With eighteen sessions and three plenary talks, the biennial Digital Humanities Congress (Sheffield, 6-8 September 2018) presented a broad range of international projects and initiatives, highlighting technical solutions as well as considering critical theory and new perspectives and illustrating the enormous potential of digital media.
Clockwise from top left: Patrick O’Keeffe using digital eye-tracking technology in Rome’s baroque churches (photo by Michael Snelling); image from the John Marshall Archive research project website (courtesy BSR Photographic Archive); computer visualisation (courtesy Portus Project); image from the Ward-Perkins photographic archive (courtesy BSR Photographic Archive).
We showcased a selection of BSR projects representing the breadth and range of our interests: Graeme Earl (King’s College London), spoke about the linking of creative digital practices to architectural studies and augmented reality; Eleonora Gandolfi (University of Southampton) on the archaeology of Portus and the related MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses); Alessandra Giovenco (BSR Archivist) on creating a Library and Archive digital portal; and Patrick O’Keeffe (BSR Giles Worsley Rome Fellow 2017-18) on eye-tracking architecture.
The Library and Archive’s Digital Humanities Project aims to present our digital initiatives in a single portal, facilitating access, engaging with a wider public, generating interactive and collaborative research and integrating local and external resources. Many of our concerns were addressed in the presentations as seen below.
This has been an important issue for us since 2009 and is still today one of our priorities.
The problem of the funding and sustainability of digital projects and websites was addressed in the presentation by Jamie McLaughlin (University of Sheffield) who outlined a provocative and innovative solution suggesting that websites should be ‘retired’ when the funding has run out, stripped down to the essential features, eliminating ‘bells and whistles’ but continuing to allow researchers access to the data.
He also suggested that websites ‘die’ if funding does not provide for long-term development, enhancement and maintenance. In our presentation we observed that projects dependent on individuals as opposed to institutions are at risk of obsolescence and neglect.
In the past, the quantity of metadata has often prevailed over quality on the assumption that the more we digitise, the better. However, here at the BSR we have maintained from the outset that high quality metadata is essential to facilitate high quality research.
Jo Pugh (The National Archives, Kew) questioned the merits of long descriptions of archival records and how they influence research.
Patrizia Rebulla (Archivio Storico Ricordi, Milan) discussed the role of the archivist and that of the researcher which, for them, should be distinct – the time (and cost) of cataloguing should be carefully assessed.
The integration of our digital content originating from varying sources – our Information Library System (ILS) and Archival Management Software – is a challenge that we are addressing.
In describing the Casa Ricordi archive project, Patrizia Rebulla raised many issues on the importance of mapping data and ontologies as well as creating a robust and fit-for-purpose data model.
Another priority for us has always been the adoption of international standards for cataloguing and publishing digital content to ensure interoperability.
Fiona Candlin (Birkbeck College) highlighted the difficulty when national standards do not exist, and the problems their project encountered attempting to bring together information from 4,000 UK museums, the data of which was either inconsistent or incomplete or both.
The use or misuse of digital data by researchers has raised the issue of digital literacy and the importance of teaching students how to critically evaluate and analyse digital content, given ‘the abundance and lack, at the same time, of meaningful quantity and meaningless repetition’, as pointed out by Elizabeth Williamson (University of Exeter) and Bob Shoemaker (University of Sheffield) who described strengths and weaknesses of the Digital Panopticon website
Community engagement is another aspect of our Digital Humanities strategy. The attempt to create a scholarly community through the participation in a research project on our collections has already been made through the John Marshall Archive Project website which is currently accessible only to the research team. This is a perfect example of where crowdsourcing will be able to add real value to a research project.
Crowdsourcing tools were a frequent topic throughout the conference, giving us useful case studies that will inform our decision on how we might develop this practice in the future. The potential of crowdsourcing platforms in helping institutions enhance digital content and the conversations generated by the user engagement experience was addressed in Mia Ridge’s (The British Library) presentation.
Impact and engagement
The Congress ended with fireworks! Sarah Kenderdine (École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne) enthralled the audience with her extraordinary exhibitions in Australia and Asia using the latest technology and augmented reality to engage museum visitors in a heightened, interactive experience, for example using motion-capture technology with Kung Fu masters https://vimeo.com/163153865
The conference gave us much food for thought which is helping us to understand the digital landscape and inform the positioning of the BSR in the digital world today.
By the Library and Archive team: Valerie Scott (Head Librarian), Beatrice Gelosia (Deputy Librarian), Alessandra Giovenco (Archivist).