Digital Humanities in 2015

Notes on the Development of a Field

There is something about the digital humanities community which makes it a particular pleasure to engage with. My experience of DH events has been of meeting people who are already respected in their own fields, but are not afraid to put themselves into what is, after all, the vulnerable position of learning something completely new. This was my experience of the final network event of Nedimah – Beyond the Digital Humanities, held on May 5th in London University’s School of Advanced Study. Here, I met many different people eagerly swapping information about the computational techniques they use in their research and felt the excitement of being involved in a newly developing field.

The sessions proved what a broad church digital humanities is by showcasing research on digital design, human interaction with technology, the preservation of ancient documents, online democratic involvement and multi-sensory perceptions of flavour, to name just a few.
Considering the extreme diversity of the field, one cross-cutting theme which became apparent to me during the course of the day was a tension between its consolidation and fragmentation.

One session introduced a new research funding mechanism called the Trans-Atlantic Platform. Bringing together 15 funding agencies from across Europe and the Americas, it aims to identify common challenges in the humanities and social sciences and promote a culture of digital scholarship. While increased international collaboration certainly makes sense from a number of different perspectives, experience from other fields shows that such consolidation can bring its own set of problems. Establishing common research priorities and evaluation criteria has the potential to stifle novel approaches and can sometimes lead to rigid and slow-moving systems of funding. No doubt this is something that the agencies involved in the Transatlantic Platform will be keeping an eye on.

Another reflection of this theme of fragmentation and consolidation came up around a discussion on data storage. Where do DH scholars place their data once their projects have ended and how can we ensure that it is useful for other researchers? There are already some large projects which actively deal with this issue. The Database of Cultural History, for example, has the extremely ambitious goal of bringing together diverse types of data to “answer” some of the humanities biggest questions.

While it is a natural scholarly goal to try to make connections between different types of data, our session at Nedimah reminded us all of the potential dangers inherent in any attempt to standardize the format of data and present it as “truth”. Categorizing data is itself an interpretive act, one that has real political ramifications. But judging from the energetic discussion we had of this issue, there is little chance of us stumbling into anything unexamined.