DH Benelux 2015

Antwerp, 8-9 June

We arrived at the majestic station of Antwerpen Centraal on the morning of Monday 8 June, looking forward to two days of presentations, posters and demonstrations at the second annual DH Benelux conference, attended by about 150 people. The conference started with a fascinating keynote presentation by Will Noel, Director of Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts at the University of Pennsylvania. He described the multidisciplinary collaboration of multi-spectral imagers, computer scientists, historians and philosophers of mathematics, and conservators of ancient manuscripts who worked together over many years to bring the Archimedes Palimpsest to readability. This is the unique source for three treatises by the ancient Greek mathematician, which had been lost for two thousand years. If you missed the conference, you can catch up with Will’s TED talk. What the team achieved is remarkable, but we also appreciated his modesty in acknowledging what the problems were, and what work still needs to be done. In all its phases this project makes an excellent showcase for interdisciplinary collaboration which reaches from physics, chemistry and material sciences at the one end to humanities at the other; challenging both sides. The project is also an interesting story of foraging for funding, and patching together various sources over many years to finally achieve a result which is made immediately open access; this way giving back to the public fruits of scientific progress. Last but not least: forget about complex user interfaces said Will, give access to the results as detailed as possible, give people the opportunity to explore for themselves!

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After this inspiring start, we headed off to the session in which we were making our own presentations. Sally began with her provocation: Digital humanities: New toys for the boys? Having suffered a few instances of everyday academic sexism recently in DH meetings, Sally had decided to examine whether DH is a way of ‘masculinising’ the humanities, especially given the very different levels of representation of women in humanities and computer science. Apart from this simple question of equity and social justice, Sally also addressed the more difficult question of whether or not DH is addressing women and/or gender as either an object of analysis, or as a framework for analysis. Her preliminary exploration of LLC (Digital Scholarship in the Humanities), one of the key DH journals, suggests that gender is largely absent, confirming the fears of some that DH could represent a retreat from the critical tradition of the humanities.

In the same session, Andrea presented the work that a small group undertook in the spring to create a registry of DH projects. This group included Stef Scagliola, Barbara Safradin, Linda Reijnhoudt, Hendrik Schmeer and Almila Akdag Salah. The work was inspired by the successful course registry – now updated on a European level under the roof of DARIAH_EU. In the course registry one can see which topics are taught, in which country, at which faculty. Tagged with category system TaDiRAH (Sparql endpoint for the ontology available), one can even search for activities, techniques, and methods relevant for Digital Humanities. Because there is no standardized way to exchange information on teaching, this course registry has been proven very useful for a new field at the beginning of its institutionalization. It is now continuously updated across Europe. When it comes to information on projects, the situation is different. Here, we have ontologies (CERIF) and information on European funding (CORDIS as open data). Each university keeps track of projects, and NWO does so for projects it funds, and still we find a situation where information is scattered. There is currently no way to gather easily evidence how projects on digitization in the past and research projects in Digital Humanities are related to each other. However, because there is more standardization in the information about projects than about teaching, we were very careful to not set up another data silo or to double enter information already collected. The natural way to avoid this was to turn to NARCIS – the portal for Dutch research information. NARCIS has a category for DH. Still, we would like to enrich the tagging inside of NARCIS in interaction with the communities. In the spring, we started to identify DH projects in NARCIS using different query strategies, checked against other sources and eventually we built a pilot of about 200 projects. Since our presentation at the DH Benelux, where the Steering Committee expressed support and feedback, the pilot has gained the interest of CLARIAH. With some seed money for a Digital Observatory for Digital Humanities (DODH) we are now able to develop further a database and an interface to it. The idea is to establish a workflow of data cleaning and enriching, and to arrange a feedback process to NARCIS, which in the long term will become the resource to be consulted. We will also investigate how this local initiative can be further connected to DARIAH-related European initiatives such as DH commons. We are interested in feedback from the community! So watch this space! Which of your projects are missing? How would you like to tag them? What are your ideas about showcasing the funding landscape for DH in the Netherlands by way of visualization? Send your feedback to Andrea (andrea.scharnhorst@dans.knaw.nl).

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We then split up and attended many different sessions about visualization, text editing, analyzing Twitter data, scholarly editions, curation and many more. There were many tools being demonstrated, though there was some concern expressed on Twitter by those attending that many presenters acknowledged that tools affect their results, but did not go into details of what this really meant. This was precisely the topic of the Tool Criticism workshop that the eHumanities group co-organised with CWI, COMMIT and Amsterdam Data Science on 22 May. This is certainly a topic we will return to in future events, as there is clearly a need to understand how tools, themselves the product of human creativity and endeavor, limit and direct research and interpretation.
The highlight of the conference was the dinner at the zoo on Monday evening. In addition to having time to look at the posters, chat with colleagues, and eat dinner, we also had a private tour of the zoo in a magical summer evening atmosphere.