Messiness, museums and methods: thoughts from #DH2012 so far…

I’m in Hamburg for the 2012 Digital Humanities conference.  The conference only officially started last night, but after two days of workshops and conversations I already feel like my brain is full, so this post is partly a brain dump to free up some space for new ideas.

The first workshop was one I ran on ‘Learning to play like a programmer: Web mash-ups and scripting for beginners’ – I’ve shared my slides and notes at that link, as well as links for people to find out more about starting with basic code and computational thinking and to keep learning.

The second workshop, Here and There, Then and Now – Modelling Space and Time in the Humanities, was almost a mini-conference in itself.  The wiki for the NeDIMAH – Space Time Working Group includes links to abstracts for papers presented at the workshop, which are also worth a look for pointers to interesting projects in the spatial humanities.  The day also include break-out sessions on Theory, Methods, Tools and Infrastructure

The session I chaired on Methods was a chance to think about the ways in which tools are instantiations of methods.  If the methods underlying tools aren’t those of humanists, or aren’t designed suitably for glorious but messy humanities data, are they suitable for humanities work? If they’re not suitable, then what?  And if they’re used anyway, how do humanists learn when to read a visualisation ‘with a grain of salt’ and distinguish the ‘truthiness’ of something that appears on a screen from the complex process of selecting and tidying sources that underlies it?  What are the implications of this new type of digital literacy for peer reviews of DH work (whether work that explicitly considers impact of digitality on scholarly practice, or work that uses digital content within more traditional academic frameworks)?  How can humanists learn to critique tool choice in the same way they critique choice of sources?  Humanists must be able to explain the methods behind the tools they’ve used, as they have such a critical impact on the outcomes. 

[Update: ‘FairCite‘ is an attempt to create ‘clear citation guidelines for digital projects that acknowledge the collaborative reality of these undertakings’ for the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations.]
We also discussed the notion of academic publications designed so that participation and interaction is necessary to unlock the argument or narrative they represent, so that the reader is made aware of the methods behind the tools by participating in their own interpretive process.  How do we get to have ‘interactive scholarly works’ in academia – what needs to change to enable them?  How are they reviewed, credited, sustained?  And what can we learn from educators and museum people about active reading, participation and engagement?

Our group also came up with the idea of methods as a bridge between different experts (technologists, etc) and humanists, a place for common understanding (generated through the process of making tools?), and I got to use the phrase ‘the siren’s lure of the shiny tool’, which was fun.  We finished on a positive note with mention of the DH Commons as a place to find a technologist or a humanist to collaborate with, but also to find reviewers for digital projects.

Having spent a few days thinking about messy data, tweets about a post on The inevitable messiness of digital metadata were perfectly timed.  The post quotes Neil Jeffries from the Bodleian Library, who points out:

we need to capture additional metadata that qualifies the data, including who made the assertion, links to differences of scholarly opinion, omissions from the collection, and the quality of the evidence. “Rather than always aiming for objective statements of truth we need to realise that a large amount of knowledge is derived via inference from a limited and imperfect evidence base, especially in the humanities,” he says. “Thus we should aim to accurately represent the state of knowledge about a topic, including omissions, uncertainty and differences of opinion.”

and concludes “messiness is not only the price we pay for scaling knowledge aggressively and collaboratively, it is a property of networked knowledge itself”.  Hoorah!

What can the digital humanities learn from museums?

After a conversation over twitter, a few of us (@ericdmj, @clairey_ross, @briancroxall, @amyeetx) went for a chat over lunch.  Our conversation was wide-ranging, but one practical outcomes was the idea of a ‘top ten’ list of articles, blog posts and other resources that would help digital humanists get a sense of what can be learnt from museums on topics like digital projects, audience outreach, education and public participation.  Museum practitioners are creating spaces for conversations about failures, which popped up in the #DH2012 twitter stream.

So which conference papers, journal articles, blogs or blog posts, etc, would you suggest for a top ten ‘get started in museums and the digital humanities’ list?

[For further context, the Digital Humanities community is interested in working more closely with museums: see point 3 of the Association for Computers and the Humanities (ACH)’s ‘Next Steps’ document.

4 thoughts on “Messiness, museums and methods: thoughts from #DH2012 so far…”

  1. Thanks for your reports, Mia. I’m behind and catching a little.

    There has definitely been a divide and perceived divide between folks who do “dh” and cultural heritage professionals, but I think that mostly speaks to disciplinary training and differences in preferred sources. Public historians, American Studies scholars, for instance, are more likely to look to a museum for sources and be interested in collections than say someone who analyzes texts and is trained as a lit scholar. Many DH’ers fall in to that latter category, but certainly not exclusively. I do, however, think that most of those folks attend the annual DH conference. And most of the material culturalists and historians who have attended DH felt like most presentations didn’t relate at all to their work, interests, scholarly questions, et al.

    Anyway, after MCN three years ago, I eventually wrote a post addressing some of the divide to try and take away some of the mystery for museum professionals about DH: Navigating DH for Cultural Heritage Professionals:

    I cross-posted on the DH Answers forum to solicit additions and other comments, but didn’t get any. It was a start, and I would say that most of these recs are still relevant.

  2. Thanks for your comment! The impact of the lit/history divide makes sense – it underlies so many other things in DH that it would definitely complicate the issue of who’s even interested in engaging non-academic audiences with their work.

    I remember that post – it actually encouraged me to think there might be a way of seeing my work within the DH field at some point in the future.

  3. I’m really glad to hear that my post encouraged you to move ahead with your work and in believing that there would be a place for you in DH. Yay!

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