Category Archives: digital humanities

Exploring Digital Humanities and Media History

Some of my favorite conferences are those that are outside my field, since they expose me to new perspectives and enable me to meet new people. Such was the case with the ArcLight Symposium hosted in May by Concordia University. Sponsored by Project ArcLight, a Concordia/University of Wisconsin project to develop web-based tools for analyzing the rise of American media (movies, radio, TV, newspapers) in the 20th century, the symposium brought together film and media historians with digital humanists to explore the possibilities and pitfalls of digital methods for media history. Funded through a Digging into Data grant, the project builds upon the Media History Digital Library (MHDL), which contains 1.5 million pages of digitized trade journals, fan magazines, and other public domain media periodicals.ArcLight Logo

While some media historians apologized for not being particularly savvy about digital methods, some digital humanists (OK, this one) confessed to having a limited knowledge of film history. But Mark Williams rightly suggested that doing work in digital humanities requires moving outside your comfort zone, and the conference was the richer for people making such leaps. I was reminded of Elijah Meeks’ suggestion that “interloping, more than computational approaches or the digital broadly construed as the object of study, defines digital humanities.” Figuring out new methods or delving into unfamiliar subject areas necessitates interloping.

Rather than summarizing each paper presented at the symposium, I will highlight what emerged as important themes. See also Charlotte Fillmore-Handlon’s conference summary.

Core Principles

  • The importance of archives—physical and digital– to media history research. Such research often requires returning to the original record and paying attention to the material object. For example, as Haidee Wasson studies the history of portable film projectors, she needs to examine the original objects so that she can get a sense of their heft and design. At the same time, digital archives open up rich possibilities for discovering relevant resources and patterns, analyzing them, and sharing them. For example, the Media Ecology Project aims to enable researchers to access resources from media archives, create their own annotations, collections, and publications, and contribute metadata back, using tools such as Mediathread, Scalar and onomy.org.
  • The importance of thinking historically about primary source materials—to understand, for example, the structure, design and cultural history of newspapers, as Paul Moore and Sandra Gabriele pointed out. Likewise, we need to pay attention to the features of digital objects. Ryan Cordell emphasized that we should view digital resources as something entirely different than print, so that a digitized newspaper is not a duplicate of a print edition, but its own typeset edition.
  • The need to consider scope: I referred to Josh Sternfeld’s recommendation that historians deal with digital abundance by extending the principles of scope and provenance into the digital environment. In conducting analysis, it’s important to keep in mind what’s included–and what’s not–in the corpus. As Greg Waller pointed out, studying representation means looking at multiple forms of media—not just film, but sheet music, postcards, literature, etc. Where do you draw the boundaries?

Challenges

  •  Intellectual property: Despite digital plenty, researchers are often limited by paywalls and proprietary databases. MHDL tried to work with a commercial database, but was rebuffed; the global film data that underlies Deb Verhoeven’s Kinomatics research is expensive and cannot be shared. These challenges point to the need to support open projects such as MHDL whenever possible. An audience member urged greater risk-taking, as paranoia about intellectual property can lead scholars, librarians and institutions to hesitate in sharing cultural materials that are public goods.
  •  Ambiguity of humanities data. As many researchers have suggested, humanities data is often messy, dynamic and ambiguous. For example, Deb Verhoeven noted that the locations, size and status of theaters change over time. Likewise, Derek Long acknowledged the challenges of disambiguating film titles that include common words such as “war.”
  •  Reductiveness of ontologies. David Berry asked what happens when information is translated into an ontology, suggesting that DH imports instrumental methods into interpretation. Deb Verhoeven argued that imposing ontologies on diverse humanities data raises both practical and ethical issues. For example, with a typical ontology you can’t say that things aren’t related, and you can’t see who made what assertions. Hence HuNI (Humanities Networked Infrastructure), which brings together 31 Australian cultural datasets, eschews traditional ontologies. Instead, users generate connections through a vernacular linking process, using either free text or already established categories. They can also explore linkages created by others.

Approaches

  •  Searching as frustrating but also fundamental. Searching enables scholars to frame an inquiry, get a sense of what an archive might contain, and discover relevant materials. Eric Hoyt pointed to problems with search, including the risks of confirmation bias and of being overwhelmed by results, but also suggested that search is easily understood and widely used by most scholars. Scaled entity search brings greater power to search, allowing researchers to compare hundreds of entities (such as names, film titles, or radio station call letters) across the corpus and then generate visualizations to explore patterns. For example, you can compile a list of the most frequently mentioned people in silent film (which often turn out to be those who also headed production companies). ArcLight will be released later this summer.
    To create the entity list for film history, ArcLight uses its Early Film Credits (EFC) dataset. This dataset grew out of a 1996 database of American Film Personnel and Company Credits, 1908-1920, which is itself based on a 1976 book. As Derek Long showed, EFC enables you to, for example, generate a list of the number of films produced by a director in a particular year or the number of films made by different production companies (revealing the dominance of a few companies and the “long tail,” as most companies made only a few films).
  •  Pattern matching. As Ryan Cordell noted, searching doesn’t work for everything—for example, you can’t run a search for “show me all instances of reprinting in 19th century newspapers.” Much humanities work involves identifying and interpreting patterns; digital tools can support pattern matching on a much larger scale. For example, the Viral Text Project uses sophisticated algorithms to detect matches in thousands of pages of 19th century newspapers. For a human to take on this work would be nearly impossible. But the computer can reveal significant repeating patterns across a corpus like Chronicling America, enabling scholars to detect the circulation of ideas, debates over the authorship of a sentimental poem, and much more.
  •  Working at multiple scales. As Bobby Allen pointed out, the level of zoom “makes some relations visible but obscures others.”  Paul Moore and Sandra Gabriele spoke to the importance of middle-range reading, or “scalable reading.” Scalable reading involves moving from the macro to the middle to the micro—for example, looking at patterns of circulation at a distance, “following material links across media, form and genre” at the mid-range, and examining the “symbolic order” of a newspaper page close up.
  • Experimentation and iteration: Several speakers used variations of the term “experiment” to describe digital methods. For instance, Deb Verhoeven emphasized that working with the Kinomatics Project’s “big data” documenting the flow of international film across space and time requires experimentation and iteration. Haidee Wesson noted the “experimentalism” of trying out different search strategies, posing different questions of databases. Charles Acard offered an important caution as he suggested that experimentation in DH needs to be influenced by literary theory.
  • The need to engage public audiences. Bobby Allen and Deb Verhoeven spoke to the importance of thinking of humanities work as public goods. Bobby Allen suggested that researchers should “dig where you stand,” but connect local archives to the network. For example, the UNC Digital Innovation Lab’s Digital Loray project enables the public to explore the history of a textile mill in Gastonia, NC, using digital tools to share stories, maps and timelines and engage public audiences.

    Crowdsourcing represents one form of public engagement, but some raised concerns. What distinguishes public expertise from academic? Is crowdsourcing exploitative?

  •   Using visualization to represent complexity: How do you represent the magnitude of global cinema? Laura Horak sketched out a project to create flow maps to study the global circulation of film, describing different ways of visualizing such data and how such visualizations can shape understanding.

While participants used examples specific to media history, many of the concerns and approaches explored in the symposium have broader relevance. I was reminded of the importance of cultivating a critical awareness of methods and engaging in the kind of interdisciplinary dialogue that the ArcLight symposium fostered.

Disclosure: Most of my travel costs were covered by the symposium.

Rev, 6/13/15: Corrected spelling error.

Creating the Texas Digital Humanities Consortium

TXDHC-logo6At the Inaugural Texas Digital Humanities Consortium Conference (TXDHC) on April 12, Elijah Meeks suggested that “interloping, more than computational approaches or the digital broadly construed as the object of study, defines digital humanities.” Indeed, as researchers pursue their curiosity and explore new methods, they often venture into unfamiliar territory. But there they may find others eager to experiment with new approaches and share what they know (or, as Elijah puts it, “a vibrant community of practice,” such as what we see in neogeography). This open, collaborative ethos characterized the TXDHC conference. Ably organized and hosted by Cameron Buckner from the University of Houston (with co-sponsorship from Rice and Texas A&M), the conference attracted participants from across Texas as well as from California, Alabama, Louisiana, and Switzerland. (See Geoffrey Rockwell’s great conference notes.) I think the conference met its fundamental goal of building community among (and beyond) Texas digital humanists by providing a forum where people could present their work, make connections with fellow interlopers, and learn new skills, such as at the hackfest facilitated by Elijah. By bringing in knowledgeable and engaged keynote speakers, the conference exposed participants to cutting-edge work and enabled them to interact with experts happy to offer advice about projects and pose stimulating questions. Already a colleague from Rice who attended the conference reports that she has made progress on her project thanks to help from Elijah, and I bet others can share similar stories.

The conference functioned as the first event hosted by the Texas Digital Humanities Consortium, a new organization that aims to support collaboration among digital humanists in Texas. The consortium (and conference) emerged from a conversation that Cameron Buckner, Laura Mandell (Texas A&M) and I had in October 2013 in which we discussed the growth of digital humanities across the state and the opportunity to band together in promoting DH research and education. We roped in a few more universities, including the University of Texas, the University of North Texas, St. Edward’s, and the University of Texas at Arlington. But we want to extend the consortium further, to create an open, participatory organization that includes liberal arts colleges, universities, community colleges, libraries, museums, and archives. At the conference, I facilitated a business meeting devoted to organizing the new consortium. While I worried that few people would show up to an 8:30 a.m. meeting on a Saturday, I was impressed by how many came and how engaged they were. We had participants from Southwestern, Prairie View A&M, and the University of Texas at Dallas as well as from Rice, UH, UT Austin, St. Edward’s, and UT Arlington. Since Texas is such a big state, we don’t necessarily have the advantage of close geographical proximity, but we do have a diverse and lively community, exciting research and educational projects, and a desire to do as much as we can together.

In the course of a very productive hour, we developed a framework for the consortium.  We plan to do the following:

  • Establish a Commons in a Box web site where members of the consortium can share information about researchers, projects, events, and opportunities (such as internships). Laura Mandell and her colleagues at Texas A&M’s Initiative for Digital Humanities, Media, and Culture (IDHMC) generously offered to set up the site. Contact Laura if you would like to be put on the mailing list for the group.
  • Organize a monthly virtual meeting to plan activities, share ongoing research, and build community.
  • Explore creating internship opportunities for graduate students (and potentially undergraduate students as well). Those looking for students to assist with DH projects can write short descriptions of these projects and share them on the TXDHC web site.
  • Host an annual conference. We would like to hold the next TXDHC conference in the spring of 2015, perhaps in the Dallas/Fort Worth area.
  • Provide informal opportunities to interact, such as by hosting local reading groups and letting each other know about lectures and other events. Note that Texas A&M will host THATCamp DHCollaborate on May 16-17, 2014.
  • Explore potential advocacy activities.

We encourage others interested in digital humanities from across Texas to join us. Currently the consortium operates as a “coalition of the willing,” with decision making by consensus. There are no membership fees or formal structures; to participate, you just need to indicate interest and be willing to contribute your ideas and time. If you are a Texas digital humanist, please fill out a brief survey to indicate your interest in the consortium and offer input into its activities. Interlopers welcomed!

Digital Pedagogy in Practice: Workshop Materials

On Saturday, March 2, I gave a workshop on digital (humanities) pedagogy for a group of about 20 faculty and staff at Gettysburg College.  I was impressed by the participants’ energy, openness, smarts, and playfulness.  We had fun!

I designed the workshop so that it moved through four phases, with the goal of participants ultimately walking away with concrete ideas about how they might integrate digital approaches into their own teaching:

1)  We explored the rationale for digital pedagogy (pdf of slides), discussing what students need to know in the 21st century, different frameworks for digital pedagogy (e.g. learning science, liberal education,  social learning, and studio learning), and definitions of digital pedagogy and the “digital liberal arts.” I started the session with Cathy Davidson’s exercise in which audience members first jot down on an index card three things they think students need to know in order to thrive in the digital age, then share their ideas with someone they didn’t walk in with, and finally work together to select the one key idea. (The exercise got people thinking and talking.)

2)   In the second session, I gave a brief presentation (pdf) offering specific case studies of digital pedagogy in action (repurposing some slides I’d used for previous workshops). Participants then broke up into groups to analyze an assignment used in a digital humanities class.

3)   Next participants worked in small groups to explore one of the following:

I structured the exercise so that participants first looked at the particular applications of the tool in teaching and scholarship (e.g. Mapping the Republic of Letters and Visualizing Emancipation in the session on information visualization), then played with a couple of tools in order to understand how they work, and finally reflected on the advantages and disadvantages of each tool and their potential pedagogical applications. I deliberately kept the exercises short and simple, and I tried to make them relevant to Gettysburg, drawing data from Wikipedia and other open sources.

4)   Finally participants worked in small teams (set up according to discipline) to develop an assignment incorporating digital approaches.  We concluded the session with a modified gallery walk, in which people circulated through the room and chatted with a representative of each team to learn more about their proposed assignment.

By the end of the day, workshop participants seemed excited by the possibilities and more aware of specific approaches that they could take (as well as a bit exhausted). I got several questions about copyright, so in future workshops I plan to incorporate a more formal discussion of fair use, Creative Commons and the public domain.

Our workshop drew heavily on materials shared by generous digital humanities instructors. (In that spirit, feel free to use or adapt any of my workshop materials. And I’m happy to give a version of this workshop elsewhere.) My thinking about digital humanities pedagogy has been informed by a number of people, particularly my terrific colleague Rebecca Davis.

Slides and Exercises from “Doing Things with Text” Workshop

Last week I was delighted to be back at my old stomping grounds at Rice University’s Digital Media Commons to lead a workshop on “Doing Things with Text.” The workshop was part of Rice’s Digital Humanities Bootcamp Series, led by my former colleagues Geneva Henry and Melissa Bailar. I hoped to expose participants to a range of approaches and tools, provide opportunities for hands-on exploration and play, and foster discussion about the advantages and limitations of text analysis, topic modeling, text encoding, and metadata. Although we ran out of time before getting through my ambitious agenda, I hope my slides and exercises provide useful starting points for exploring text analysis and text encoding.

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.

20/30 Vision: Scenarios for the Humanities in 2030

[Here is the extended dance remix version of the talk I gave at the 2010 American Studies Association panel on “Facing New Technologies, Exploring New Challenges.”]

We seem to be anxious about the future—heck, the present—of the humanities.  Consider budget cuts such as those at SUNY-Albany and in the UK, the horrible job market, the declining number of majors, and the frequent appearance of articles with titles like “Can the Humanities Survive the 21st Century?

Instead of focusing on the present in this panel on “Facing New Technologies, Exploring New Challenges,” I’d like to zoom forward twenty years using a process called scenario planning. Essentially, a scenario is a brief story about the future. By working through such stories, organizations can look at the proverbial big picture and devise strategies for facing critical uncertainties in future environments, such as the nature of technological change, the state of higher education, and globalization.  (Given its emphasis on storytelling and interpretation, scenario planning seems like an approach at home in the humanities.)

Recently both the Association of Research Libraries and the Association of College and Research Libraries issued reports about the future of libraries based on scenario planning. (You might have noticed that libraries are also anxious as they face the transition to digital information.) My favorite of the genre is the Library of New South Wales’ The Bookends Scenarios, both because it confronts larger challenges such as climate change and because it leavens gloominess with imagination and humor, such as: “Book by James Lovelock Jnr claims that 98% of human race will be extinct by 2100; 78% of people say they wish James Lovelock Jnr would become extinct by 2029.”

Although scenario planning has its skeptics, I can testify to the ways that it can help people break out of their typical ways of seeing and stimulate their imaginations. Just this week, my library held a retreat based on the ARL 2030 Scenarios.  Despite some grumbling about the unlikelihood of any of the scenarios coming to pass, participants did think deeply and creatively about risks and opportunities facing academic libraries as research becomes more global, entrepreneurial, and data driven. The scenarios sparked conversation.

Today I’d like to put forward three scenarios for the future of the humanities. I’m mashing together the aforementioned library scenarios with the Rockefeller Foundation’s Scenarios for the Future of Technology and International Development and Bryan Alexander’s “Stories of the Future: Telling Scenarios,” as well as a dash of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. A few caveats: 1) I’m notoriously bad at predicting the future. (I really thought I would enjoy treats whipped up by a robot chef by now). 2) The scenarios are compressed and partial.   3) The future will most likely not be any one of these scenarios, although it may contain elements of some of them. 4) A diverse community rather than a quirky individual should develop and think through future scenarios.

I aim to open up a conversation, not have the final word. (It might be useful for an organization such as CenterNet, the Association for Computers and the Humanities or the NEH to take on this exercise in earnest.) The core question that I want to explore: how can we transform the humanities so that they continue to be relevant in twenty years–so that they “survive the 21st century”?

Critical Uncertainties

In defining these scenarios, I am considering several “critical uncertainties”:

  • Teaching and learning: As distance education becomes more dominant, what will humanities education look like?
  • Funding sources: Where will money for humanities research come from, especially as public funding is under stress?
  • Research methods: How will the availability of huge amounts of data (for instance, the 12+ million volumes in Google Books) affect the way humanities research is conducted?
  • Knowledge production and dissemination: How will research be communicated? Will there be free and open access to information, or will it be available only to the highest bidder?
  • Environmental, social, political, technological and cultural changes: What will be the impact of climate change, peak oil, population growth, resource depletion, economic challenges, developments in technology, and globalization on the world?

Based on these uncertainties, I’ve whipped up three scenarios. (To conform to the genre, I should offer four, but I can only cram so much into a 12 minute presentation).

I.     A New Renaissance

the green ascent (by vsz)

i.     Summary: Through broad, sustained investment in education, the world enjoys greater equity and opportunity. Interdisciplinary research and international cooperation have led to progress on resolving many challenges, including climate change, political conflict, and resource depletion.

ii.     Research: Humanities scholars are valued for bringing critical understanding to large amounts of data. In collaboration with computer scientists and librarians, humanities scholars devise methods to mine large humanities databases, coming up with new questions and insights that cross disciplinary and linguistic divides. Humanities (and digital humanities) centers help to coordinate much of this activity. Through efforts by leading scholars and scholarly organizations, tenure and promotion guidelines have been broadened to recognize a wide range of work, including scholarly multimedia, online dialogues, and curated content.

iii.     Teaching: Blended learning has become common, with lectures and exercises delivered online and face-to-face time reserved for discussion and collaborative research. Faculty act as guides and mentors for networked research projects that engage students around the world in producing new knowledge. The humanities provide crucial training in curating, contextualizing and interpreting large amounts of data, as well as in critically examining individual objects.

iv.     Scholarly communication: Research is openly available, speeding the pace of discovery and spreading ideas widely. To capture the complexities of their research, scholars produce multimodal scholarship that incorporates video, audio, visualizations, maps, etc.

2.   Humanities, Inc.

Banksy-Cashpoint (by TT)

i.     Summary: As the United States faces economic crises, public funding for education and research erodes.  People feel both overwhelmed by information and hungry for whatever supports their own perspective. Political conflict erupts around the world as a result of resource depletion and climate change, prompting the US to go into a defensive crouch.

ii.     Research: To the extent that research is funded, the money mostly comes from corporations, often with strings attached. Researchers no longer have tenured positions at universities, but move from contract to contract. By necessity, researchers focus on “what pays?”  However, some scholars work with the public to produce crowdsourced humanities research.

iii.     Teaching: Most undergraduate education is offered through distance education; students choose from a menu of choices rather than attending a particular institution.  Instruction mostly focuses on vocational skills. A few elite institutions remain and offer face-to-face instruction for the very wealthy.  Teachers, most of whom are employed by private companies, teach classes with several hundred people, leaving no time for research. Except for a few “rock stars,” the academic labor force is contingent.

iv.     Scholarly communication: Except for crowdsourced information, most research is available only to those individuals and communities who pay for it.

c.     After the Fall

petrol head (Leo Reynolds)

i.     Summary: The devastating effects of climate change, energy shortages, and economic recession prompt a return to localism, so that local communities provide for most of people’s needs. Some areas have descended into chaos or totalitarianism, run by bandits or warlords.  But others have developed democratic local solutions—microindustries, local power grids, community gardens, co-ops. Despite the scarcity of energy and frequent power outages, people occasionally are able to access and share information on the Internet, but travel becomes rare. The humanities provide a respite from day-to-day drudgery and a source of perspective and wisdom.

ii.     Research: Scholars become research hackers, devising solutions to problems both by studying past folkways and by surveying what other communities are doing now. They are resourceful in retrieving information however they can, taking full advantage of the time when they can access the Internet. There is a renewed appreciation for aesthetics, for well-made or meaningful objects. Humanities centers focus on bridging different interests groups working in the humanities, including secondary education and local cultural organizations.

iii.     Teaching: Although much education focuses on core skills such as literacy, craftsmanship, and agriculture, humanists are valued as wisdom keepers and curators of knowledge, distilling what is important on and passing on cultural appreciation.

iv.     Scholarly communication: Given the unreliability of the electrical grid, print becomes valued for its stability.  Scholars frequently participate in public conversations in their communities.

What Now?

Reflections (Kevin Dolley)


So how can the humanities prepare for these possible futures?

1.     Adapt! Engage with and understand technology’s role in the humanities. Like it or not, technology is shaping our future—both how we do our research and, increasingly, how learning is delivered.   Thus we should experiment with new models for teaching, peer review, research, and scholarly communication. For example, the Center for History and New Media have been doing some fascinating experiments to challenge the slow pace of academia and, perhaps even more importantly, create community, whether by crowdsourcing a book or creating a piece of software in a week. Likewise, the Looking for Whitman project is linking together college classrooms in the study of Walt Whitman and engaging students in producing public scholarship. (Whitman would approve, I think.) We need to make visible the value of this kind of work.

2.     Cooperate! Support collaborative, interdisciplinary research.  Such collaboration should occur on many levels: across professional roles, departments, universities, and community organizations. Greg Crane recently made a compelling case that “We need better ways to understand the cultures that drive economic and political systems upon which our biological lives depend.”  To do that, as Crane argues,we need to ask good questions about the connections among cultures, foster dialogue, collaborate with scholars from a range of cultural backgrounds, and make scholarship widely available.  AWe also need to devise ways of dealing with masses of data, both through developing computational approaches and by opening up research opportunities to students and volunteers.

Humanities centers (working in collaboration with libraries and with scholarly organizations) should play a lead role in supporting cross-disciplinary research and in communicating that research to the public. As I found in a recent research project on collaboration in the digital humanities, many humanities departments still do not know how to evaluate collaborative work for tenure and promotion; this should change. Likewise, recognition and support should be given to those in “alternative academic careers”—librarians, technologists, administrators, researchers, and others who are key players in digital humanities initiatives.

3.     Open! Reform scholarly communication so that it is open, multimodal, participatory, and high quality.  If we want to convince the public of the value of the humanities, then we shouldn’t make it prohibitively expensive for them to access scholarship.  Rather, we should come up with sustainable models for scholars to share their research and participate in visible scholarly conversations.

4.     Evangelize! Advocate for the value of the humanities—and indeed of research and education generally. In particular, I encourage you to support 4humanities, a new web site and initiative to advocate for the humanities. Launched by a collective that is coordinated by Alan Liu (I’m proud to be a member), 4humanities leverages the expertise of the digital humanities community to provide tools, media and resources for promoting for the humanities.

The key point that I want to emphasize is the importance of community in facing challenges/opportunities, as well as in advocating for the humanities. (This idea was developed collectively by our ASA panel—Haven Hawley, Charles Reagan Wilson, Elena Razlogova, and myself– during a breakfast gathering to plan our session.) I think digital humanities scholars/practitioners have been pretty successful in building community, using both networked technologies such as blogs and Twitter and face-to-face gatherings such as THATCamp to connect people, ideas and action.  But we can do more. Let’s get moving!


Examples of Collaborative Digital Humanities Projects

Observing that humanities scholars rarely jointly author articles, as I did in my last post, comes as no surprise.  As Blaise Cronin writes, “Collaboration—for which co-authorship is the most visible and compelling indicator—is established practice in both the life and physical sciences, reflecting the industrial scale, capital-intensiveness and complexity of much contemporary scientific research. But the ‘standard model of scholarly publishing,’ one that ‘assumes a work written by an author,” continues to hold sway in the humanities’ (24).   Just as I found that only about 2% of the articles published in American Literary History between 2004 and 2008 were co-authored, so Cronin et al discovered that just 2% of the articles that appeared in the philosophy journal Mind between 1900 and 2000 were written by more than one person, although between 1990 and 2000 that number increased slightly to 4% (Cronin, Shaw, & La Barre).   Whereas the scale of scientific research often requires scientists to collaborate with each other, humanities scholars typically need only something to write with and about.  But as William Brockman, et al suggest, humanities scholars do have their own traditions of collaboration, or at least of cooperation:  “Circulation of drafts, presentation of papers at conferences, and sharing of citations and ideas, however, are collaborative enterprises that give a social and collegial dimension to the solitary activity of writing. At times, the dependence of humanities scholars upon their colleagues can approach joint authorship of a publication” (11).

Information technology can speed and extend the exchange of ideas, as researchers place their drafts online and solicit comments through technologies such as CommentPress, make available conference papers via institutional repositories, and share citations and notes using tools such as Zotero.  Over ten years, ago John Unsworth described an ongoing shift from cooperation to collaboration, indicating perhaps both his prescience and the slow pace of change in academia.

In the cooperative model, the individual produces scholarship that refers to and draws on the work of other individuals. In the collaborative model, one works in conjunction with others, jointly producing scholarship that cannot be attributed to a single author. This will happen, and is already happening, because of computers and computer networks. Many of us already cooperate, on networked discussion groups and in private email, in the research of others: we answer questions, provide references for citations, engage in discussion. From here, it’s a small step to collaboration, using those same channels as a way to overcome geographical dispersion, the difference in time zones, and the limitations of our own knowledge.

The limitations of our own knowledge.  As Unsworth also observes, collaboration, despite the challenges it poses, can open up new approaches to inquiry: “instead of establishing a single text, editors can present the whole layered history of composition and dissemination; instead of opening for the reader a single path through a thicket of text, the critic can provide her with a map and a machete. This is not an abdication of the responsibility to educate or illuminate: on the contrary, it engages the reader, the user, as a third kind of collaborator, a collaborator in the construction of meaning.”  With the interactivity of networked digital environments, Unsworth imagines the reader becoming an active co-creator of knowledge.  Through online collaboration, scholars can divide labor (whether in making a translation, developing software, or building a digital collection), exchange and refine ideas (via blogs, wikis, listservs, virtual worlds, etc.), engage multiple perspectives, and work together to solve complex problems.  Indeed, “[e]mpowering enhanced collaboration over distance and across disciplines” is central to the vision of cyberinfrastructure or e-research (Atkins).  Likewise, Web 2.0 focuses on sharing, community and collaboration.

Work in many areas of the digital humanities seems to both depend upon collaboration and aim to support it.  Out of the 116 abstracts for posters, presentations, and panels given at the Digital Humanities 2008 (DH2008) conference, 41 (35%) include a form of the word “collaboration,” whether they are describing collaborative technologies (“Online Collaborative Research with REKn and PReE”) or collaborative teams (“a collaborative group of librarians, scholars and technologists”).  Likewise, 67 out of 104 (64%) papers and posters presented at DH 2008 have more than one author.  (Both the Digital Humanities conference and LLC tend to focus on the computational side of the digital humanities, so I’d also like to see if the pattern of collaboration holds in what Tara McPherson calls the “multimodal humanities,” e.g. journals such as Vectors.  Given that works in Vectors typically are produced through collaborations between scholars and designers, I’d expect to see a somewhat similar pattern.)

I was having trouble articulating precisely how collaboration plays a role in humanities research until I began looking for concrete examples—and I found plenty.   As computer networks connect researchers to content, tools and each other, we are seeing humanities projects that facilitate people working together to produce, explore and disseminate knowledge.  I interpret the word “collaboration” broadly; it’s a squishy term with synonyms such as teamwork, cooperation, partnership, and working together, and it also calls to mind co-authorship, communication, community, citizen humanities, and social networks.  In Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky puts forward a handy hierarchy of collaboration: 1) sharing; 2) cooperation; 3) collaboration; 4) collectivism (Kelly).  In this post, I’ll list different types of computer-supported collaboration in the humanities, note antecedents in “traditional” scholarship, briefly describe example projects, and point to some supporting technologies.  This is an initial attempt to classify a wide range of activity; some of these categories overlap.

–FACILITATING COMMUNICATION AND KNOWLEDGE BUILDING–

ONLINE COMMUNITIES/ VIRTUAL ORGANIZATIONS

  • Historical antecedents: conferences, colloquia, letters
  • Supporting technologies: listservs, online forums, blogs, social networking platforms, virtual worlds, microblogging (e.g. Twitter), video conferencing
  • Key functions: fostering communication and collaboration across a distance
  • Examples:
    • Listervs: Perhaps the most well-known online community in the humanities is H-NET, which was founded in 1992  and thus predates Web 2.0 or even Web 1.0.  According to Mark Kornbluh, H-Net provides an “electronic version of an academic conference, a way for people to come together and to talk about their research and their teaching, to announce what was going on in the field, and to review and critique things that are going on in the field.”  Currently H-Net  supports over 100 humanities email lists and serves over 100,000 subscribers in more than 90 countries.  Although H-Net has been criticized for relying on an old technology, the listserv, and is facing economic difficulties, it remains valued for supporting information sharing and discussion.  For digital humanities folks, the Humanist list, launched in 1987, serves as “an international online seminar on humanities computing and the digital humanities” and has played a vital part in the intellectual life of the community.
    • Online forums: HASTAC, “a virtual network, a network of networks” that supports collaboration across disciplines and institutions, sponsors lively forums about technology and the humanities, often moderated by graduate students.  HASTAC also organizes conferences, administers a grant competition, and advocates for “new forms of collaboration across communities and disciplines fostered by creative uses of technology.” In my experience, online communities often break down the hierarchies separating graduate students from senior scholars and bring recognition to good ideas, no matter what the source.
    • Online communities: Since 1996, Romantic Circles (RC) has built an online community focused on Romanticism, not only fostering communication among researchers but also collaboratively developing content.  Romantic Circles includes a blog for sharing information about news and events of interest to the community; a searchable archive of electronic editions; collections of critical essays; chronologies, indices, bibliographies and other scholarly tools; reviews; pedagogical resources; and a MOO (gaming environment).  Over 30 people have served as editors, while over 300 people have contributed reviews and essays.  Alan Liu aptly summarizes RC’s significance: “Romantic Circles, which helped pioneer collaborative scholarship on the Web, has become the leading paradigm for what such scholarship could be. One can point variously to the excellence of its refereed editions of primary texts, its panoply of critical and pedagogical resources, its inventive Praxis series, its state-of-the-art use of technology or its stirring commitment (nearly unprecedented on the Web) to spanning the gap between high-school and research-level tiers of education. But ultimately, no one excellence is as important as the overall, holistic impact of the site. We witness here a broad community of scholars using the new media vigorously, inventively, and rigorously to inhabit a period of historical literature together.”In building a community that supports digital scholarship, NINES focuses on three main goals: providing peer review for digital scholarship in 19th century American and British studies (thus helping to legitimize and recognize emerging scholarly forms), helping scholars create digital scholarship by providing training and content, and developing software such as Collex and Juxta to support inquiry and collaboration.
    • Advanced videoconferencing: With budgets tight, time scarce, and concern about the environmental costs  of travel increasing, collaborators often need to meet without having to travel.  AccessGrid supports communication among multiple groups by providing high quality video and audio and enabling researchers to share data and scientific instruments seamlessly.  AccessGrid, which was developed by Argonne National Laboratory and uses open source software, employs large displays and multiple projectors to create an immersive environment.   In the arts and humanities, AccessGrid has been used to support “telematic” performances, the study of high resolution images, seminars, and classes.
CollabRoom by Modbob

CollabRoom by Modbob

COLLABORATORIES

  • Historical antecedents: laboratories, research centers,
  • Supporting technologies: grid technologies/ advanced networking, large displays, remote instrumentation, simulation software, collaboration platforms such as HubZero, databases, digital libraries
  • Key functions: fostering communication, collaboration, resource sharing, and research regardless of physical distance
  • Examples:

William Wulf coined the term collaboratory in 1989 to describe a “center without walls, in which the nation’s researchers can perform their research without regard to physical location, interacting with colleagues, accessing instrumentation, sharing data and computational resources, [and] accessing information in digital libraries.” Most of the collaboratories listed on the (now somewhat-out-of-date) Science of Collaboratories web site focus on the sciences.  For example, scientific collaboratories such as NanoHub, Space Physics and Astronomy Research Collaboratory (SPARC) and Biomedical Informatics Research Network (BIRN) have supported online data sharing, analysis, and communication.

What would a collaboratory in the humanities do? The term has been used in the humanities to refer to:

“Collaboratory” has thus taken on additional meanings, referring to “a new networked organizational form that also includes social processes; collaboration techniques; formal and informal communication; and agreement on norms, principles, values, and rules” (Cogburn, 2003, via Wikipedia).

“Virtual research environment” seems to be replacing “collaboratory” to refer to online collaborative spaces that provide access to tools and content (e.g. Early Modern Texts VRE, powered by Sakai). Through its funding program focused on Virtual Research Environments, JISC has sponsored the Virtual Research Environment for Archaeology, a VRE for the Study of Documents and Manuscripts, Collaborative Research Events on the Web, and myExperiments for sharing scientific workflows.

–SHARING AND AGGREGATING CONTENT—

DIGITAL MEMORY BANKS/ USER-CONTRIBUTED CONTENT

  • Historical antecedents: museums, archives, personal collections
  • Supporting technologies: Web publishing platforms (e.g. Omeka, Drupal), databases
  • Key functions: “collecting & exhibiting” content (to borrow from CHNM)
  • Examples:
    When the Valley of the Shadow project was launched in the 1990s, project team members went into communities in Pennsylvania and Virginia to digitize 19th century documents held by families in personal collections, thus building a virtual archive.  As scanners and digital cameras have become ubiquitous and user-contributed content sites such as Flickr and YouTube have taken off, people can contribute their own digital artifacts to online collections.  For example, The Hurricane Digital Memory Bank collects over 25,000 stories, images, and other multimedia files about Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.  Using a simple interface, people can upload items and describe the title, keywords, geographic location, and contributor.  The archive thus becomes a dynamic, living repository of current history, a space where researchers and citizens come together—or, in the terminology of the Center for History and New Media (CHNM), a memory bank that “promote[s] popular participation in presenting and preserving the past.”  As the editors of Vectors write in their introduction to “Hurricane Digital Memory Bank: Preserving the Stories of Katrina, Rita, and Wilma,” “Their work troubles a number of binaries long reified by history scholars (and humanities scholars more generally), including one/many, closed/open, expert/amateur, scholarship/journalism, and research/pedagogy.”  CHNM also sponsors digital memory banks focused on Mozilla, September 11, and the Virginia Tech tragedy.  Likewise, the Great War Archive, sponsored by the University of Oxford, contains over 6,500 items about World War I contributed by the public.

CONTENT AGGREGATION AND INTEGRATION

  • Historical antecedents: museums, archives
  • Supporting technologies: databases, open standards
  • Key functions: making it easier to discove, share and use information
  • Examples:
    Too often digital resources reside in silos, as each library or archive puts up its own digital collection.  As a result, researchers must spend more time identifying, searching, and figuring out how to use relevant digital collections.  However, some projects are shifting away from a siloed approach and bringing together collaborators to build digital collections focused on a particular topic or to develop interoperable, federated digital collections.  For instance, the Alliance for American Quilts, MATRIX: Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online, and Michigan State University Museum have created the Quilt Index, which makes available images and descriptions of quilts provided by 14 contributors, including The Library of Congress American Folklife Center and the Illinois State Museum.  As Mark Kornbluh argues, interoperable content enables new kinds of inquiry: “In the natural sciences, large new datasets, powerful computers, and a rich array of computational tools are rapidly transforming knowledge generation. For the same to occur in the humanities, we need to understand the principle that ‘more is better.’ Part of what the computer revolution is doing is that it is letting us bring huge volumes of material under control. Cultural artifacts have always been held by separate institutions and separated by distance. Large–scale interoperable digital repositories, like the Quilt Index, open dramatically new possibilities to look at the totality of cultural content in ways never before possible.” Other examples of content aggregation and integration projects include the Walt Whitman Archive’s Finding Aids for Poetry Manuscripts and NINES.

DATA SHARING

  • Historical antecedents: informal exchange of data
  • Supporting technologies: databases (MySQL, etc), web services tools
  • Key functions: support research by enabling discovery and reuse of data sets
  • Example projects:
    By sharing data, researchers can enable others to build on their work and provide transparency.  As Christine Borgman writes, “If related data and documents can be linked together in a scholarly information infrastructure, creative new forms of data- and information-intensive, distributed, collaborative, multidisciplinary research and learning become possible.  Data are outputs of research, inputs to scholarly publications, and inputs to subsequent research and learning.  Thus they are the foundation of scholarship” (Borgman 115).  Of course, there are a number of problems bound up in data sharing—how to ensure participation, make data discoverable through reliable metadata, balance flexibility in accepting a range of formats and the need for standardization, preserve data for the long term, etc.  Several projects focused on humanities and social science data are beginning to confront at least some of these challenges:

    • Open Context “hopes to make archaeological and related datasets far more accessible and usable through common web-based tools.”  Embracing open access and collaboration, Open Context makes it easy for researchers to upload, search, tag and analyze archaeological datasets.
    • Through Open Street Map, people freely and openly share and use geographic data in a wiki-like fashion.  Contributors employ GPS devices to record details about places such as the names of roads, then upload this information to a collaborative database.  The data is used to create detailed maps that have no copyright restrictions (unlike most geographical data).
    • Through the Reading Experience Database researchers can contribute records of British readers engaging with texts.

–COLLABORATIVE ANNOTATION, TRANSCRIPTION, AND KNOWLEDGE PRODUCTION–

CROWDSOURCING TRANSCRIPTION

  • Historical antecedents: genealogical research(?)
  • Supporting technologies: wikis
  • Key functions: share the labor required for transcribing manuscripts
  • Examples:
    Much of the historical record is not yet accessible online because it exists as handwritten documents—letters, diaries, account books, legal documents, etc.  Although work is underway on Optical Character Recognition software for handwritten materials, making these variable documents searchable and easy to read usually still requires a person to manually transcribe the document.  Why not enable people to collaborate to make family documents and other manuscripts available through commons-based peer production? At THATCamp last year, I learned about Ben Brumley’s FromthePage software, which enables volunteers to transcribe handwritten documents through a web-based interface.  The right side of the interface shows a zoomable image of the page, while on the left volunteers enter the transcription through a wiki-like interface.  Likewise, the FamilySearch Indexing Project, sponsored by the LDS, recruits volunteers to transcribe family information from historical documents.   (See Jeanne Kramer-Smyth’s great account of the THATCamp session on crowdsourcing transcription and annotation.)  Not only can collaborative transcription be more efficient, but it can also reduce error.  Martha Nell Smith recounts how she, working solo at the Houghton, transcribed a line of Susan Dickinson’s poetry as “I’m waiting but the cow’s not back.’’  When her collaborators at the Dickinson Electronic Archives, Lara Vetter and Laura Lauth, later compared the transcriptions to digital images of Dickinson’s manuscripts, they discovered that the line actually says “‘I’m waiting but she comes not back.”  As Smith suggests, “Had we not been working in concert with one another, and had we not had the high quality reproductions of Susan Dickinson’s manuscripts to revisit and thereby perpetually reevaluate our keys to her alphabet, my misreading might have been congealed in the technology of a critical print translation and what is very probably a poetic homage to Emily Dickinson would have lain lost in the annals of literary history”(Smith 849).

    Efforts to crowdsource transcription seem similar to the distributed proofreading that powers Project Gutenberg, which has enlisted volunteers to proofread over 15,000 books since 2000.  Likewise, Project Madurai is using distributed proofreading to build a digital library of Tamil texts.

COLLABORATIVE TRANSLATION

  • Historical antecedents: translation teams, e.g. Pevear and Volokhonsky
  • Supporting technologies: wikis, blogs, machine translation supplemented by human intervention
  • Examples:
    Rather than requiring an individual to undertake the time-intensive work of translating a complex classical text solo, the Suda Online (SOL)  brings together classicists to collaborate in translating into English the Suda, a tenth century encyclopedia of ancient learning written by a committee of Byzantine scholars (and thus itself a collaboration).  In addition to providing translations, SOL also offers commentaries and references, so it serves as a sort of encyclopedic predecessor to Wikipedia.  As Anne Mahoney reports in a recent article from Digital Humanities Quarterly, an email exchange in 1998 sparked the Suda Online; one scholar wondered whether there was an English translation of the Suda (there wasn’t) and others recognized that a translation could be produced through web-based collaboration.  Student programmers at the University of Kentucky quickly developed the technological infrastructure for SOL (a wiki might have been used today, but the custom application has apparently served its purpose well).  Now a self-organizing team of 61 editors and 95 translators from 12 countries has already translated over 21,000 entries, about 2/3 of the total.  Translators make the initial translations, which are then reviewed and augmented by editors (typically classics faculty) and given a quality rating of “draft,” “low,” or “high.”   All who worked on the translation are credited through a sort of open peer review process.  Whereas collaborative projects such as Wikipedia are open to anyone, SOL translators must register with the project.  Mahoney suggests that the collaboration has succeeded in part because it was focused and bounded, so that collaborators could feel the satisfaction of working toward a common goal and meeting milestones, such as 100 entries translated.  According to Mahoney, SOL has made this important text more accessible by offering an English version, making it searchable, and providing commentaries and references.  Moreover, “[a]s a collaboration SOL demonstrates the feasibility of open peer review and the value of incremental progress.” Other collaborative translation projects include The Encyclopédie of Diderot and d’Alembert, Traduwiki, which aims to “eliminate the last barrier of the Internet, the language’; the WorldWide lexicon project; and Babels.

COLLABORATIVE EDITING

  • Historical antecedents: creating critical editions
  • Supporting technologies: grid computing, XML editors, text analysis tools, annotation tools
  • Example Projects:

As Peter Robinson observed at this year’s MLA, the traditional model for creating a critical edition centralizes authority in an editor, who oversees work by graduate assistants and others.  However, the Internet enables distributed, de-centralized editing.  To create “community-made editions,” a library would digitize texts and produce high quality images, researchers would transcribe those images, others would collate the transcriptions, others would analyze the collations and add commentaries, and so forth.

Explaining the need for collaborative approaches to textual editing, Marc Wilhelm Kiister, Christoph Ludwig and Andreas Aschenbrenner of TextGrid describe how 3 different editors attempted to create a critical edition of the massive “so-called pseudo-capitulars supposedly written by a Benedictus Levita,” dying before they could complete their work.  Now a team of scholars is collaborating to create the edition, increasing their chances of completion by sharing the labor.  The TextGrid project is building a virtual workbench for collaborative editing, annotation, analysis and publication of texts.  Leveraging the grid infrastructure, TextGrid provides a platform for “software agents with well-defined interfaces that can be harnessed together through a user defined workflow to mine or analyze existing textual data or to structure new data both manually and automatically.” TextGrid recently released a beta version of its client application that includes an XML editor, search tool, dictionary search tool, metadata annotator, and workflow modules. As Kiister, Ludwig and Aschenbreener point out, enabling collaboration requires not only developing a technical platform that supports real-time collaboration and automation of routine tasks, but also facilitating a cultural shift toward collaboration among philologists, linguists, historians, librarians, and technical experts.

SOCIAL BIBLIOGRAPHIES, COLLABORATIVE FILTERING, AND ANNOTATION

  • Historical antecedents: shared references, bibliographies
  • Key functions: share citations, notes, and scholarly resources; build collective knolwedge
  • Supporting technologies: social bookmarking, bibliographic tools
  • Projects:
    With the release of Zotero 2.0, Zotero is taking a huge step toward the vision articulated by Dan Cohen of providing access to “the combined wisdom of hundreds of thousands of scholars” (Cohen).  Researchers can set up groups to share collections with a class and/or collaborators on a research project.   I’ve already used Zotero groups to support my research and to collaborate with others; I discovered several useful citations in the collaboration folder for the digital history group, and with Sterling Fluharty I’ve set up a group to study collaboration in the digital humanities (feel free to join).  Ultimately Zotero will provide Amazon-like recommendation services to help scholars identify relevant resources.  As Stan Katz wrote in hailing Zotero’s collaboration with the Internet Archive to create a “Zotero commons” for sharing research documents, “For secretive individualists, which is to say old-fashioned humanists, this will sound like an invasion of privacy and an invitation to plagiarism. But to scholars who value accessibility, collaboration, and the early exchange of information and insight -– the future is available. And free on the Internet.”

    Similarly, the eComma project suggests that collaborative annotation can facilitate collaborative interpretation, as readers catalog poetic devices (personification, enjambment, etc.) and offer their own interpretations of literary works.  You can see eComma at work in the Collaborative Rubáiyát, which enables users to compare different versions of the text, annotate the text, tag it, and access sections through a tag cloud.   Likewise, Philospace will allow scholars to describe philosophical resources, filter them, find resources tagged by others, and submit resulting research for peer review. Other projects and technologies supporting collaborative annotation include Flickr CommonsAus-e-Lit: Collaborative Integration and Annotation Services for Australian Literature Communities, NINES’ Collex, and STEVE.

COLLABORATIVE WRITING

  • Historical antecedents: Encyclopedias
  • Supporting technologies: Wikis
  • Key functions: sharing knowledge, synthesizing multiple perspectives
  • Examples:
    With the rise of Wikipedia, academics have been debating whether collaborative writing spaces such as wikis undermine authority, expertise, and trustworthiness.  In “Literary Sleuths Online,” Ralph Schroeder and Matthijs Den Besten examine the Pynchon Wiki, a collaborative space where Pynchon enthusiasts annotate and discuss his works.  Schroeder and Den Besten compare the wiki’s section on Pynchon’s Against the Day with a print equivalent, Weisenburger’s “A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion.”  While the annotations in Weisenburger’s book are more concise and consistent, the wiki is more comprehensive, more accurate (because many people are checking the information), and more speedily produced (it only took 3 months for the wiki to cover every page of Pynchon’s novel).   Moreover, the book is fixed, while the wiki is open-ended and expansive. Schroeder and Den Besten suggest that competition, community and curiosity drive participation, since contributors raced to add annotations as they made their way through the novel and “sleuthed” together.

GAMING: “Collaborative Play”/ Games as Research

  • Historical antecedents: role playing games, board games, etc.
  • Key functions: problem solving, team work, knowledge sharing
  • Supporting technologies: gaming engines, wikis, networks
  • Example Projects:
    Perhaps some of the most intense collaboration comes in massively multiplayer online games, as teams of players consult each other for assistance navigating virtual worlds, team up to defeat monsters, join guilds to collaborate on quests, and share their knowledge through wikis such as the WOWWiki, which has almost 74,000 articles.  Focusing on World of Warcraft, Nardi and Harris explore collaborative play as a form of learning.  They also point to potential applications of gaming in research communities: “Mixed collaboration spaces, whether MMOGs or another format, may be useful in domains such as interdisciplinary scientific work where a key challenge is finding the right collaborators.”

    Sometimes those collaborators can be people without specialized training.  Recently Wired featured a fascinating article about FoldIt, a game to come up with different models of proteins that is attracting devoted teams of participants (Bohannon).  The game was devised by the University of Washington Departments of Computer Science & Engineering and Biochemistry to crowdsource solutions to Community-Wide Experiment on the Critical Assessment of Techniques for Protein Structure Prediction (CASP), a scientific contest to predict protein structures.   Previously biochemist David Baker had used Rosetta@home to harness the spare computing cycles of 86,000 PCs that had been volunteered to help determine the shapes of proteins, but he was convinced that human intelligence as well as computing power needed to be tapped to solve spatial puzzles.  Thus he and his colleagues developed a game in which players fold proteins into their optimal shapes, a sort of “global online molecular speed origami.” Over 100,000 people have downloaded the game, and a 13 year-old is one of the game’s best players. Using the game’s chat function, players formed teams, “and collective efforts proved far more successful than any solo folder.”  At the CASP competition, 7 of the 15 solutions contributed through FoldIt worked, and one finished in first place, so “[a] band of gamer nonscientists had beaten the best biochemists.”

    How might gaming be used to motivate and support humanities research?  As we see in the example of FoldIt, games provide motivation and a structure for collaboration; teamwork enables puzzles to be solved more rapidly.  I could imagine, for example, a game in which players would transcribe pieces of a diary to unravel the mystery it recounts, describe the features of a series of images (similar to Google’s Image Labeler game), or offer up their own interpretations of abstruse philosophical or literary passages.  In “Games of Inquiry for Collaborative Concept Structuring,” Mary A. Keeler and Heather D. Pfeiffer envision a “Manuscript Reconstruction Game (MRG)” where Peirce scholars would collaborate to figure out where a manuscript page belongs. “The scholars rely on the mechanism of the game, as a logical editor or ‘logical lens,’ to help them focus on and clarify the complexities of inference and conceptual content in their collaborative view of the manuscript evidence” (407).  There are already some compelling models for humanities game play.  Dan Cohen recently used Twitter to crowdsource solving an historical puzzle. Ian Bogost and collaborators are investigating the intersections between journalism and gaming.  Jerome McGann describes Ivanhoe as an  “online playspace… for organizing collaborative interpretive investigations of traditional humanities materials of any kind,” as two or more players come together to re-imagine and transform a literary work (McGann).

PUBLISHING

  • Historical antecedents: exchange of drafts, letters, critical dialogs in journals
  • Supporting technologies and protocols: CommentPress, blogs, wikis, Creative Commons licenses, etc.
  • Projects:
    Bob Stein defines the book as “a place where readers (and sometimes authors) congregate.” Recent projects enable readers to participate in all phases of the publishing process, from peer-to-peer review to remixing a work to produce something new.  For instance, LiquidPub aims to transform the dissemination and evaluation of scientific knowledge by enabling “Liquid Publication that can take multiple forms, that evolves continuously, and is enriched by multiple sources.”  Using CommentPress, Noah Wardrip-Fruin  experimented with peer-to-peer review of his new book Expressive Processing alongside traditional peer review, posting a section of the book each week day to the Grand Text Auto blog.  Although it was difficult for many reviewers to get a sense of the book’s overall arguments when they were reading only fragments, Wardrip-Fruin found many benefits to this open approach to peer review: he could engage in conversation with his reviewers and determine how to act on their comments, and he received detailed comments from both academics and non-academics with expertise in the topics being discussed, such as game designers.  Similarly, O’Reilly recently developed the Open Publishing Feedback System to gather comments from the community.  Its first experiment, Programming Scala, yielded over 7000 comments from nearly 750 people. New publishing companies such as WeBook and Vook are exploring collaborative authorship and multimedia.

SOCIAL LEARNING

  • Historical antecedents: Students as research assistants?
  • Supporting technologies: blogs, wikis, social bookmarking, social bibliographies
  • Motto: “We participate, therefore we are.” (via John Seely Brown)
  • Example:
    As John Seely Brown explains, “social learning is based on the premise that our understanding of content is socially constructed through conversations about that content and through grounded interactions, especially with others, around problems or actions.”  Social learning involves “learning to be” an expert through apprenticeship, as well as learning the content and language of a domain.  Brown points to open source communities as exemplifying social learning.  I would guess that many, if not most, collaborative digital humanities projects have depended on contributions from undergraduate and graduate students, whether they digitized materials, did programming, authored metadata, contributed to the project wiki, designed the web site, or even managed the project.

    Why not create a network of research projects, so that students studying a similar topic could jointly contribute to a common resource?  Such is the vision of “Looking for Whitman: The Poetry of Place in the Life and Work of Walt Whitman,” led by Matthew Gold.   Working together to build a common web site on Whitman, students will document their research using Web 2.0 technologies such as CommentPress, BuddyPress (Word Press + social networking), blogs, wikis, YouTube, Flickr, Google Maps, etc.m  Students at City Tech, CUNY’s New York City College of Technology and New York University will focus on Whitman in New York;  those at Rutgers University at Camden will look at Whitman as “sage of Camden”; and those at the University of Mary Washington will examine Whitman and the Civil War.   Similarly, Michael Wesch, the 2008 CASE/Carnegie U.S. Professor of the Year for Doctoral and Research Universities, asks his students to become “co-creators” of knowledge, whether in simulating world history and cultures, creating an ethnography of YouTube, or examining anonymity and new media.

While collaboration in the humanities is certainly not new, these projects suggest how researchers (both professional and amateur) can work together regardless of physical location to share ideas and citations, produce translations or transcriptions, and create common scholarly resources.  Long as this list is, I know I’m omitting many other relevant projects (some of which I’ve bookmarked) and overlooking (for now) the challenges that collaborative scholarship faces.  I’ll be working with several collaborators to explore these issues, but I of course welcome comments….

Works Cited

Atkins, Dan. Report of the National Science Foundation Blue-Ribbon Advisory Panel on Cyberinfrastructure. NSF. January 2003. <http://www.nsf.gov/od/oci/reports/toc.jsp>.
Bohannon, John. “Gamers Unravel the Secret Life of Protein.” Wired 20 Apr 2009. 26 May 2009 <http://www.wired.com/medtech/genetics/magazine/17-05/ff_protein?currentPage=all>.
Borgman, Christine L. Scholarship in the Digital Age: Information, Infrastructure, and the Internet. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2007.
Brockman, William et al. Scholarly Work in the Humanities and the Evolving Information Environment. CLIR/DLF, 2001. 24 Jul 2007 <http://www.clir.org/PUBS/reports/pub104/pub104.pdf>.
Cohen, Daniel J. “Zotero: Social and Semantic Computing for Historical Scholarship.” Perspectives (2007). 27 May 2009 <http://www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2007/0705/0705tec2.cfm>.
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Revisions: Fixed From the Page link, 6/1/09; Tanya ] Tara, 6/2/09; fixed typos (6/14/09)