Digital Humanities* and “Digital Humanities 2.0”

Back in June, I attended the Digital Humanities 2008 conference. Digital humanities, for those not in the know (although I’m sure the term is hardly opaque), is the ridiculously wide field covering all humanities disciplines which use computers. So it includes everyone from corpus linguists to software engineers interested in solutions for humanists, and from librarians to educators who create computer games in order to teach kids history. And more.

There are a few reasons why I attended DH 2008. The main reason is that my PhD thesis will be a digital edition. To that end I’ve started a project with two fellow PhD students for developing linguistically oriented digital editions; the paper I gave at DH 2008 was for the project, part of our Spring 2008 promo tour. Our project falls into the digital humanities sphere, rather than the field of corpus linguistics where we come from. Next, I like things digitally humanistic – particularly digital resources such as corpora, editions, databases, textbases,(1) and to a lesser degree portals and their kin. Also software and websites and gadgetry (ok so that’s software, but if you’ll allow the distinctions between Word and Tofu, I’ll call the latter gadgets. This term is liable to change.). Finally, this year the DH conference was in Oulu, so I could hardly not attend (for our non-academic readers: yes, since travel money is hard to find, location can be decisive in terms of which conferences to attend!).

It was a great conference, overall. Good papers, nice people, exciting projects, excellent contacts, and everything went smoothly and I may have given my best presentation yet (I really should make notes for my next one, though – although I suspect there is always room for improvement). Those interested can go read the abstracts of the papers and posters given at the conference on the DH 2008 website.

However – and this is why I’m writing this post – I must say I am rather dissatisfied with all too many digital resources and tools. Since I’m working on a digital edition, this is what I am perhaps most familiar with (that, and corpora of course), and so I’ll voice my disapproval at digital editions in particular. But more generally, too; here’s the thing:

digital resources are not digitised print resources (2)

Nonetheless, people keep creating these things as if they were.

I think this is mostly a generational thing. That is, older people have more difficulties in envisioning born-digital tools and resources. The prime examples come from outside academia – kids today have grown up with exponentially more powerful digital tools than previous generations. This has given them infinitely better intuition in working these tools and machines – mainly computers of course, but this includes dvd players, mp3 players, mobile phones, game consoles, gps devices, and so on and so forth: all electronic devices, in other words. And the same holds for interfaces: kids are much more adept than adults in using the software in all of these devices.

None of this is new, none of this is surprising: younger generations are more at home with technological advances.

But my main gripe concerns digital editions, which I call (for now, at least) re-born digital resources. Reborn because the digital editions I am talking about are resources created out of extant documents – manuscripts or printed works. What I am concerned with is the amount of wasted resources – time and money – put into developing obsolete solutions in digital humanities.

What do I mean, specifically?

Well. I think digital resources should take full advantage of the medium. That is, one should not try to re-create an object from another medium as if it was still in that medium. You can come up with your own examples, such as films based on books that got it wrong, or vice versa. Here, I am talking about so-called “digital editions” which, first of all, are nothing more than scanned images of the original document,(3) and second, don’t even try to make the edition user-friendly – i.e., provide it with an intuitive and simple interface which allows easy and fun (yes, fun!) browsing of the images.

As a concrete example, take PicLens/cooliris, which transforms browsing images into an awesome experience. It’s freely available online, and very easy to install on your website. I’m not saying cooliris is the solution, I’m just saying that people have created and released great tools which facilitate working with computers. How about using them? Guys? Anyone? Bueller? Anyone?

Ok yes, so there’s Turning the Pages at BL etc, but come one – while it’s cool, there’s a limit to its usability – I mean for research purposes in particular, but also just general stuff too! ..not that TtP wouldn’t be a cool feature to have, provided you could do other things with it than just, um, turn the pages…

Anyway, my primary point was user interfaces, specifically image browsing. However, this really can be extended to a whole slew of solutions created by all and sundry, bascially all of which can be classified under what is commonly known as “Web 2.0”.

See? Old news, really.

This is something I mean to push in academia, in my small way. And when I create something groovy, I shall post a link to it. (Like dipity – you guys seen dipity? Melikes it.)


* Does anyone know a good term for “digital humanities” in Finnish? “Humanistit ja tietokoneet” .. “humanistinen tietojenkäsittelytiede” (??).. nothing I can think of really cuts it.

(1) Text databases. Yes, really!

(2) Unless they are, of course. And in fairness, there are loads of these: e.g. all things available on EEBO; all the digitised books on Google Books and in the Internet Archive; also most thing digitised by libraries etc (like those on the Finnish National Library website. But even then, I think just scanning the books and putting simple images online isn’t really enough.

(3) Yes, there are arguments for this kind of editions. I think the only one to carry any real weight is for projects aiming at quantity, rather than quality (of the edition’s interface, that is, not of the images). Even then, though, I find it difficult to allow for any excuses in, say, ordering the images in the edition, or renaming the damn things. From experience I can say that while this can be a time-consuming task, actually not doing so is a real pain in the arse later on. This means you, Anglo-American Legal Tradition project!

4 replies on “Digital Humanities* and “Digital Humanities 2.0””

  1. Hi Sam,

    Thank you for including Cooliris in your post! We truly appreciate it. We’re delighted to hear that you are enjoying Cooliris and we hope your readers will too.

    We definitely think Cooliris is a herald of the new internet experience and we’re glad that you recognize it as a useful digital resource. As we roll out more and more features we hope that even more internet users will join this new wave. […]

    Thanks again,
    Luna and The Cooliris Team

  2. Nice to see someone’s read my entry..

    I’m happy to plug Cooliris ‘cos it’s cool, free, and doesn’t require masses of computing power. Not that there aren’t features I’d like to see in it, but I’m happy to wait for the moment.

  3. [I duly sent them an email as follows:]

    […] here are some ideas. These are just off the top of my head..

    Let me start by saying that I work with historical manuscripts – 17th-century documents mostly – mainly as digital images. Thus I am particularly interested in finding ways of making working with a truckload of digital images more user-friendly without sacrificing usability. That is to say, for example, that while browsing with cooliris is awesome, if you can’t make sense of the wall of images and, in my case, actually read the manuscripts, it’s not much use for purposes like mine.

    Let me give a concrete example: here’s a link to the papers of Sir Joseph Banks (naturalist, went to Australia with Captain James Cook) which are online and, thankfully, accessible to Google Images. Have a look at what they look like when you cooliris them:

    These are quite legible and clear. But compare them with these legal documents from the time of Henry the 8th:

    These can be much harder to read, as you can see.

    Of course, there are dozens of factors on affecting all this from the image producer’s side, such as how the large images are, of what resolution, and are they close-ups or not, etc etc.

    In both cases, too – although I guess this is a feature of coolirising googled images – the names of the images are missing, showing instead the website (root) address.

    So, here’re some thoughts on features that’d make Cooliris even cooler:

    * zoom I’m not desperately gunning for this one, just a thought..

    * names Googled images lose their names when cooliris’d. Not a problem on pages created by cooliris publisher or lite, also ok on flickr etc. Wouldn’t mind increasing the font size either..

    * 3D wall I love this! So the obvious thing to ask is to manipulate it – more rows, or turn it vertical, or into a huge plane, or a sphere (!).. Probably really a feature for developers, I suppose, although since I’m no programmer I have no idea what this would require.
    Btw thanks ever so much for allowing intuitive manipulation with both keyboard and mouse. 🙂

    * rotate Most, but not all images online are the right way up. A rotate feature doesn’t strike me as a must-have. But still.

    * ‘marked list’ In searching for stuff, filters or culling is a desirable feature. So having, say, tick boxes next to images one has searched for, then cooliris’d, would be genius. So that you could then choose to view only a selection of all the images that came up. ..having written this, maybe this is something I should ask of google rather than you guys! But it stands for flickr etc too – all collections of images (or videos or whatever) where you’re searching for something specific, it’d be nice to refine the search or manually select a portion.

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