Finding ‘big ideas’ in digital humanities
What exactly is digital humanities? The answer, like the field itself, is ever elusive – and forever expanding.
Every year since 2009 – during the “Day in the Life of the Digital Humanities” sponsored by the Text Analysis Portal for Research at the University of Alberta – practitioners from all over the world are asked to take a crack at that question.
In 2011 alone, it elicited more than 169 answers, including this one from Jade E. Davis, a doctoral student in communication studies at Carolina. “Digital humanities,” she wrote, “is what humanities will be in the future.
“It is public, dialogical, collaborative and made of collectives. It allows for remixing and re-imagining how we think and analyze traditional forms of knowledge creation, knowledge sharing and knowledge storage.”
The still-emerging field covers a wide range of activities, from online preservation and digital mapping to data mining and the use of geographic information systems (GIS).
Ashley Moroz from the University of Alberta said digital humanities is, in its simplest form, “conducting humanities research with the help of a computer,” whether through visualizations or text analysis.
But UCLA professor Johanna Drucker, who co-founded the University of Virginia’s SpecLab in 2000, has argued that simple definitions for digital humanities miss the bigger picture.
In her 2009 book “SpecLab,” Drucker explained digital humanities as “the study of ways of thinking differently about how we know what we know, and how the interpretive task of the humanist is redefined in these changed conditions.”
Launching a virtual lab
At Carolina, that process of thinking differently is at the heart of the Digital Innovation Lab that the College of Arts and Sciences founded last July.
Its co-founders, Robert Allen and Richard Marciano, describe the lab as a project-focused hub for collaborative, interdisciplinary experimentation in the use of digital technologies to advance the work of the University in the humanities and humanistic social sciences.
“Digital humanities used to be called humanities computing, so the name in some ways is an indication of the changing nature of the field itself,” said Marciano, a professor in the School of Information and Library Science and an affiliated professor of American Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences. “It is perpetually in flux and continues to evolve as the technology changes.”
The whole point of interdisciplinary partnerships and collaboration is not to be pegged with a narrow definition soon to be outdated, Marciano said.
“When we created this collaborative space, we thought ‘digital innovation’ would be a term that best captures the essence of what we are after,” he said.
Actually, the lab does not exist in physical space, Allen said. And that is symbolic for how it is supposed to work.
Given budget constraints, the idea would have been rejected if the pair had asked for building space; moreover, they would have missed the point of what the lab seeks to achieve.
“The idea is that work has to be collaborative, not just interdisciplinary,” Allen said. “And by collaborative, I am not talking about someone like me in American Studies talking to an English professor. It is somebody like me talking to people whose domains are so different from mine that they bring radically different perspectives on whatever it is we brought people together to do.”
Someone, in Allen’s case, exactly like Marciano.
What’s the ‘big idea’?
Marciano, who has a Ph.D. in computer science and did postdoctoral work in computational geography, arrived at Carolina in 2008 from the University of California, San Diego, where he was a research scientist at the San Diego Supercomputer Center and an affiliated professor in the Urban Studies and Planning Program.
In addition to his global work on big data sets focusing on archiving and digital organization, Marciano has been successful in securing substantial funding for scholarly research. He has collaborated with national organizations such as the National Archives and Records Administration, National Science Foundation and the Department of Homeland Security, and on campus with the Carolina Digital Repository and University Libraries.
Allen, the James Logan Godfrey Professor of American Studies, is now in his 33rd year at Carolina. He has written or edited a dozen books and more than 30 journal articles on the history of American popular entertainment.
The opportunity for them to come together to form the lab came about in fall 2010 when Bill Andrews, senior associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences, began talking to Allen about Chancellor Holden Thorp’s Innovate@Carolina initiative.
“We are looking for big ideas,” Andrews told him. “If you have one, give it to me.”
Allen happily obliged.
The idea, Allen said, is predicated on the belief that the study of humanities – and its relevance to the real world in the 21st century – are being transformed as the field moves from the old era of data scarcity to the still-emerging era of “hyper-abundance.”
“Traditionally, when someone in the humanities researched something, he had to go somewhere else to find it and retrieve it,” Allen said. “He had to pay to get to the place with the rare and unique material.
“Today, huge quantities of these archival materials along with billions of public records are as close as my laptop and, increasingly, as my cellphone. Not only do scholars have access to huge humanities-relevant data sets, but so does the public.”
With the Digital Innovation Lab, Allen and Marciano hope to open a bit wider the virtual door to this exponentially different landscape of data hyper-abundance, not just for themselves and their fellow scholars, but for audiences served by cultural heritage organizations across the state and around the world.
“When we were talking to Holden about this and our vision for the lab,” Allen said, “he said, ‘Oh, it is sort of a humanities version of the human genome project.’”
Bingo, Allen replied.
Marciano now directs the Sustainable Archives and Leveraging Technologies (SALT), which is an interdisciplinary group focused on developing and leveraging resources and technologies to enable collaborations.
Among his current research projects is the development of T-Races (Testbed for the Redlining Archives of California’s Exclusionary Spaces), a searchable digital archive of Depression-era real estate maps and reports that had a significant impact on mortgage lending policies – and the fate of neighborhoods – through the 1960s.
Marciano used digitized maps and searchable documentation to reveal the extent to which racial and ethnic factors influenced mortgage policies. The innovative system for interacting with and analyzing once-inaccessible historical data is now being adapted for other cities around the country, including five in North Carolina.
Marciano is also a principal investigator for a 17-month project with Berkeley and the University of Liverpool that incorporates text mining and natural language processing software capable of generating dynamic links to related resources discussing the same people, places and events. (See the related story about changing the research landscape through “big data.”)
Allen took his first serious dip into the digital domain in 2006 when he began working on Going to the Show (www.docsouth.unc.edu/gtts), a project developed in collaboration with Natasha Smith and the University Library’s project Documenting the American South. It was supported by a grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services and one of the first National Endowment for the Humanities’ Digital Humanities Fellowships in 2008.
Supporting its documentation of more than 1,300 movie venues across 200 communities in North Carolina is a searchable archive of thousands of contemporaneous artifacts, including newspaper ads and articles, photographs, postcards, city directories and 150 original architectural drawings.
In January 2011, the American Historical Association awarded the project its Rosenzweig Prize for Innovation in Digital History.
“What I was seeking to do was to reveal aspects of the social experience of cinema that the movies themselves could not tell you,” Allen said. “Watching ‘Gone with the Wind’ is not going to tell you who was denied access in the movie theater in which it played.”
Building on the innovative system for mapping cultural heritage data developed for Going to the Show, Allen collaborated with the library on a second digital project called Main Street, Carolina, which was awarded the first Felix Harvey Award to Advance Institutional Priorities at UNC in 2009.
Allen said the project has allowed cultural heritage organizations across North Carolina to partner with UNC graduate and undergraduate students to create local online digital projects that recover the history of downtown areas.
Since 2010, six collaborative Main Street, Carolina projects have been launched.
The most ambitious is Charlotte 1911 (mainstreet.lib.unc.edu/projects/charlotte), which was developed in collaboration with the Levine Museum of the New South and creates an online, interactive demonstration of the central argument in Thomas Hanchett’s influential 1995 UNC Press monograph “Sorting Out the New South City.” Research for the book was conducted for Hanchett’s doctoral dissertation in the Department of History.
The project mapped all 4,000 residents and businesses in central Charlotte in 1911 to visualize the transformation of the city’s racial geography resulting from turn-of-the-century political upheavals.
Other Main Street, Carolina projects include:
Romare Bearden’s Charlotte, a “ghost tour” of lost sites associated with the early life of the Harlem Renaissance artist and his family;
Picturing the Wilmington Waterfront, an online gallery of more than 250 historical photographs of the Wilmington waterfront, produced in collaboration with the New Hanover County Public Library;
Historic Parrish Street, a virtual walking tour of Durham’s famous Parrish Street – known as “the Black Wall Street” – prepared in collaboration with the City of Durham’s Office of Economic Development. It includes a K-12 lesson plan based on the site; and
Dividing Durham, the test application of Marciano’s redlining project.
Seeking new audiences
Last May, Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Bruce Carney sent a memo to deans and department heads about the need to revise promotion and tenure policies to reflect goals outlined in the new Academic Plan, Allen said.
The memo called for increasing the engagement with non-academic populations, making more effective use of digital technology and encouraging more interdisciplinary collaboration.
Allen took note.
“One of the distinguishing features of the Academic Plan is to encourage faculty to get involved in engaged scholarship, and that is about establishing the relevance of your work for non-academic audiences,” he said.
That goal intersects with the mission that Marciano and Allen have established with the Digital Innovation Lab.
“When I present to the Chancellor’s Innovation Circle and other audiences within the University, I talk about our ability within the lab to model best practices for the 21st century in terms of the way scholars in the humanities are going to be doing their work,” Allen said.
That work increasingly must harness new technologies that his 17-year-old daughter already uses to connect with the world – through social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.
“If we can shift the public perception of the humanities as a field where an individual faculty member works alone in a dark study on a manuscript that only a few hundred other scholars will ever read, toward a more expansive view that acknowledges value and service for both academic and non-academic audiences, we will be doing nothing short of reasserting the relevance of the humanities in public life,” Allen said.
Editor’s Note: The Feb. 8 issue of the Gazette will profile Pam Lach, who is pursuing her master’s degree in information science to complement her Ph.D. in cultural history from Carolina. As manager of the Digital Innovation Lab and project manager of Main Street, Carolina, she demonstrates how emerging technologies can redefine scholarship in the humanities.