one step further. Thus, research can only be iterative and publication is never an end but a beginning. Siemens also argued for a Big Tent-approach, an inclusive view where also non-scholarly researchers can join in. He provided an example from his Implementing New Knowledge Environments group that has made a Wikibook of the Devonshire Manuscript. He finds that it is not only important who takes part, but also where we are located.

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In sum, the workshop showed us that what-questions are important to our practice as digital humanists. In taking a closer look at them during these two days, we have seen a view of who we are as digital humanities researchers and where we stand. The main conclusion just might be that there are many exciting possibilities to explore as long as we remember what it is that we are doing and why – and do not just try to tag along with the scholarly hype that digital humanities sometimes appears to be.