Saturday, 8 June 2013

This is not my beautiful house

 “So I ask myself, how did I get here?” Talking Heads

This post is to say ‘hiya’, to  explain who I am and why I write about all kinds of digital stuff, especially in the Humanities and Libraries (according to my all encompassing bio on Twitter).

Since 2011, I’ve held the most excellent post of University of Wales Chair in Digital Collections, a five-year post funded by the University of Wales, where I also hold a research fellowship in the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies. I’m based in National Library of Wales, and the picture is the view from my office, overlooking Cardigan Bay. Not too shabby.

My job is to carry out research on the use and impact of the digital collections of the National Library, and to develop projects in collaboration with academic and other partners to embed this digital content into teaching, research, and public engagement.  

Being located within NLW, and having access to not only its collections but to the technical and collection expertise within the organisation, means that the Library is essentially a laboratory for my digital research.  Most of this work is situated within the Research Programme in Digital Collections, which I set up in 2011 under the direction of the then-Librarian, Andrew Green. The programme has flourished, and I am now luck enough to work with a team of talented staff and postgraduates (for more about the PhD projects, see the Welsh Initiative for Digital Humanities blog, here).

The past few years have been a wonderful opportunity to explore the reality of actually doing digital humanities, building a much better understanding of how scholarship and pedagogy are bound to research infrastructures in “ways that are deeper and more explicit than we are generally accustomed to in scholarship and depend on networks of people”, to quote Matt Kirchenbaum’s excellent article on defining DH.

There are, of course, many successful Digital Humanities projects and programmes based in Libraries. To cite just a few examples, Scholars’ Lab at the University of Virginia, Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH) at the University of Maryland, and the Digital Scholarship Commons (DISC) at Emory University are all based in Libraries; at the University of Pennsylvania, staff of the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies are experimenting with the digital representation and communication of rare and distinct materials. These examples provide important context, and a model for thinking about how DH can flourish in a Library setting. My experience has been that the Library is a place where we can not only do ‘good’ digital humanities, but foster ‘good’ scholarship, and develop a model from which there can be lessons learned about fostering Digital Humanities elsewhere.

I’ve long held that digital humanities is essentially a means of combining digital content with tools and methods analysis and interpretation, and communicating the results of this work to the widest possible audience using traditional and non-traditional publishing methods, allowing greater engagement with research and research data than was previously possible.

I like this characterization of digital humanities as about content, tools and methods as it creates a working environment with core elements. It sounds like the kind of thing you’d find in a coal mine – raw materials, tools for working with the raw material, and expertise in methods of accomplishing results, both tried and tested and emerging. 

The definition is also very inclusive: The development, discovery and use of digital data, the use of ICT tools and methods for its discovery and analysis, and digitally enabled communication and collaboration around this work can be seen across the disciplines now thanks to the proliferation of digital research content – journals, electronic texts, social media…

But the definition presupposes more than just use. What are we doing in our coal mine? What is the impact of this work?  As I see it, the use of digital content, tools and methods are transforming humanities research in two ways:

- Firstly, by facilitating and enhancing existing research, by making research processes easier via the use of computational tools and methods,

- And secondly, by enabling research that would be impossible to undertake without digital resources and methods, and asking new research questions that are driven by insights only achievable through the use of new tools and methods.

Greg Crane, Humbolt Professor of the University of Leipzig has referred to this work as e-Wissenschaft reflecting that the best examples of digital humanities are a new intellectual practice with elements that distinguish qualitatively the practices of intellectual life in this emergent digital environment from print-based practices. One of the key elements of diversion from traditional scholarly practice is that the digital humanities is collaborative: as the field matures, it is becoming recognized as one in which the best research is created through partnerships between different aspects of research, and indeed, between researchers from multiple disciplines and stakeholder communities – researchers across the arts and humanities and scientific disciplines, librarians, archivists, cultural heritage staff, funders, technical experts, data scientists….

At the core of all of this activity is digital content – the digital ‘stuff’, the source materials for scholarship and pedagogy that have been created through large scale digitisation initiatives in libraries, archives, museums and universities, as well as by commercial entities: large corpora in literary, linguistic, musicological, and television and film studies domains, the digitization and digital-encoded representation of materials in classics, history, literature and history of art, and the creation of databases in archaeology and the performing arts. Scholarship is already dependent on access to digitized and born digital material in all forms.

The National Library of Wales has contributed to this mass of digital content, engaging in digitization since 1998. The Library now offers a large amount of free digital content: newspapers, journals, photographs, and artworks.

So my job is very much characterized by one theme: What do we do with all this digital stuff? How do we integrate it into scholarship? How do we make its use more seamless for researchers across the disciplines? How do we address its re-use for purposes that are currently unforeseen?

We’ve now developed a large number of projects around this theme. We have a large digital archive over 200,000 items relating to the Welsh Experience of the First World War.  We developed a project that explored archives relating to extreme climate, and community and artistic engagement with this material. We are collaborating on a number of projects that will enable researchers to create manuscript editions, and work with new technologies for manuscript analysis. We’re collaborating with Europeana Cloud to look at exposing collections at the API level.

I’ll be blogging about these (and other initiatives) over the next few months.

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