Category Archives: #History

Digital Humanities and Future Archives: Upcoming Survey by the Finnish Institute

Sampo Viiri from the Finnish Institute blogs about the Institute’s upcoming survey on Digital Humanities.

Digital Humanities has been a buzzword of the humanities field in the last few years. By including digital methods, traditional humanistic research may ask genuinely new questions and transform the whole field of study. Digital Humanities (abbreviated DH) has even been labelled as a saviour to the field where tightening budgets and limited research funding leave scholars in desperate need to demonstrate their value to societies.[1] It may increase the humanities’ value for societies and also involve mass participation by the public in projects traditionally done by lone scholars. The hype around Digital Humanities has led to a certain new interest towards humanities but also created some confusion when everybody may want to label their research as Digital Humanities simply to get research grants.
So what really is Digital Humanities? Articles and even whole books have been written on the definition and history of Digital Humanities[2]. The simplest broad definition would be that Digital Humanities involves the use of digital tools in research, teaching, and scholarship in humanities disciplines. This is however not enough. Nowadays every humanities scholar uses computers in word processing, reading texts, finding references or communication. That still doesn’t qualify as Digital Humanities. “Digital humanities is what digital humanists do.”[3] This quote describes perfectly the confusion and frustration in defining digital humanities.
One common thing about various Digital Humanities projects is building things. Whereas traditional humanities scholarship usually outputs a text, in Digital Humanities the output can be a database or some other piece of digital infrastructure. If you need to build things to be a Digital Humanist, do you also need to code? That is another question which has raised different opinions.[4]
Also the ‘humanities’ part of the concept is controversial. Digital Humanities seeks to cross and redefine the borderlines among the humanities, the social sciences, the arts, and the natural sciences. DH projects are usually collaborational and in many cases also cross-disciplinary. By inventing new forms of inquiry, DH may expand the scope and quality of research and reach new audiences for humanities studies.

 

Digital Humanities have a history of many decades but the methods and objectives have changed a lot with the rapid technological progress in the last years. The internet itself is also constantly evolving, and the speed of computing increases and the prices decrease, opening new research possibilities. A decade ago Digital Humanities was still much about digital texts, nowadays sound, images and video have been more incorporated in the field.  

 

The main objectives of the Finnish Institute’s survey are to find out:
  • What kind of research has been done in the UK and Ireland on Digital Humanities and how is the discipline likely to evolve?
  • What is the status quo in Finland and what kind of practices should be brought in from the UK?
  • Focusing on the fields of history and the archives, we want to know how could study of social sciences be supported via methods of Digital Humanities?
  • In more precise terms, what could the future archives be like and how can disciplines such as Digital Humanities facilitate innovative archival practices?
The Digital Humanities field is constantly on the move and there is a steady flow of blog posts and tweets. The hype around Digital Humanities is so strong that it’s important to adopt a critical view on the research projects. We try to collect some information what has been the societal impact of Digital Humanities projects and what have been the costs and benefits. By reviewing some of the challenges we can improve the quality of future projects, avoiding falling into some easy pitfalls.
This survey is based both on existing literature and web discussions about digital humanities, as well as interviews with professionals associated with the field. The interviews contribute the most contemporary material, which is really useful in the field of DH where a book published a few years ago may feel terribly outdated.
Researchers, the government, the GLAM sector and the broad public view the field from different standpoints. We aim at finding good projects for each one. The survey tries to answer some existing questions as well as poses new questions and inspires discussion.
Should you wish to take part in the survey or should you know an innovative DH project we ought to know about, please contact us @SampoViiri or sampo.viiri@finnish-institute.org.uk

[1] A very optimistic view can be found for example in the introduction of the handbook Digital_Humanities (2012). https://mitpress.mit.edu/sites/default/files/titles/content/9780262018470_Open_Access_Edition.pdf
[2] Defining Digital Humanities. A Reader (2013). Terras, Melissa, Nyhan, Julianne & Vanhoutte, Edward (eds.) Farnham: Ashgate. Day of DH also asks this each year from new participants.
[3] Quote by Rafael Alvarado. Reprinted in Debates in the Digital Humanities (2012). http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/40.
[4] Gold, Matthew (2012). The Digital Humanities Moment. In Debates in the Digital Humanities (2012). http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates

 

Mozilla Festival and Archives Without Walls

 

Head of Society Programme Antti Halonen blogs about the recent web making festival in Ravensbourne.
 
The Finnish Institute was privileged to take part in the annual web making feast of Mozilla Festival in late October. 


According to Mark Surman, the chief executive of Mozilla, the event is “where many of Mozilla’s best and most innovative ideas spring to life. It’s where passionate thinkers and inventors come together to learn from one another and engage in a conversation about how the web can do more, and do better”. Exactly the right place for us.

We were fortunate to be named as one of several scrum leaders. Essentially this means being a facilitator of a make, that is a particular task that was hoped to be achieved during the two-day festival. 

 
Our make was to gather ideas and examples of how to enforce a participatory and digital historical culture. Provisionally, we have set our minds on creating a network of partners to start working on a project called Archives Without Walls (AWA). 


In short, the purpose of AWA is to provide a reliable and visually exciting way of building open online archives that provides solutions on how to capture physical contents and human interaction as well as digital audio, video and text – all in the same digital repository. Archiving method would have to enable open reuse and remixing of all contents. 

The overarching purpose of the project parallels the recent challenges that have been laid upon the discipline of History itself. 

 
Archivists and ITC experts respectively have expressed their concerns on the so called Digital Dark Age: a phenomenon where significant amount of important cultural heritage is lost due to rapid digitisation of information and lack of reliable long-term preservation methods. For instance, various organisations changed their internal correspondence into email format during the 1990’s before records management had come up with proper methods for preserving email correspondence. Similarly, what is left of the early days of the web for future historians’ use? While historians have so far relied on a rich source of paper-based documentation, future historians may face a prospect of empty archives. 
 
Social scientists, on other hand, have raised into discussion the topic of the knowledge gap. While the information environment has evolved unprecedentedly in a way which enables much more varied source for information consumption, simultaneously those who are least interested in current affairs can bypass it altogether if they so wish. We need to develop our thinking in terms of how to provide larger portion of the population an access to relevant historical knowledge.


Moreover, historians have pointed out the need to embrace new ways of creating and preserving everyday history. Participatory historical culture aims at both improving historical consciousness and offering citizens a possibility of “tackling their own present concerns and thinking over how to make a better future for themselves”, as Finnish historian Jorma Kalela puts it.

This was the setup but what about the results? 

Discussion arose around the concept of memory. How could different memories be integrated into the digital environment in a remixable and reusable fashion? The number of people who still have vivid memories of the second world war, for instance, is rapidly diminishing, yet amidst the rise of nationalistic right the understanding of the very reasons behind the horrible times of war is as important as ever. How should we find new ways of interpolating this historical knowledge into public discussion?


Another strand of thought focused on the question of preserving events like Mozilla Festival itself. What kind of material will a future historian use when doing research on this year’s event? Arguably, historians today have mostly relied on paper-based documents: letters, diaries, essays etc. However, the essence of Mozilla Festival is not to be found in printed documents, but in demonstrations, ideas and discussions. What kind of challenges does this pose to archivists who will have to make the increasingly difficult appraisal decisions?

Our new programme strand seeks to find some answers to these questions and we are continuously looking for interesting initiatives that promote the fair dispersion of knowledge in the society and try to find novel solutions to preserving our digital cultural heritage. One interesting case of the latter was MozBug, an online tool for archiving events by analysing Twitter behaviour. Something to consider for next year’s OPPI – Helsinki Learning Festival, too?

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