A Digital Humanities gathering in the Canadian mountains

I attended the INKE ‘gathering’ in Whistler, British Columbia on 5-6 February. INKE stands for ‘Implementing New Knowledge Environments’. INKE brings together researchers from across Canada and contributes to developing and understanding the future of digital information practices, not least by paying attention to the history of the book and other textual practices. The group receives core funding from the Canadian Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council, but many other institutions contribute to its ongoing work. About 40 people engaged in digital humanities, as scholars, publishers, librarians, funders, research policy makers, providers of research infrastructure, gathered together in a truly spectacular location to discuss matters of common concern. The short programme managed to pack in a lot of content – the papers circulated prior to the meeting came to more than 300 pages. The twenty authors were given a generous five minutes each to present one highlight of their papers. Papers covered a variety of topics, including new tools, new ways of presenting results, data management, experiments with new audiences and forms of publication. There were also several keynote lectures, to locate these specific projects and developments in a broader landscape. These lectures focused on interdisciplinarity, infrastructure, big data, open access (of publications and data) and engagement with non-traditional audiences.

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The session I chaired was called ‘humanities-centered design and prototypes’, and included two papers about attempts to ‘gamify’ the development of shared bibliographies and the writing process itself. Despite the cogent critique by Geoffrey Rockwell of Jane McGonigal’s book called Reality is Broken, Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World (2011), he nonetheless presented an interesting experiment about how best to use gaming techniques to help students develop their writing skills. In the session there was also attention given to studying ‘failures’ in DH. We all know that there have been many DH projects over the past decade or more, some of which worked for a while but many of which were subsequently abandoned as researchers moved on to new topics. We need to understand why these have been deemed failures in order to build better and longer lasting tools and techniques in the future.

There was time at the end of the day to think about common themes and ways forward. These included how to make visible and reward the huge amount of invisible labour needed to make digital humanities projects work; the need for versioning systems in humanities collaborations; learning from failure; paying attention to users and user needs when developing tools. Related to this last point, two practical suggestions were made: making teaching materials when developing DH projects, and giving a prize for the most ‘boring’ project, where boring refers to the important work of providing good documentation, and making tools accessible through whatever means possible.