Digital Humanities Infrastructure Workshop: Part Four

By February 12, 2016 Seminars No Comments

Today I finish my series on the Digital Humanities Infrastructure Workshops held in November last year, by discussing my own perspective on cyberinfrastructure. But before I do this, I thought that I should outline my background in Digital Humanities and my role at CEISMIC in order to put my thoughts in context.

I was introduced to the Digital Humanities in the third year of my English degree when I took the University’s first DH paper, Electronic Scholarly Editing. This paper was run by Prof. Paul Millar, with the help of Dr Christopher Thomson as a tutor. It aimed to critically examine digital texts and equip students with the skills to create their own, namely through the TEI (a set of guidelines which specify methods for encoding machine-readable texts ). Over the next two years, I worked on two projects digitising manuscripts using the TEI. The first is a collection of World War I letters from a member of the Canterbury Mounted Rifles (which you can view at http://editions.canterbury.ac.nz), and the other a memoir in letter form from New Zealand doctor Stanley Aylward. As well as teaching me how to encode texts with the TEI, these projects opened my eyes to the opportunities that digitisation offers the Humanities, and the intensive work that goes into it. In both projects, the manuscripts required more complex and nuanced analysis than computers were capable of giving and had to be encoded by hand – a common requirement for many Digital Humanities projects.

My position at CEISMIC has further highlighted this requirement, as I work daily to gather, organise, and describe large quantities of earthquake-related data. CEISMIC’s focus has always been on social data, with an aim to collect as many stories and documents about the earthquakes possible before they are forgotten or lost. Today we have over 100,000 items in the archive – a fantastic achievement, but not an easy one since we described and annotated every item by hand. On average, our team estimates that it takes us six minutes to describe and geolocate a photograph, a number which doesn’t sound too bad until you extrapolate it over the 46,447 photographs we currently hold in QuakeStudies (adding up to 276,682 minutes, or 4645 hours, or 580 days). And that’s just the photographs – we have also archived hundreds of stories (such as with our QuakeBox project), academic research, community data (such as newsletters and artworks), newspapers, and much, much more.

Given my experiences, it would be easy for me to agree with Paul Arthur that investing in the digitisation (or in our case archiving) of social data may be the most valuable form of infrastructure for the Humanities. However, I would argue that this process is not possible without people with the skills and knowledge required.  Often I hear Humanists and people from the GLAM sector comment that they need more people who have skills both in the Humanities and the digital, and yet there are very few programmes in existence training people in both skills. As readers of this blog are likely aware, the University of Canterbury offers Digital Humanities courses at honours and masters level, and is offering a Digital Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities minor to undergraduate students for the first time next year. However, we are the only university in New Zealand that has a Digital Humanities programme, and the impetus for this came from within the College of Arts and the University. As of yet, there is no national strategy in New Zealand for the training of Digital Humanists.

Moreover if the Digital Humanities, as Alan Liu argues, is tasked with critiquing academic infrastructure and its relation to larger society, this critique needs to represent the diversity in society.  My problem with the current ‘lightly antifoundationalist’ model and ‘hacking’ is that it can only be achieved by Humanists that have digital skills. As I have already discussed, people with these skills are usually in the minority, but they also tend to come from certain groups in society – e.g men and people from high socio-economic backgrounds who have had access to computers from a young age. The problem with this is that these tools are potentially being created by one group in society, and any critique that they allow is potentially coming from one perspective. If we want our cyberinfrastructure to reflect the diverse needs and values of society, then I would argue that we need to ensure that a wide range of people are participating in the field.

Perhaps this naive, but if, as Liu claims, the shaping of academic infrastructure can have a bearing on other organisations and the community at large, then perhaps training more people in the Digital Humanities will have a factor too. I personally would love to see a world where the tech industry held equal numbers of women and men, where there was more ethnic diversity, and where the average Humanities student graduated with some technical nous. In some ways this could be seen as a form of infrastructure – training people with the skills and sensibilities to critique digital culture both in their work, but also in their wider environs. It’s my hope that doing so would widen the pool of ideas, revealing new and innovative solutions, and more nuanced critiques of infrastructure.