DHN 2016 impressions, day 1

At the University of Oslo the first conference on ”Digital Humanities in the Nordic countries” is being held from 15–17 March, 2016. Starting today I will write a series of brief, daily conference reports from my perspective and based on the sessions I have attended. Aside from the plenary lectures and panels, due to personal preference and the profile of this website that will mean a bias toward historical, spatial and qualitative aspects of the programme rather than those dealing with language technology or literary analysis.

The conference started off with an introductory session where the Chair of the newly formed organization Digital Humanities in the Nordic countries, Mats Malm, pointed out that interest in the event had been unexpectedly strong. It has attracted around 220 participants and the programme contains over 80 papers, despite the fact that the organizers had to turn some good proposals down because they could not be accommodated. The breadth and wealth of topics in the programme attest to this keen Nordic interest in the digital humanities, and it is also quite noticeable that the attendees come from a whole range of different backgrounds: literary scholars, computational linguists, historians, archivists, librarians, and quite a few students in all those fields.

In such an eclectic context the perennial question of ”What is the digital humanities?” seems deeply urgent and completely irrelevant at the same time, since the obvious answer is that it means (a lot of) different things to different people – and this, of course, is one of the reasons that ”DH” has gained such momentum over the last decade or so.

Francesca Tomasi of the University of Bologna gave the opening plenary lecture on the semantic web and cultural heritage, where a fundamental theme was how to meet the challenges of linked open data (LOD) as increasingly massive amounts of cultural heritage materials come online. These challenges are far from resolved, as one rather telling comment on one of Tomasi’s slides suggested: ”Questions, not answers…” She also presented some examples and cases from her own work (e.g., Historical Context Ontology and the Letters of Vespasiano da Bisticci as a knowledge site), as well as giving a brief overview of the institutional frameworks for digital humanities in Italy. In a field so dominated by English-language materials, projects and scholars, from a Nordic perspective it was very interesting to hear about the situation of Italian DH.

My first regular session of the day was on how cultural history archives (ethnographic collections) are affected by digitization and how they should be used and communicated in a digital age. Here, too, I got the sense of a field still in an exploratory stage, where the transition to a digital world has given rise to many questions that are still far from answered. One key such question, as Ida Tolgensbakk emphasized in a thoughtful presentation, are who ”own” the archives, i.e., who have the right to decide what to do with their holdings in a time of mass digitization. These collections, many in the form of questionnaries filled out by informants or notes from interviews conducted with them, were largely accumulated in the pre-Internet era for the purpose of providing researchers with data. Now there is increasing pressure to make them more accessible by putting them online, a use that no one could have foreseen fifty or eighty years ago. How do we balance the needs of access to research data with the privacy or integrity of the informants? How long does the latter type of considerations matter at all, i.e., do informants lose their ”rights” to anonymity after a certain amount of time? When?

The second and last paper session of my day was entitled ”Spatial Humanities” (1, 2), and it contained a series of presentations on both research and teaching projects with a spatial focus. Starting with Dieta F. Svoboda from the University of Tübingen, in various ways they all underscored that when we recognize the fundamental role of ”context” for understanding anything (data, events, people, relationships), we must also acknowledge the importance of ”space” since that is often an essential aspect of the context. This was driven home further by Fabian Schwabe, also from Tübingen, who has led a project to produce a web edition of the Itinerary of the 12th century abbot Nikulás of Munkaþverá from Iceland through continental Europe to Jerusalem. Thanks to the efforts of both scholars and students, the edition is annotated and contextualized in multiple layers that make it usable for both research and teaching purposes. For me personally, this was one of the most interesting papers of the day, and I see ”deep mapping” as one of the most intriguing promises of the digital humanities going forward – in the Nordic countries and elsewhere.

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