Trends in Digital Humanities: remarks at the CIC Digital Humanities Summit (“the keynote in the dark”)

These remarks were presented April 19, 2012 at the CIC Digital Humanities Summit. I have removed and modified some comments which were relevant to the local context of the summit. The power went out and stayed out, so this became instantly “the keynote in the dark”. Thanks to Stephen Ramsay for lending me his penlight. See also his remarks at the CIC on Centers Are People.

As you may know, at the University of Nebraska we have been engaged in the last year in a multi-disciplinary hiring initiative, and we have learned a great deal about the trends in the field of digital humanities from the search process. I have been asked to speak today on “Trends in Digital Humanities” and I want to give you an inside view the field, where it might be going, and perhaps give us some ways to frame our CIC Digital Humanities Summit discussion today and tomorrow. As a department chair in history, I am looking to the future and it seems to me it is full of promise. Our vision at the University of Nebraska is informed by having been in the field a long time and having watched what makes digital projects like those of my colleagues Stephen Ramsay, Ken Price, Amanda Gailey, Brian Pytlik-Zillig, and others, thrive.

First, though, I would like to start with a story from an early experience with the Valley of the Shadow Project, when a group of students and project team leaders traveled from the University of Virginia up to Franklin County, Pa. to look for Civil War materials in the Kittichotinny Historical Society. This local historical society made its home in the old county jail, as in the 19th century jail, with its low arched doorways and cubbyhole cells. The society stored its treasures on the floor in the old cells in no particular order. When we asked to see the Civil War materials, our patron said generously that we should look in all of the corners of the various cells. Late in the day, near closing time, deep in one of the cells, a Valley Project team member miraculously uncovered a collection of original editions of the Franklin Repository, the long missing Republican newspaper from the county edited by a prominent Lincoln supporter and national committee member. This discovery made the project in fundamental ways and provided the Republican voice, so necessary for this comparative study of two communities in the coming, fighting, and aftermath of the Civil War.

There are important, sometimes invaluable scholarly materials in old jail cells, it seemed to us, and it was our duty to liberate them. These were beautifully bound leather volumes, nothing an x-acto knife and a digital camera could not liberate. The originals were then deposited with the Library of Congress, only later to be bundled with other newspapers for decommissioning, and then were apparently taken by Nicholson Baker and saved for posterity (see Association of Research Libraries). Later, after reading about our project in the local paper, and our visit to the Kittichotinny Historical Society, one man sent us, in the regular mail, 26 original civil war letters.

The Keynote in the Dark, CIC Digital Humanities Summit, April 2012

The lesson in almost every digital history project is that people have materials to contribute, and they also have expertise. In the Digital Humanities we have been mildly receptive to the former, while we have been, at least in history, often actively resistant to the latter. Perhaps, we might reconsider both positions. In fact, in every project I have been involved with, people have come forward, literally walking into the library with boxes of materials relevant to the project. We have been sent or given: railroad timetables, photographs, books, letters, newspapers, and diaries. This urge to contribute to knowledge, to culture, to the humanities, is important for us to recognize, respect, and understand.

In fact, in the 1990s the animating spirit behind much of our work in digital humanities was democratization. Bear in mind that “Digital Humanities” did not then really exist as a named field–instead there were various associations of computing in the humanities and a small group of like-minded libraries, scholars, technology professionals working along similar lines. The physical proximity of the offices and centers in the library made a significant difference in the development of these connections and collaborations.

These people–some of them in this room today, including Dean Rehberger and Martin Meuller–saw early on that the World Wide Web opened up new possibilities for scholars to communicate not only with one another but also with the public, with an audience largely unmediated by traditional gatekeepers.

Our ambitions then were only secondarily to experiment with new forms of scholarship. They were primarily to democratize history: to transform the way history was understood by changing the way it was produced and accessed. In fact, we cannot change the way history is understood without changing the way it is produced and accessed.

We are in danger of losing that animating spirit, and we need to recover the democratization at the heart of the Digital Humanities movement.

Two developments, at least, threaten the vision of Digital Humanities as inherently democratizing. One is fundamentally technological. The other is of our own making in Digital Humanities.

The fundamental change in technology is the movement from PCs to mobile devices. In the 1990s there was much debate and hand wringing over the digital divide, though little was done. To be on the web required a PC and Internet access. Democratization could only go so far. Access has broadened and many schools have computers and high-speed access, but just as scholars are beginning to stir themselves to engage with Digital Humanities and create digital works, the ground has shifted. The majority of the world is rapidly moving or has already moved to cell phones and mobile devices as the primary means of interface to digital information. The Neilsen group released an important study in 2011 titled “New Mobile Obsession.” Neilsen found that teens (age 13-17) tripled their data consumption on mobile devices in one year (2010). These young people sent an average of seven text messages per waking hour: girls sent 3,952 text messages per month and boys 2,815. The use of the phone as a voice communication device plummeted, and the use of mobile Internet and apps became predominate in this age group. Other reports on mobile phone sales reveal that there are 800 million cell phone users in China and 223 million in the U.S; two-thirds of the U.S. population has cell phones; and in 2009-2010 nearly half of all cell phones sold were smart phones. Taiwan has 106.45 mobile phones per 100 people, an astonishing degree of penetration. In the U.S. the Obama administration has set a goal of 98 % of Americans to have high-speed Internet access in five years. The 2012 data from the federal government (in the National Broadband Map) indicates, however, that 5-10 % of Americans still lack access to basic broadband and that as much as one-third of Americans do not have Internet or use the Internet, mostly lower income Americans. So, there is still a significant digital divide in the U.S., at the same time as there is a movement to mobile devices.

Indeed, the era of the PC/World Wide Web’s dominance may be already over just when many humanities scholars are seeing its potential, or perhaps its potential as apparent in 1999.

This shift to mobile devices deserves our close attention. They are closed systems, and the experience of a self-contained “app” fundamentally more restricted than the hypertextual World Wide Web. This trend marks a fundamental change that challenges Digital Humanities scholars to consider new modes of production at the same time as it provides enormous opportunities to reach wider audiences and alter the form of our scholarly communication.

In Digital Humanities we have recently been engaged in important debates over theories of building, and over the problem of big data. Greg Crane has famously asked, “what do you do with a million books?” and Stephen Ramsay has famously responded, “screw around” with them. These are vital questions but to the extent that they become esoteric concerns we lose sight of the early engagement digital humanities had with broadening access to the tools and practices of scholarship in the humanities. When we talk about doing digital humanities, but do not do digital humanities, we lose something in the exchange.

One of trends in Digital Humanities is to renew our model of engagement between the public and scholars in an open, reciprocal collaboration. I am impressed with the University of Iowa’s civil war letters crowd sourcing project. And here at the University of Nebraska we have started a new project called The History Harvest–in which our students work with a community to collect, digitize, and understand the meaning of family and personal artifacts, to in effect make an invisible archive visible and usable.

We have the opportunity to organize not only a digital library of books in the Hathi Trust but also perhaps to arrange the largest public bestowal of the record of the human past since the New Deal and to provide the foundation for a new generation of scholarship.

One area of clear opportunity and challenge for us is to diversify these records in ways that take us beyond the digitization of old printed records and books. Many scholars working in the history of slavery or of the cultural genocide of Native Americans have viewed mass digitization of old texts with some measure of skepticism and concern. Will outdated theories find new leases on life? What can be learned from further access to the Bureau of Indian Affairs annual printed reports justifying fraudulent treaties?

A good example of the task before us came up at the recent conference at the University of Nebraska on “1862: The Shaping of the Great Plains” when Daniel Wildcat, a scholar at Haskell Indian Nations University, urged us to enter into more sustained and serious dialogue with Native scholars and students: to be willing to listen to and respect what he called “indigenuity” or “indigenous ingenuity.” That is, ways of knowing about and organizing the world, including its knowledge and information. Could we envision a CIC commitment to broaden and democratize the Digital Humanities in ways that take up other forms of humanistic records? And that move beyond the digital divides we still see around us?

Another exciting and important trend in digital humanities has been the development of new models for peer review and publication of scholarship and CIC institutions are already key leaders. The University of Michigan has been out front, experimenting with open review publication, such as Writing History in the Digital Age. But, The Journal of Digital Humanities at George Mason University caught my attention when it released its first issue as an experiment in post-review publication. This journal will publish in digital form any blog posts or web postings that get substantial traffic, mention, and circulation through other media, such as Twitter. We need more experimentation with peer review and publication in open access format.

In the area of shared data and infrastructure, finally, there is still much to do in Digital Humanities and scholars and librarians need to work together. One of the great opportunities before us is “deep encoding” tagging for names, dates, and places. Digital projects emphasize “connections” among individuals in history that we could not see otherwise and that are difficult to see, those of families and relationships among families. In digital projects the life of the individual in history becomes more visible, and despite the complexity of history and the scale of something like the Civil War, or the industrial revolution, or slavery, digital history projects manage to create an environment in which the individual always emerges somehow for readers. We can see these individuals in multiple dimensions and “rebuild” or “reconstitute” their lives and experiences. This is powerful history, full of complexity, agency, and contingency not easily pulled off in narrative form.

Finally, one of the most important new trends in Digital Humanities concerns teaching and pedagogy. In our recent Digital Humanities job search, we observed that the vast majority of applicants had had no opportunity to teach Digital Humanities. In the U.S. just a handful of graduate programs in this field exist and courses in any area of Digital Humanities are a rarity. We are developing at the University of Nebraska a Certificate in Digital Humanities at the graduate level, and we have been teaching Digital History graduate seminars since 2006. There is clearly a significant need for collaborative experimentation in teaching Digital Humanities. We do not yet know what the pedagogical tools and structures are for this field, and it will be up to us to define and shape them.

Joseph Schumpeter, the great innovation scholar, wrote, “All knowledge and habit once acquired becomes as firmly rooted in ourselves as a railway embankment in the earth.” He was especially concerned that “fixed habits of thinking” restrict and trap people and squelch innovation. Let us not end up being a “railway embankment.”

Clearly, we need to break, indeed subvert, “fixed habits of thinking” in our departments and associations. From academic publishing to peer review and to tenure and promotion, we need more dynamic thinking, more possibilities, and more experimentation. Our gathering here today at the CIC Digital Humanities Summit can provide just the necessary opportunity for us to engage in new thinking.

About William Thomas

William G. Thomas III is a professor of history at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the John and Catherine Angle Professor in the Humanities. He teaches digital humanities and digital history, 19th century U.S. history, the Civil War, and the history of slavery.
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2 Responses to Trends in Digital Humanities: remarks at the CIC Digital Humanities Summit (“the keynote in the dark”)

  1. Shelley says:

    As a writer whose work is based on history, I think there’s a certain irony, isn’t there, in the power going out during a conference on all this digital data!

  2. Pingback: CIC Digital Humanities Summit | Center for Scholarly Communication & Digital Curation

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