Läsvärd lägesrapport om digital humaniora

Det senaste numret av tidskriften Respons innehåller en lägesrapport om digital humaniora av Pelle Snickars, professor i medie- och kommunikationsvetenskap med inriktning mot digital humaniora vid Umeå universitet. Utgångspunkten är bland annat Snickars intryck från sommarens stora DH-kongress i Krakow, men artikeln hänvisar också till den nordiska DH-konferensen i Oslo i mars, samtal med flera framträdande svenska digitala humanister och den kritiska diskussion om digital humaniora som bland annat kom till uttryck genom ett uppmärksammat debattinläggLos Angeles Review of Books tidigare i våras.

Sammantaget är det en initierad översikt av var fältet digital humaniora står här och nu, sommaren 2016, och de möjligheter och utmaningar Snickars uppfattar som särskilt betydelsefulla inför framtiden. Kort sagt, en mycket läsvärd artikel som varmt rekommenderas!


DHN 2016 impressions, day 2 and 3

This is the second of two posts on the ”Digital Humanities in the Nordic countries” conference held in Oslo on 15–17 March, 2016. The previous post can be found here.

Day 2 of DHN 2016 opened with a plenary lecture by Patrik Svensson, former director of the leading Nordic centre for what is now called digital humanities, HUMlab in Umeå. He began his keynote, entitled ”Can there be a Nordic digital humanities?” (abstract | references), by characterizing the state of DH as either ”unsettled” or ”dynamic” depending on your point of view. However, he also argued that it is a sign of progress that much of the program at DHN was content-driven, discussing actual projects and the issues they raise rather than using sample data only as a means of illustrating methodological questions.

Svensson then went on to situate the new association for Digital Humanities in the Nordic countries in its international institutional context of EADH, ADHO etc, in part by performing a sort of close reading of the stated goals and principles of each in official documents. This served to highlight some of the well-known tensions within the ”field”, if indeed it is a field, of DH and the questions about how to define it. In that context I thought it was a rather telling sign that only a handful of the whole audience of perhaps 150 people raised their hands when Svensson asked how many were readers of one of the leading DH journals, the Digital Scholarship in the Humanities.

My distinct impression from both the presentations and talking to attendees is that many of the conference participants can be described as friends, allies or stakeholders in DH rather than ”digital humanists” in any strong sense of the word. But is that necessarily a bad thing? I don’t think so, since it provides a lot of the diverse and ”dynamic” (to use Svenssons’s term) character of Nordic DH at the moment. (Although I can see how it might be frustrating to some of the more involved and self-identified digital humanists, who have a more narrow definition of what DH means and where it should be heading.) In that sense, I personally really liked Svensson’s suggestion toward the end of his lecture that digital humanities is ”a contact zone rather than a discipline”, and that another way of understanding it is as a ”humanities infrastructure platform”.

Patrik Svensson keynote, DHN 2016

Patrik Svensson delivering his keynote address on 16 March at DHN 2016 in Oslo.

Unfortunately I could not attend any session in the time slot after the keynote, when I had planned to listen to five papers on ”Map vizualisations”. However, there was a lively stream of tweets coming out of the room during the proceedings, which included a number of links to the projects being presented and other related websites. Since it might be of interest I have listed a selection of those in the ”Additional links” at the end of this post.

For the fourth and last paper session of DHN 2016 I chose one on ”Digital history”, where four projects in various stages of completion were presented. First Anna Nilsson Hammar (Lund) talked about ”Starting small”, referring to a collaboration between historians and librarians in developing a guide to the special collections of the Lund University Library. She emphasized the need to sometimes begin this kind of work on a small scale and then let it grow gradually, but also stressed the importance of ”formalising collaboration and knowledge exchange”. A more general point of hers that I think is very true is that in order to increase the accessibility and usability for research of collections it can be very valuable or even necessary to engage not only librarians but also historians (and/or other researchers).

Next was Gísli Pálsson’s work-in-progress on ”abandonment, reoccupation and land use in early 18th century Iceland”, which provided some really interesting discussions about networks of ownership and control of resources among early modern Icelandic farms. To show his results and discuss some of the details Pálsson used map visualizations of land use as well as the networks of influence between the studied farms. After him came a group of researchers from my own university, Gothenburg, who have just begun working on an online biographical dictionary of Swedish women. The project is done in cooperation with Språkbanken and SWE-CLARIN, and the discussion came to focus mainly on criteria for selecting the individuals to be included, demarcation issues etc.

The final paper of the day was given by Sverker Lundin and Trausti Dagsson, also from the University of Gothenburg, and the title of their talk was ”Mapping life-stories of the Moravian Church, 1730–2000”. They are working to digitize, analyse and make accessible more than 20,000 Lebensläufe, a specific genre of spiritual ”life stories” produced within the Moravian Church. These narratives are being collected in a database, which can be queried through a web based interface that will allow various types of searches and cross-referencing of metadata. (Incidentally, on a generic level that sentence might also serve to describe the basic model of quite a few of the projects demoed in the course of the conference.) An early version of the database can currently be found at http://lebenslauf.sagnagrunnur.com, and it will shortly move to a more permanent home at http://moravianlives.org.


DHN 2016 word cloud (Annika Rockenberger)

Word cloud of the DHN 2016 abstracts by Annika Rockenberger (source)

In the morning of the third and last day of DHN 2016, Nicole Saylor from the Library of Congress delivered a plenary lecture on ”Documenting folklife in the digital age”. I was not there but it seems to have been an interesting talk where Saylor, among other things, stressed the irrevocable shift of our everyday cultural record and all of the data it generates to digital forms. In the poster session at the National Library of Norway that followed afterwards there were many interesting cases and projects being demonstrated that also broadened the scope from the general model of website-on-top-of-database mentioned above – although here, too, quite a few of the examples fit that description. However, at least for now it is beyond my ability to distill any more general conclusions from the diversity of this session in a paragraph or two.

The same might be said for the concluding panel discussion after lunch, but there are a few themes and points that from my perspective seem especially pertinent. The session was led by Anders Fagerjord and the four panelists were Anne Baillot, Mikko Tolonen, Bente Maegaard and Hege Stensrud Høsøien. First, they gave one lightning talk each with a response to the organizers’ question on whether the digital humanities represent a paradigm shift for the humanities as a whole, and then the floor was opened up for a more general discussion. All of the panelists stressed the many changes and challenges brought on by the digital transformation of academia and society, but if it is (or will be) a paradigm shift depends largely on how that term can (or should be) defined. In this context Anne Baillot mentioned the ”lack of recognition” for non-traditional academic work that still prevails, and Mikko Tolonen reinforced the point that movement has been too slow because there is still much resistance among scholars to adopt DH perspectives and practices.

That assessment, however, raises yet again the issue from earlier of what we actually mean with ”digital humanities”, and who should count as a ”digital humanist”. More importantly, it leads us quite naturally on to one of the last questions asked during the panel discussion and (to my mind) the most interesting of all: ”Will there be a ‘digital humanities’ in 20 years, or just ‘humanities’?” On this, all of the panel seemed to agree that ”DH” is a transitory label that will eventually fade away, since in the long run the ”digital” will inevitably become fully integrated into (all of) ”the humanities”.

I hope and believe that they are right in this prediction, not because I’m a ”digital humanist” (I’m not) but because I’m a humanist, and historian, in an age where so much of human life and interaction – both in the present and with the past – is digitally mediated that if you exclude it there is barely anything left of the humanities. So the question is not, and for a long time has not been, if we should incorporate the digital into the humanities but how. I think we’ve seen many promising examples of what answers to that question might look like in Oslo over the last three days.

Additional links

• Danish diplomatarium

• Danish mediaeval texts

• Digisam guidelines ”for digitisation, preservation and digital access to cultural heritage”

• The Digital Atlas of the Roman Empire

• The Early Monasticism and Classical Paideia project

• Historical European newspapers

Icelandic Saga Map Project

• Pelagios Commons (cross-linking place names and historical documents)

Sagnagrunnur (a database of published Icelandic legends)

• Swedish diplomatarium

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.

Text: Om digital historia (1.0)

Med anledning av en förfrågan från en lärarkollega har jag den senaste tiden arbetat på en text som jag kallar Om digital historia. Den är ett försök att enkelt och kortfattat beskriva några av den digitala utvecklingens konsekvenser för historievetenskaplig forskning, såväl mer principiellt som i form av konkreta exempel på digitala verktyg, resurser och metoder. Artikeln är främst avsedd som en introduktion för studenter på grundnivå, men bör också kunna läsas av andra intresserade icke-specialister.

Igår blev jag klar med en första version av texten. Den rör sig mellan högt och lågt, har stora luckor, är ofullständigt notsatt och kan rentav innehålla ett eller annat missförstånd. Men någonstans måste man börja, och jag börjar här. Det som följer nedan är alltså Om digital historia 1.0, vilken även går att ladda ner som PDF från denna sida. All konstruktiv kritik rörande innehåll, form och uppläggning mottages tacksamt, antingen som en kommentar på detta inlägg eller per e-post till kn(snabel)gu(punkt)se.

Texten kommer att uppdateras löpande och vid större revisioner publiceras ett nytt inlägg. De många noter som består av webbadresser ber jag tills vidare om överseende med – de kommer efterhand att ersättas av direktlänkar i texten.

Uppdatering 130428: Texten kommer inte att uppdateras i sin nuvarande form som jag tidigare planerat, utan istället ingå som en del i en större publikation om digital historia framöver där jag är en av författarna. Mer information kommer snart!

Uppdatering 130430: Nu finns det ett blogginlägg som presenterar det projekt om digital historia där Jessica Parland-von Essen och jag ska samarbeta framöver, och som från och med idag tar över adressen digihist.se.

Fortsätt läsa ”Text: Om digital historia (1.0)”

Jo Guldi om digital historia

För en dryg vecka sedan, den 4 december, gästades Humanistiska fakulteten av Jo Guldi från Brown University och Harvard Society of Fellows. Guldi är ett välkänt namn i de amerikanska diskussionerna om digital historia och det var därför mycket roligt att hon ville besöka oss på väg till konferensen Media Places 2012 vid HumLab i Umeå. Mats Fridlund från Institutionen för filosofi, lingvistik och vetenskapsteori hade tagit initiativet till denna halvdag, med Mats Malm från Institutionen för litteratur, idéhistoria och religion och jag själv från Institutionen för historiska studier som medarrangörer.

Dels höll Guldi en öppen föreläsning, samordnad med en doktorandkurs vid FLOV, om ”Digital Methods and the Long Land War”, och efter en kort paus ett forskarseminarium med rubriken ”Mapping Time, Mapping Space”. Sammantaget utgjorde det en slags introduktion till, argumentation för och översikt över några olika metoder och verktyg inom digital historia. Ett av dessa verktyg var Paper Machines – en mjukvara för att identifiera mönster och relationer i stora mängder textbaserade data – som Guldi själv varit med och utvecklat.

Jo Guldi i Göteborg

Jo Guldi i Göteborg den 4 december. Hennes bok Roads to Power publicerades 2011.

Mitt och andras twitterflöde från evenemanget har jag samlat ihop på Storify, vilket ger en idé om vad som sades. En poäng Guldi återkom till flera gånger var å ena sidan det stora potentiella värdet av digitala metoder och å andra sidan vikten av att inte glömma de historiska frågorna. Tillfrågad om de digitala verktygen kan leda till helt ny typ av kunskap var hon ganska försiktig och betonade att exempelvis Google Ngrams, om inte annat, kan användas för att generera frågor inom forskning och provocera till diskussion i undervisningssammanhang. I rätt händer och utnyttjad på rätt sätt kan den typen av metoder också leda fram till ny kunskap som vi inte hade kunnat få på andra sätt, särskilt när vi kopplar ihop den digitala vågen med den rumsliga vändning (the spatial turn) som vi också sett inom forskningen på senare år.

Det jag tog med mig från denna eftermiddag med Guldi och som jag tyckte var så intressant, var just den nyanserade optimism hon förespråkade och som jag redan antytt ovan. Hon anser helt uppenbart att vi som historiker måste utnyttja de många nya möjligheter som digitala metoder ger oss, men är också noggrann med att betona att vi är historiker och inte dataspecialister – och det ska vi inte heller bli. Istället bör vi mycket mer än idag utveckla samarbeten med de som kan teknik, media och design; de har enligt Guldi verktygen men är ofta svältfödda på data, medan vi har mängder av data men saknar verktygen för att bearbeta dem.