In this blog we asked some of our staff to let us know what they have learnt from some recent international digital humanities workshops and conferences, and how this might shape future research strategies here at the BSR.
Harriet O’Neill (Assistant Director for the Humanities and Social Sciences)
Attending two workshops dedicated to the Digital Humanities (DH) within a two-week period was an invaluable opportunity to gain truly international perspectives on the topic. The workshop held at the Helsinki Centre for Digital Humanities (7-8 November) was led by Annelie Rugg and Anthony Caldwell from the UCLA Centre for Digital Humanities and focused on setting-up, running and teaching in a DH lab. Previously I had considered DH primarily as a research methodology. This session gave me a far better understanding of the physical spaces required to run digital projects both now and in the future and inextricably linked to this, ideas on how to foster communities of researchers to use them.
Anthony Caldwell showed us several imaginative digital heritage projects, including reconstructions of the Chicago World’s Fair (1893). This talk reinforced what might appear to be obvious, that any use of the digital must address and help answer solid research questions rather than being used as an end in itself.
The Helsinki workshop was enriched by the diverse range of speakers who came to the British Library Lab Symposium on 12 November. I felt emboldened by the keynote delivered by Daniel Pett (Head of Digital and IT at the Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge) to experiment with digital technologies and vitally, consider how users beyond universities can benefit from such experiments particularly those relating to the heritage sector. The award ceremony was a central part of the symposium and drew attention to what makes digital humanities projects successful. The frank discussion of ‘failures’ and the need to document them for future users was much appreciated and revealing. I am now looking forward to building a digital component into my own scholarship and where appropriate supporting our award-holders to do the same, increasing my expertise and experience as we go.
Valerie Scott (Librarian) on the British Library Labs Symposium
Digital collections, online and freely available, inspire creative research. This was the message that came across very clearly at the sixth British Library Labs Symposium that showcased innovative projects using the BL’s digital content and data.
This event enables the BL to harvest research projects using material from their own collections, data that is often difficult to capture, by awarding prizes to the winning projects from four categories: Research, Artistic, Commercial and the British Library Staff Award.
The breadth and range of projects at the symposium was extraordinary and revealed how the same images can be used by artists, creative writers, archaeologists, architects and also a theatre group in different ways, reaching out to different audiences, including students, local communities, children or academics, through a variety of outputs, whether websites, interactive apps or exhibitions.
The Symposium brought home the potential of digital content and reinforced our commitment to supporting research on our own Special Collections which will be enhanced next year through a new scheme of Library and Archive awards.
Alessandra Giovenco (Archivist) on the UCLA DH workshop
This workshop was led by UCLA, and among the projects created within the UCLA Lab, I personally found PARIS, Past & Present http://paris.cdh.ucla.edu/ and the Lighthouse of Alexandria: http://etc.ucla.edu/projects/lighthouse-of-alexandria/ very interesting . The basis for the reconstruction of the 3-D models might come from disparate sets of data: they might be coins, plans, visual material, photographs, and for this reason Libraries, Archives and Special Collections are formidable resources.
To sum up, here are a few things we learnt from the Helsinki conference:-
Why invest in digital scholarship? For small institutions that have started to develop a critical mass of projects of a certain quality by using digital tools or platforms, setting up a Digital Humanities space is a way of supporting a community of scholars across all disciplines. It is also an opportunity to create a scholarly footprint and leverage all the Humanities work generated in a digital dimension.
How to get started? Create a physical hub for a community, a space conceived as neutral territory across disciplines, where everyone can share ideas, knowledge, and expertise with people from different backgrounds.
What kind of resources are needed? Good will and expertise – any DH hub should not be seen as a service centre, but as a facilitating open space, a place where ideas take form and shape, where researchers are the agents of their own projects. Of course, someone with broad technical and good interpersonal skills would be the ideal point of reference for any sort of digital humanities lab.
At the end of the two-day session, it became more evident that digital technology applied to scholarship in the Humanities can help researchers question huge amounts of data from a different perspective and open up new pathways to interpretation and critique. It does not pose a threat to research methodology but it challenges researchers in developing new modes of analysing datasets.
British Library Labs: https://www.bl.uk/projects/british-library-labs
UCLA DH workshop at the Helsinki Centre for Digital Humanities: https://www.helsinki.fi/en/helsinki-centre-for-digital-humanities/ucla-dh-workshop-nov-2018