Opening the Humanities Part 1: Overview

Today marks the fifth anniversary of my blog. Over the course of those five years, I’ve learned a simple, vital lesson: sharing is good. When I began my blog, I planned to document the process of remixing my dissertation (completed five years earlier, in 2002) as a work of digital scholarship. I got distracted by other topics, such as making the case for social scholarship, summarizing the year in digital humanities (a task that seems far too daunting today), examining collaboration in DH, and providing resources for getting started in DH. Since I didn’t really expect that the blog would find much of an audience, I was jazzed when people commented on my posts and talked with me about my blog at conferences. Blogging opened up new opportunities for me– invitations to speak or to contribute to essay collections– and made me feel like I was part of a lively community of scholars. Sharing made my work more visible and gave me a greater sense of purpose.

An interest in sharing also led me to team up with several other librarians to start the Digital Research Tools (DiRT) wiki. As I tried to keep up with all of the tools that help researchers find, manage, analyze and present information, I figured it would be better to take on the task collectively and produce a community resource.

Program Building @ THATCamp Vanderbilt by derekbruff

Program Building @ THATCamp Vanderbilt by derekbruff

With DiRT, I was struck by the willingness of the community to share; as I recall, both Alan Liu and Dan Cohen invited me to grab resources from their own tool collections and include them in DiRT, and people volunteered their time to add new information to the wiki. But I also learned that it  requires continuous effort to maintain an active community of contributors; no matter how good our intentions, we only have so much time (and I myself had only limited time to commit to DiRT). Now DiRT has achieved what many start-ups aim for: it’s been acquired by a larger organization. Reborn as Bamboo DiRT, it is nurtured by a steering/ curatorial committee (led by Quinn Dombrowski, who did much of the work creating Bamboo DiRT) that shares its time and expertise to maintain a resource of value to the community.

In retrospect, I see that my attraction to digital humanities comes not so much from a love of technology or method, but of the community and its values. It’s difficult (and perhaps presumptuous) to define the values of such a diverse community, but I would point to openness, collaboration, collegiality and connectedness, diversity and experimentation (as I did in my chapter in Debates in the Digital Humanities). Underlying all of these is openness, broadly defined: openness to new ideas and new participants, openness as a commitment to sharing.

We see openness throughout the digital humanities. As the Manifesto for the Digital Humanities declares, digital humanists are “building a community of practice that is solidary, open, welcoming and freely accessible” as well as “multilingual and multidisciplinary.” This community calls for “open access to data and metadata,” open source software, the development of “collective expertise” and the sharing of best practices. I would point to THATCamp, with its openness to all, spirit of sharing and discovery, and emphasis on collaboration, as the embodiment of this community (appropriately enough, the Manifesto was produced collectively at THATCamp Paris). Openness defines how much of the DH community operates and animates its larger goal to promote the growth of knowledge. Indeed, Mark Sample proposes that The digital humanities is not about building, it’s about sharing, arguing that the “promise of the digital” comes in the circulation, sharing and discussion of knowledge. Instead of tolerating the slow dissemination of knowledge through antiquated print processes and allowing knowledge to be restricted to those with access to well-funded libraries, Sample suggests, we can develop open solutions that promote conversation, sharing, reuse, and the growth of knowledge.

Noting how frequently terms like “open” and “collaboration” are used in definitions of digital humanities, Eric Johnson suggests that the digital humanities have much in common with the public humanities. Like museum professionals and librarians, digital humanists embrace values such as collaboration, open access, and “[i]nvolvement of the public and/or public ‘communities of passion.’” (I love that term “communities of passion,” which captures the generosity, sense of common purpose and enthusiasm I see in DH).  Many digital humanities projects aim to share knowledge with the public and even engage the public in the construction of that knowledge. Eric advances a useful definition of the open humanities: “those aspects of the humanities aimed at democratizing production and consumption of humanities research.” (I would add teaching and learning).

With this post, I am beginning a series on the open humanities, elaborating on ideas I discussed in my November 2 talk at WPI’s Digital Humanities Symposium. I’ll look at the contexts around open humanities, explore the rationale for open humanities (drawing many examples from digital humanities), and examine challenges facing open humanities, particularly cultural and economic ones. Along the way, I’ll discuss the ongoing development of Anvil Academic, an open publisher for the digital humanities (I’m the program manager).  I hope this series shines a light on some of the great work being done in the DH community and stimulates further conversation about the open humanities.

Thanks to everyone who has commented on a post, spread the word about my blog, encouraged me, shared ideas with me, and helped make the DH community (as contentious as it sometimes can be) one of passion.

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