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DHOA Vision Of Digital Humanities In Ireland

Conference Report on the DHO conference A Vision for Digital Humanities in Ireland

The Digital Humanities Observatory (DHO) organized a one day conference on March 31st, 2011 at the Royal Irish Academy on the subject of where the digital humanities in Ireland should go. The conference is one of the final acts of the DHO whose 3 years of funding is coming to a close (though they have received permission to wind down over the next 18 months.) It is timely to ask about where things are going as the DHO has changed the digital humanities in Ireland, but is now being phased out. What did it achieve? Will and how will its gifts be picked up by others?

Note: These notes are being written live during the one day conference so they will have typos and may not accurately represent the richness of the discussion as I tend to stop taking notes when interesting things are said.

DHO Discover

Wednesday evening the DHO had an event to launch DHO Discover a site where you can search aggregated metadata from across a number of projects. They have about 6000 items aggregated from different projects. One neat feature is that they are connecting analytical tools to this database of aggregated metadata. They have some neat visualization tools for browsing the collection.

The question many of us were asking is what will happen to infrastructure like Discover once the organizations that maintain it lose their funding. The DHO was set up to build common infrastructure for DH in Ireland, but like many such projects its funding was from a grant and is limited. They have built the infrastructure, now how will it be maintained? Some of the problem lies with how conceive infrastructure, but that's another story.


The first session was about visions and as I moderated this session my notes are being written after the fact. Willard McCarty gave a great talk calling for courage. He worries that DH could descend into the sort of industrialized work where the emphasis is on digitizing more stuff to standards. He wants us to have the courage to do truly original and ambitious research. He talked about how there was in the early years of humanities computing a degree of ambition and vision that is less evident now.

David De Roure from the Oxford e-Research Centre gave an interesting review of e-Science in the UK. e-Science started as name for dealing with the data deluge. It used to be that you formed hypotheses and then gathered data. Now we have a paradigm of lots of data for which we form hypotheses to ask questions of this data. He talked about how top-down cyberinfrastructure projects generally haven't worked well. Bottom-up projects that hewed close to the needs of the community (in some cases created the community) are far more likely to survive. He gave examples including the Open Middleware Infrastructure Institute that started by trying to gather software and professionally re-implement it. (Sounds like Bamboo.) Now it is far more of a community project. His keyword for infrastructure is coevolution - the infrastructure, methods and community need to evolve together.

Jane Ohlmeyer talked about what is happening in Ireland. She gave a passionate talk about what should be done and how much is being done. She mentioned some new projects that have gotten funding and talked about the importance of connecting with Europe.

Teaching and Learning

We had a lightning round about the teaching of the digital humanities. I gave one of the 5 minute talks so again this is being written by memory. I tried a sketch a logic that led to the role of labs in my research pedagogy. The logic goes like this:

  1. There are three ways of thinking through graduate programmes in humanities computing. You can think about the content, or the skills, or the acculturation of graduate students. As others on the panel talked about content and skills I tacked acculturation or professionalization.
  2. To ask about acculturation you need to ask what are the characteristics of professional digital humanists which we can expose grad students to. What do professionals do?
    1. I started answering this question by presenting some of the things I don't think digital humanists necessarily have to do as professionals. These included writing books, teaching university courses, and getting academic jobs. Therefore we need to make sure our graduate programs are not designed exclusively around these activities. Unlike other humanities fields, DH graduate programs are not about preparing junior faculty. This is one of the virtues of DH, there are non-academic and para-academic careers open to well prepared graduates; a well-designed digital humanities curriculum should prepare students for these careers too.
    2. From what we don't necessarily do I shifted to what we do do and suggested that what is common is projects. A digital humanist is capable of participating in a meaningful way in interdisciplinary teams that work together to negotiate and achieve shared goals involving the use of computing in the presentation and study of cultural evidence. The acculturation we want is to prepare students to work with others on digital humanities projects.
  3. I concluded by describing how we bring our MA students in the University of Alberta Humanities Computing programme into labs where they work on related projects. We fund most of our students through graduate research assistantships (GRAs) where they are expected to work on a real research project. These projects are typically grant funded projects that support 1 or more graduate students, programmers and other staff. The labs are regular (once a week) meetings of the GRAs, programmers, designers, faculty and others around one project or a set of related projects. The GRAs learn to participate in projects in these labs. They get to work with more senior students, they are given real responsibilities in their projects, they learn to discuss and present on projects in the lab, and they learn from others.

We had a very animated discussion in the question period and after about the value of such a learning-by-doing approach as opposed to carefully stepped content and skills. Taking an extreme position I argued that one can actually teach all the content and skills through carefully structured project tasks, but that I actually believe in a balanced approach where you have content courses, skills courses, and apprenticeship opportunities.


We had a lightning round about cyberinfrastructure. The DHO built cyberinfrastructure like Drapier and DHO Discovery - the question is who will run the infrastructure once the DHO closes down?

Geoff Bradley talked building virtual research environments at Trinity. A VRE is typically aimed at a research community and enables the acquisition, management and analysis of data. It brings together tools, workflow, methods, and community. He mentioned that a VRE should have accounting tools that let people know what researchers are doing. It worries me that VREs might become a way of measuring our research. Bradley's point is that there are finite resources and universities have to chose what they invest in. To do that they show use and demonstrate value.

It sounds to me like he wants us to be complicit in our own surveillance and measurement. You don't get sustained money unless you measure yourself and report back.

Louise Edwards talked about some large projects like Europeana. Europeana is bringing in content from research libraries into an aggregated discovery site. She pointed out how there are other domain portals trying to also gather archival metadata from others. Can these portals merge or collaborate. Some of these projects have sustainable models some don't. The key now is to try embed the content into research environments (like the VREs.)

J.-C. Desplat talked about cyberinfrastructure and e-research infrastructure. He asked about how technology changed the way we worked. Email and the web changed things without needing to be called infrastructure or needing a central management. He asked about why we are falling behind social computing? Cyberinfrastructure should be like email, the web and social media - it should be easy and be spread virally.

Bruno Voisin is interested in how to bring good data-management practices to the humanities. He argued that a lot of our infrastructure is of interest to projects not individuals. We can get good infrastructure which colleagues don't use because it is designed for high-end projects. Bruno felt we should make user adoption the main goal. We should learn from industry and be focused on clients not projects. We shouldn't enforce standards but seduce people into using them.

Marie Wallace of IBM talked about the social revolution that is changing how we do research. Social media are changing our perceptions of community. In the enterprise (industry) they are being forced to use social media and it will happen to us. How do you blend social media into your communications and management? For this reason cyberinfrastructure needs to be social and collaborative. It needs to have complex analytical capabilities. You want to be able to locate facts, colleagues and relationships.

An interesting question from the floor asked how the digital humanities influenced IBM. The answer was that the digital humanities collaborators were asking IBM really big and ambitious questions that got IBM folk thinking in new ways. I asked about the ethics of building systems that monitor us. Willard McCarty asked why anyone would be interested in infrastructure - who finds it sexy (no matter how much we need it.) There was an interesting intervention about using commercial infrastructure instead bespoke university built infrastructure. We then had a great discussion about whether we should all shift to Facebook, wikipedia and so on. I found myself arguing for bespoke when my sympathies are really with trying to viraly use the social media.

Breakout Sessions

I went to a breakout session on sustainability. We talked about models for sustainability.

Libraries and archives have big problems getting funding to digitize the content of interest to the humanities. There is no strategy on digitization let alone sustainability.

We talked about NAVER and whether that would help transition to sustainable models. NAVER is great, but it is unclear that it will act as a trusted digital repository. The hope is that collectively the universities will tax themselves to maintain the repository. As some institutions are paying already for such services they might be willing to pay into a central unit and get it run better. There might be some government subvention.

This led to a discussion about whether the cultural sector and the academic sector have the same needs. The cultural institutions have been working through the Irish Manuscripts Commission while NAVER is academic. There is a Council of National Cultural Institutions that might help provide input that is organized.

We discussed the issue of sustainability of projects that are not just content - how do you sustain something that is not just a content project like Drapier?

I had an exchange about whether you can develop amateur SETI-screen-saver type projects. Do you need an organization? Can you do it without base-budget funding.

Some of the models mentioned:

  • Google ads
  • Amateur networks like MAME
  • Commercialization
  • Lots of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe
  • Using commercial services that are really cheap
  • Creating a company that can then

We talked about the challenges of a one-size-fits-all solution where the metadata standard adopted doesn't suit everyone.

We talked about joining forces with outfits like tourism and high-performance-computing consortia.



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