Between 4th and 8th July I was fortunate enough to attend the University of Oxford’s Digital Humanities Summer School, which was held in the leafy surroundings of St. Hugh’s College (see image). This event, which has been running since 2008, aims to provide participants with a wide ranging introduction to all things Digital Humanities with attendees also receiving the opportunity to specialise through attendance at specific week-long workshops.
At this point you may wish to know precisely what Digital Humanities means (although some of you will already have an idea). It primarily consists of two overlapping strands: on the one hand, it considers the ways in which emergent computation tools can transform humanities research, while it also looks at how ‘traditional’ humanities research methods can be applied to the study of digital phenomena.
During the week I attended a series of morning keynotes before spending the rest of each day at my specified workshop ‘An Introduction to Digital Humanities’, which covered a vast array of topics which I have attempted to concisely summarise below from my 3,000 words of notes!
Data and the Humanities
One of the most fascinating features of the week was ongoing discussions about how humanities researchers tackle and use data.
This was the focus of Laird Barrett and Ralph Schroeder’s talk entitled ‘Big Data and the Humanities’. This was particularly exciting as it discussed how humanities research has invariably focused on what Schroeder called the ‘lone wolf’ researcher who sits in an office or archive producing their next piece of literary, historical or sociological analysis. Schroeder argued that the move towards digital scholarship and the possibility of working with large datasets has challenged conventional models for humanities research and could result in humanities scholarship becoming far more collaborative.
This theme was continued by Allen Renear and Andrea Thomer in one of my workshop sessions. Renear provided a superb philosophical examination of data definitions, explaining that it is not particularly helpful to maintain the notion that scientists know exactly what a dataset looks like whereas humanists see data as completely unconnected to their scholarly practice. Instead, he argued that scientists do not have a clear, crisp definition of data and humanities scholars should latch onto the fuzziness of the term to consider how we might define data in a world of emergent digital infrastructure. Andrea Thomer then took over the conversation and offered some practical advice on how humanities scholars can use data. She used the example of Thomas Pettigrew’s selected correspondence, published in the Journal of Open Archaeology Data. Thomer supplied an excellent list of potential outputs a humanities scholar may produce from this resource, including a map plotting the geographical location of Pettigrew’s social circle and establishing an interactive timeline of Pettigrew’s ongoing projects and correspondence.
Alongside wider philosophical discussions about data and the nature of humanities research in the twenty-first century, there were also plenty of hands-on workshop sessions which provided training on the technical skills required to create digital resources.
On the first afternoon, my group headed off to the Bodleian Weston Library where our workshop leader, Pip Willcox, talked about the digitisation of rare books. This session raised interesting questions around the homogenisation of rare books through the digitisation process. For example, Willcox spoke about how in digitising a 2cm book its pages will inevitably be blown up to fit a screen whereas a huge folio edition will be shrunk for the same purpose. This resulted in absorbing discussions about materiality and the ways in which contextual features are left out when we experience rare texts digitally.
Another interesting talk surrounding digitisation was provided by J. Stephen Downie who discussed the HathiTrust Digital Library and how it has currently digitised nearly 15 million volumes, although only 5.6 million are currently publically available due to copyright restrictions. The most revealing aspect of Downie’s talk was his outline of possible non-consumptive research opportunities offered by the HathiTrust. Non-consumptive research is an emerging and sometimes controversial topic within humanities scholarship as it overturns the idea of close reading in favour of vast data analysis of large collections of literary/historical works.
The summer school also contained a workshop entitled ‘Social Humanities: Citizen’s at Scale in the Digital World.’ I was unable to attend this specific strand, but was fortunate enough to hear a few overlapping talks which fitted into this broader theme.
The most exciting of these (for me especially) was the closing keynote by Isabel Galina, who talked about open access and digital humanities. Galina provided a perceptive examination of the open access movement, noting how the Budapest (2002) and Bethesda (2003) statements on open access appear to only really talk about peer-reviewed journal articles. Galina explained that there are historic reasons for this initially limited focus – primarily due to the emergence of open access from within the sciences – but that it has led to humanities scholarship lagging somewhat behind in the adoption of open access due to the wider range of scholarly outputs within certain disciplines – book chapters, monographs etc. She closed by noting how the move towards digital scholarship provided both opportunities and challenges for humanities scholars. On the one hand, it allowed for an even wider range of scholarly outputs (datasets, data papers) which could be disseminating extensively and contribute to higher levels of collaboration. But, simultaneously, Galina talked about how this would currently run up against a metric based culture within institutions which determined the ‘validity’ of research outputs based solely on appearance within a high ranking journal.
This keynote was accompanied by workshop sessions on public engagement, citizen science and a closing discussion titled ‘Our Digital Humanities’ where David De Roure talked eloquently about how the skills of humanities researchers are vital should we wish to ‘indulge in the complexity’ of emergent digital technologies.
Overall, this was a fantastic week and this blogpost has only really captured a small percentage of the material covered during the five days. I would strongly recommend this annual event to anyone interested in humanities scholarship and the ways in which it can interact with the digital world.