The importance of an international view of humanities digital content

Sarah Ames
Library Learning Services Support Officer
University of Edinburgh

DHC2018 part 1: some key themes

I was fortunate to receive bursary funding this year from UCISA to attend DHC2018 (Digital Humanities Congress – not to be mistaken with the 16th International Symposium on District Heating and Cooling, which tops the Google results). DHC is a biennial conference organised by The Digital Humanities Institute at the University of Sheffield, exploring digital humanities research, as well as its implications for the cultural heritage sector and IT support services.
In this first blog post, I’m going to list the key themes raised at the conference and in my next post, I’ll summarise some of the papers that I found particularly interesting.

Digitisation

This one isn’t new: without digitised content (and digitised content at scale), libraries’ DH offerings begin to fall short. While, in some academic libraries, DH tools and skills will become a key focus, ultimately, without making available collections, content, or data to interest researchers, partnerships with digital projects becomes problematic.

Data

One paper (Bob Shoemaker’s ‘Lessons from the Digital Panopticon’) discussed a project bringing together 50 datasets to trace the lives of individuals convicted at the Old Bailey; another drew together 4 different library datasets, to investigate the provenance of manuscripts; many others reflected on similar experiences. As libraries look to release collections as data, considering the most appropriate and accessible formats for these will be important. The need to bring together a mix of data types, formats and models, and often ‘bespoke’ formats, complying with no particular standard, is a barrier to research, requiring technical skills that most don’t have.

Global DH

A number of papers raised the issue of the ease of slipping into a Western-focused digital humanities, to the detriment of the field itself. With web and programming languages written largely in English, the focus of research, and particularly of text analysis, has been predominantly English-language. With papers focusing on Asia and Australasia, the global view of DH produces plenty to learn from – with much for libraries to consider, particularly in the relationship between libraries and DH in other cultures and countries.

Sustainability

A repeated issue raised in talks was the sustainability of DH projects going forwards – particularly in relation to web platforms. How are these projects to be maintained post-project completion, and who is responsible for this? What kind of documentation, languages and platforms can be used to assist with, and standardise, this? Is a website an output or a transient resource? How can library and IT services support this?

Funding

Of course, a major part of sustainability is funding: funding models need to meet the cost of web resources over time; not maintain their current short-term focus. The possibilities of crowdfunding to enable ongoing access to tools were raised, but ultimately this remains too fragile a source to rely on.

Digital preservation

With these exciting new platforms and tools becoming part of research outputs, the challenge of how to preserve them becomes ever more pertinent. Unusual data formats; new, innovative research using AR; and the function, importance and relevance of the front end of a website, in comparison to the data it surfaces, are all issues and challenges that need to be considered by libraries.

Publishers

Gale launched their new DH tool, sitting on top of their platforms, enabling researchers to analyse their content at scale without the use or in-depth knowledge of manual computational methods. Although raising issues of ease of use – while this is important to increase accessibility, an understanding of what the tools are doing under the surface remains important, particularly in relation to built-in biases – the platform looked good, and is currently in its early stages. However, this emphasises just how much work libraries have on their hands. With both the content and the tools increasingly in the domain of publishers, there’s a lot of catching up to do.
This blog first appeared in the University of Edinburgh’s Library & University Collections blog.
Interested in finding out more about a UCISA bursary, then visit UCISA Bursary Scheme.

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