A Digital Education

Meredith Dabek, Maynooth University

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“Wasting Time” as a Way to Read

These days in the United States, students can take college- and university-level courses in just about anything. From lectures centered on pop culture behemoths like Harry Potter and Star Trek to classes entitled “The Art of Walking” or “Understanding Basket Weaving,” apparently nothing is off limits in the realm of higher education.

Now, from the University of Pennsylvania, comes the course “Wasting Time on the Internet.” In a recent article for The New Yorker, course instructor Kenneth Goldsmith explained his rationale behind the course, which is aimed at creative writing students.  His course will attempt to help students capture the distractions of the Internet in order to remake them into works of literature.

For Goldsmith, “drifting, daydreaming, and procrastination have long been a part of the writing process” and the Internet provides these in spades. Of course, critics of digital modes of reading and information processing believe the World Wide Web is actually making us dumber. But according to Goldsmith, the digital world we live in merely provides a new way of reading – one that isn’t better or worse, simply different:

Every click is indicative of who we are: indicative of our likes, our dislikes, our emotions, our politics, our world view. Of course, marketers have long recognized this, but literature hasn’t yet learned to treasure—and exploit—this situation… We’re reading and writing more than we have in a generation, but we are reading and writing differently—skimming, parsing, grazing, bookmarking, forwarding, retweeting, reblogging, and spamming language—in ways that aren’t yet recognized as literary.

In a previous post, I talked about digital literature and how it differs from traditional literature and even e-books. Goldsmith’s course is offering yet another way of thinking about digital literature and how it’s created. While his students may indeed end up creating a literary work that more closely resembles a traditional format, the process of getting there is entirely digital. I’m very curious to see what might come out of this course – and how it connects to other digital literature.

Digital Literature and “Click Lit”

computer-books-300x233In 2007, postmodern literary critic N. Katherine Hayles defined electronic literature (also known as digital literature) as literature that is “generally considered to exclude print literature that has been digitized” (e.g., e-books) and “is by contrast ‘digital born,’ a first-generation digital object created on a computer and (usually) meant to be read on a computer.” Wikipedia extends Hayles’ definition by contrasting electronic literature with e-books, pointing out that electronic literature may have elements that require computation: links, multi-media, animation or reader interaction (source).

[Note: From here on, I’ll refer to electronic literature as digital literature. This is both a personal preference and a reflection of the rapid advancements made in digital technologies since 2007, when Hayles published her definition.]

The publishing industry has seen a significant shift towards the digital in the last decade, and while many e-books still have an analog companion, there are an increasing number of authors (both those who have traditional contracts with a publisher and those who self-publish) who are producing born-digital novels and books that are never released in print format. There is also a rise in e-books with digital content – books that could be classified as digital literature, thanks to the inclusion of hyperlinks, videos and more.

From this rise in digital literature comes “click lit,” a term coined by Rosetta Books, an independent e-book publisher. Rosetta Books recently published a new e-book entitled Find Me I’m Yours. While this romantic comedy’s plot may sound familiar, its format takes interactive reading to a new level. The e-book is only one part of the story, which is supplemented by more than three dozen websites and online videos. Readers are actively encouraged to play a role in the story by visiting the various “custom-designed narrative platforms” and posting their own pictures, videos and stories.

“Click lit” turns the idea of reading on its head. Gone is the process of linear reading and in its place, a multimedia narrative that moves forwards, backwards, and sideways, changing every time a new reader experiences the story – and adds his or her own contributions. It’s a narrative that is constantly evolving.

So, what does “click lit” mean for digital literature and literary studies? How do you begin to analyze and study a story that is spread out over more than 30 websites? Is the e-book itself of primary importance, or do you have to consider it within the context of the digital world created by the publisher? How do you distinguish between content that may have been created by an author, and content added by a reader? Is one more legitimate than the other, or are both an integral part of the narrative?

As of right now, it seems to me that “click lit” raises more questions than it answers. Besides questions pertaining to the academic research of something like “click lit,” there are potential issues of feasibility. According to the New York Times, Rosetta Books’ latest publication took three years and $400K to develop – compare that to the cost and time of publishing a “regular” e-book or even a print book. There are also issues of commercialization, as some “click lit” books are also experimenting with product placement and sponsorship, further blurring the lines between what is literature and what is a paid advertisement.

As a lifelong avid reader and someone deeply interested in the future of digital literature, I plan to keep watching the “click lit” space to see how it does with other readers. It may be that “click lit” will resonate more with younger generations, those who have grown up in a digital world and have no trouble navigating a wide-spread multimedia narrative. There’s potential with “click lit” for sure, but what kind of potential? That remains to be seen.

Further Reading:

The Future of Multi-Platform Novels (“Though undeniably entertaining, a multi-media book takes away this sense of imagination, of wonder.”)

Click Lit (The Guardian)

The Future of the Book – CNN (“”This is how Millenials will consume all content one day. It’s going to start a revolution.”)

[Photo Credit: Book Riot]

Love Letters of 1916

Letters of 1916 ProjectLetters of 1916

In April 1916, during Easter Week, Irish republicans launched an armed rebellion aimed at ending British rule in Ireland. Though British forces quickly suppressed the insurrection, the event, now known as the Easter Rising, helped propel Ireland to independence.

To help preserve and document life in Ireland in the months before and after the Easter Rising, researchers at Trinity College Dublin and Maynooth University, led by Dr. Susan Scriebman, created the Letters of 1916 project. Launched in September 2013 as Ireland’s first crowdsourced (digital) humanities project, Letters of 1916 “aims to create a large scale digital collection of letters” written around the time of the Easter Rising, as well as create “an online archive of letters created by the public for the public” (Trinity College Dublin).

While many of the letters address the Easter Rising in some way, this diverse collection of correspondence includes a wide range of topics. From art, business and politics to family life and faith, Dr. Scriebman wanted to ensure that the Letters of 1916 would “bring to life…the unspoken words and the forgotten words of ordinary people during this formative period in Irish history” (Trinity College Dublin).

James and May

James Finn and May (Fay) Finn

James Finn and May (Fay) Finn

Among the thousands of unspoken and forgotten words of ordinary people catalogued by the Letters of 1916 Project are those of James Finn and May Fay. James and May were engaged sometime in late 1915 or early 1916, and between January and June of 1916, exchanged love letters as they continued their courtship and planned their wedding. The letters, donated to the project by granddaughter Tessa Finn, are filled with stories and anecdotes of everyday life in Ireland, friends and family of the couple and, in the weeks prior to and following Easter, the Rising.

James worked as a senior civil servant in Dublin, and lived in the city, while May remained at her family’s home in Mullingar, County Westmeath. They were prolific writers, exchanging the nearly 100 letters in just about six months’ time, and, in some cases, wrote and received replies on the same day – a testament both to their devotion to one another and a fairly efficient Irish postal service.

While the majority of James and May’s letters focused on their wedding plans and their future life together, several of the letters – James’ in particular – offer glimpses into the political climate of Dublin leading up to and following the Easter Rising. There are no letters between James and May during the days of the Rising itself; instead, James wrote about his plan to visit May in Mullingar for Easter, after which there is a gap of more than 10 days before he wrote again to reassure May of his safe return to Dublin.

Part of the reason for the gap between letters is that James was likely with May, visiting as planned. However, it also underscores the confusion and uncertainty that reigned in the days and weeks after the Rising, when accurate information was difficult to obtain, particularly for those outside of Dublin:

… News was so very scarce and uncertain that I very soon began to look out for another letter, it’s sickening not to know how long that suspense would last… (Fay, 7 May 1916)

In James’ case, he may have been wary of appearing to openly support the Irish Volunteers, especially as a civil servant. Many of his letters to May were sent from his office, on National Health Insurance Commission letterhead, and on 8 May 1916, he specifically mentioned his concern that his letters may not have gotten through due to the censors (Finn).

In later letters from the spring of 1916, James and May demonstrate a deliberate carefulness with the content they included in their letters. After sharing some of Patrick Pearce’s writings with May on 26 May 1916, James assured her that he “received the copy of [the] letter quite safely” (Finn), implying that possession of Pearce’s correspondence might be dangerous.

Their caution was not unfounded. In her contributor profile on the Letters of 1916 website, James and May’s granddaughter Tessa Finn wrote, “Many people they knew were either actively involved or suspected of…involvement” in the Easter Rising. On 18 May 1916, James’ letters informed May that one of his colleagues had been arrested because he “spoke Irish continually in his home and played Irish and German music on his piano” (Finn).

Due to his position as a civil servant (as well as the arrest of his colleague), James was probably questioned about his knowledge of the Rising events, a possibility May contemplated with a bit of humor:

We are always looking out for the paper & news we manage to get an odd paper now & then but I saw where all Civil Servants were to render an account of their Easter holidays… You need not be afraid to mention our names anyway; we are not very rebellious characters. (Fay, 10 May 1916)

Despite the heightened political atmosphere of Dublin (or, perhaps, because of it), both James and May’s letters suggest an increased appreciation for each other. In times of turmoil and upheaval, these two lovers naturally turned to one another for comfort, and to give thanks for what they had:

You remember how often I told you that both by letter and by mouth: that I might not have the good fortune or the grace from God to be married to you. Now somehow I feel that I may be thought worthy although why it should be so I cannot understand when I think of all the fine spirits that this calamity has called to their eternal account. Things are gradually getting more like their usual way and people generally are beginning to rebuild and restore all that has been shattered but it will be many a long day before Dublin is anything like its old self. (Finn, 8 May 1916)

In the aftermath of the Easter Rising, James and May’s letters illustrate a timeless fact: political uprisings can undoubtedly and irrevocably change a country, and yet life – and love – continue on. Thanks to the Letters of 1916 Project, the words of these everyday, ordinary lovers have been preserved and brought to new audiences, nearly 100 years later.

[Photo Credits: Letters of 1916 website; Tessa Finn’s contributor profile]

Works Cited

Fay, May. Letter from May Fay to James Finn. 7 May 1916. Web. 8 November 2014

Fay, May. Letter from May Fay to James Finn. 10 May 1916. Web. 8 November 2014

Finn, James. Letter from James Finn to May Fay. 8 May 1916. Web. 8 November 2014

Finn, James. Letter from James Finn to May Fay. 18 May 1916. Web. 8 November 2014

Finn, James. Letter from James Finn to May Fay. 26 May 1916. Web. 8 November 2014

Tessa Finn.Letters of 1916. National University of Ireland Maynooth. 2014. Web. 8 November 2014.

Trinity College Dublin. Letters of 1916 Research Project Calling on Public to Contribute Family Letters. 24 September 2013. Trinity College Dublin Communications Office. Web. 8 November 2014.

Scholarship and the Future

In 2007, Digital Humanities scholar Peter Robinson wrote a paper titled, “Electronic Editions for Everyone,” in which he explored the current state of digital or electronic scholarly editions. Though the primary focus of his paper is concerned with scholarly texts, Robinson spends the first section outlining why he believes books have defied the digital revolution, in contrast to film and music. According to Robinson, electronic books (e-books) cannot offer either a better distribution medium to printed books, nor a better performance medium. As a result, print books continue to flourish because e-books do not offer anything worthwhile in exchange.

While reading Robinson’s article through the lens of my 2014 perspective, I couldn’t help but disagree with nearly all of his introductory arguments about e-books and printed books. These arguments might have been valid at the time Robinson wrote the paper, but seven years later, I believe they don’t hold up well at all. While e-books and e-readers haven’t replaced print books (or print book sales), the rapid rise of products like Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook have made e-books far more commonplace in 2014 than they were in 2007. U.S. e-book sales in 2013 alone accounted for $3 billion. Furthermore, e-readers offer benefits a print book can’t, including the ability to carry an entire library around in one (relatively) small device. *

Of course, it is not Robinson’s fault that his arguments from 2007 look very different in 2014; after all, how could anyone have possibly predicted the incredible rate of technological advancement within the last few years? It does, however, raise some interesting questions about the future of Digital Humanities: for a field so intertwined with technology, how might the continuing advances of technological tools and methods affect the sustainability of DH scholarship?

That technology will continue to change, develop and move forward seems inevitable. Tech companies thrive on pushing the limits and the finding the next big thing. At some point, Web 2.0 will likely give way to Web 3.0 (or 2.5 or some other term indicating advancement). Whatever that may look like, it also seems inevitable that the next generation of tech and web tools will make our current digital environment seem obsolete. So what, then, happens to Digital Humanities projects and scholarship developed during Web 2.0? Will we be able to access the information? Will the data even be useful anymore, if the technologies used in its creation are no longer valid?

I don’t necessarily have any answers right now. I don’t believe we can stop technology from changing (nor, I think, would we want to). Still, Robinson’s paper – and my reaction to it seven years later – seem to illustrate this uncomfortable uncertainty within Digital Humanities. If we can’t know or predict the future, how are we to ensure our scholarship in the present day (particularly, or at least, scholarship involving and aided by technology) isn’t rendered archaic in the future? Or do we simply accept the possibility of obsolescence?

In my first blog post on this blog, I talked about the difficulty in defining Digital Humanities, in part because it’s a field that is in constant motion, always evolving – something largely due to DH’s relationship with technology. In my opinion, this fluid notion of Digital Humanities is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it keeps pushing Digital Humanities projects and scholarships forward, testing the limits of the field and its tools. On the other hand, it mean very well mean that what we do today will be irrelevant in two, five or 10 years time. Perhaps that’s the risk we take as digital humanists. The one thing I do know is that it’s important to keep asking these questions, to keep refining and re-shaping our ideas of Digital Humanities. Since we can’t move backwards, we might as well keep moving forward – whatever the future brings.

(Post Script: my classmate, Josh Savage, wrote a blog post about the durability of data, in which he grapples with similar themes and questions.)

Note: In 2010, Robinson’s paper was published as a chapter in Text and Genre in Reconstruction, edited by Willard McCarthy. In an updated appendix, Robinson does mention the introduction of the Kindle, but (in my opinion) rather casually dismisses its potential to upset his arguments.

Access & Accessibility in Digital Humanities

This year, from October 20th to October 26th, humanities researchers will observe International Open Access Week, a global event designed to celebrate and promote the benefits of open access and to encourage open access as the standard for academic scholarship. The organizers behind International Open Access Week define open access as the “free, immediate, online access to the results of scholarly research, and the right to use and re-use those results as you need.” Many projects, journals and scholarly resources within Digital Humanities promote themselves as open access, and many digital humanists support an increased commitment to open access research.

There is, however, a key difference between providing access to Digital Humanities research, and making that research accessible to all. While access can refer to “the right or opportunity to use or benefit from something,” accessibility specifically refers to something “easily obtained or used,” particularly by individuals with a disability (emphasis mine). If Digital Humanities, as a field of study, intends to maintain and perhaps even advance its commitment to access, then digital humanists must also consider accessibility when creating their projects. Far too often, the needs of individuals with disabilities remain neglected in digital spaces. According to George H. Williams, Associate Professor of English at the University of South Carolina Upstate:

Many of the otherwise most valuable digital resources are useless for people who are – for example – deaf or hard or hearing, as well as for people who are blind, have low vision or have difficulty distinguishing particular colors.

Indeed, despite its widespread use across many demographic groups, the Internet is “inherently unfriendly to many different kinds of disabilities” (Lazar and Jaeger, 70).

Accessibility on the Web

The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), created by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), tracks how individuals with disabilities use the Internet and develops guidelines and resources to help ensure websites are accessible to everyone. In theory, the Internet is designed to improve communication by removing barriers and obstacles; in practice, however, when websites – or Digital Humanities projects – are badly designed, they can prevent a large subset of the population from accessing information. Furthermore, each individual has his or her own strengths, weaknesses, skills and abilities, all of which can affect how he or she uses the Internet. Digital projects that take a “one way fits all” approach limit their reach and impact when certain groups of people can’t use or access that project.

The WAI offers an overview of the diversity of abilities and disabilities, which can range from auditory, visual, cognitive or physical disabilities to age-related impairments, temporary or situational impairments and health conditions. Each disability may have its own set of barriers to accessibility, requiring different solutions or alternatives. An individual who is hard of hearing, for example, might find it difficult to view audio content presented without captions, while someone with a cognitive disability might react poorly to lots of animation or moving images. Even the computer itself, with its traditional set up with a mouse and keyboard, can become an obstacle to a person with a lost limb or injury that prevents use of his or her hands.

Why Does Accessibility Matter?

Accessibility should be an integral part of Digital Humanities projects, for a variety of reasons. Perhaps most obviously, there could be legal implications, since many countries have passed laws requiring web accessibility. Digital Humanities projects are also sometimes funded through federal grants and, as Williams points out, digital humanists may lose such funding if they cannot demonstrate accessibility and adherence to federal accessibility laws.

Additionally, despite the existence of accessibility laws, a central administrating organization or group for web and digital accessibility does not. In the United States, for example, there is no one government agency in charge of ensuring compliance with accessibility laws. According to Lazar and Jaeger, this haphazard approach places “the burden on people with disabilities to enforce their own rights” (76).

Of course, accessibility also helps expand the reach of a Digital Humanities project. By taking the needs of the greatest number of people into account when designing a project, digital humanists can ensure the largest audience for their work, which in turn could help further the research or provide new contexts and connections.

Ideas and Recommendations

Improving accessibility in Digital Humanities will require more than one solution, and should include collaboration between those with expertise and those ready to learn. It will also necessitate improved accessibility policies and laws, as well as the enforcement of those laws. Williams proposes a universal design approach, explaining that universal design “is design that involves conscious decisions about accessibility for all.” It’s also efficient, providing websites and digital projects with compatibility for multiple devices and platforms. This would allow a digital humanist to design and create a project just once, then easily adapt it for different audiences or devices.

The WAI also offers suggestions by highlighting some of the tools a disabled person might use to improve his or her Internet experience (for example, hardware or software meant to help bridge the gap between the individual and the website) and the strategies and techniques a person might develop to interact with non-accessible websites. These include voice recognition software to give commands, screen readers for those with poor vision, and alternatives to the keyboard and mouse (touch-screens, joysticks, etc).

Certainly, one important step towards improved Digital Humanities accessibility is awareness within the field. A coalition of American universities and research centers is leading the charge for increased awareness with the Building an Accessible Future for the Humanities project. The Accessible Future partnership, supported in part by the US National Endowment for the Humanities, hosts a series of workshops exploring technologies, design standard and issues with digital projects, all tailored towards securing accessibility’s place in Digital Humanities.

Access has long been an integral part of Digital Humanities, grounded in the idea that digital projects should be available to as many people as possible. If Digital Humanities intends to continue its commitment to open access data and research, then accessibility – and specifically digital accessibility – must also become an integral part of the field. Designing accessible projects may require some rethinking and adjustments, but it won’t be as difficult as one might expect. Lazar and Jaeger remind us “the technical solutions for web accessibility already exist” (80). It’s simply a matter of being mindful of different abilities, considering accessibility issues and concerns from the start of each project, and ensuring that the information, in its many forms, is accessible to the widest possible audience.

Works Cited

About.International Open Access Week. Andrea Higginbotham, nd. Web. 21 October 2014.

“Access.” The New Oxford American Dictionary. Version 2.2.1. 2011. Apple, Inc.

“Accessible.” The New Oxford American Dictionary. Version 2.2.1. 2011. Apple, Inc.

Accessible Future. Indiana University Perdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), 2014. Web. 20 October 2014.

How People with Disabilities Use the Web.Web Accessibility Initiative. W3C, 2013. Web. 20 October 2014.

Lazar, Jonathan and Paul Jaeger. “Reducing Barriers to Online Access for People with Disabilities.Issues in Science and Technology. Winter 2011: 69-82. Web. 20 October 2014.

Williams, George H. “Disability, Universal Design, and the Digital Humanities.Debates in Digital Humanities. Ed. Matthew K. Gold. University of Minnesota Press, 2012. 202-212. Web. 20 October 2014.

Of Cats, GIFs, and Contests

At the start of the term, the director of the Digital Humanities program, Dr. Scriebman, provided our class with general guidelines and instructions for these course blogs, along with the admonition that these blogs were intended solely for the Digital Humanities program and were therefore not appropriate places to post pictures of our cats.

Cat in a boot

(Not my cat. I promise.)

Fear not, friends. I’m not deliberately flouting those instructions. The above photo is from a late 19th century advertisement for F. W. Lucas & Co., in a collection at the Boston Public Library, and found via the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA). It’s just one example of a public domain photo that can be used in a new contest hosted by the DPLA and DigitalNZ.

GIF IT UP is an international competition, running from 13th October to 1st December, asking interested participants to create the best GIFs reusing public domain and openly licensed digital video, images, text and other material available through the search engines on DPLA and DigitalNZ’s websites. You can view examples of submissions on the GIF IT UP Tumblr and the full guidelines for the contest on the DPLA website.

Based on some of the GIFs submitted so far, response to the contest is positive. I think it’s an especially creative way to help the public engage with public domain collections and practice (or perhaps show off) technical computer skills. It’s an entertaining and educational representation of Digital Humanities, using digital skills to highlight humanities collections.

And yes, in this case, GIFs of cats would be acceptable. One of the six categories for the contest is “Animals.”

[The above image has no known copyright restrictions and no known restrictions on use.]

Crowdsourcing in DH, Part 2

When Jeff Howe and Mark Robinson coined the term “crowdsourcing” back in 2005 in an article for Wired magazine, the term referred primarily to practices operated by for-profit businesses, particularly within the tech world, whereby a large group of contributors undertook a number of small, often routine and mundane tasks. Nearly 10 years later, crowdsourcing has changed and evolved to a point where, like Digital Humanities, a standard, agreed-upon definition is difficult to find.

Stuart Dunn, a Digital Humanities lecturer at Kings College London, describes crowdsourcing as a “loaded term,” since the historical definition of the word connotes “the antithesis of what academia understands as public engagement and impact.” Yet, even with a variety of potential definitions and blurred boundaries for what might be considered a crowdsourced project, many Digital Humanities projects still rely on the term, if only because the larger population has developed a collective – if vague and overgeneralized – understanding of what “crowdsourcing” means.

As I mentioned earlier this week, my classmates and I recently presented on a number of crowdsourced projects. Listening to the other presentations and conducting my own research clearly revealed the depth and breadth of just what “the crowd” can accomplish. Below, I’ve shared a selection of some crowdsourced projects I found particularly interesting.

(There are, of course, many more examples than I’ve listed here. On my Links of Interest page, you can find a link to more DH crowdsourcing examples.)

  • What’s the Score at the Bodleian? – The Bodleian Library at Oxford University launched this project in collaboration with Zooniverse (a larger crowdsourcing project), to increase access to the library’s music collection and collection of printed musical scores. Volunteers transcribe the scores and add metadata tags to help categorize each score. The project initially attracted my attention as I’m a music fan and one-time musician myself, but further thought has me wondering: most online crowdsourcing projects are geared towards sighted volunteers – that is, volunteers need to be able to see something on a website. With What’s the Score?, there’s the potential for the Bodleian to add an audio component, allowing sight-impaired volunteers to offer tags or transcribe based on what they hear. Currently, the Bodleian does have some audio files uploaded, though these appear to be examples of the collection, rather than opportunities. I’d love to see the Bodleian – and other DH crowdsourcing projects – expand their accessibility so that more volunteers could contribute.
  • Reverse the Odds! – Another Zooniverse-affiliated program, Reverse the Odds! is a mobile game developed by Cancer Research UK. While the game is designed with bright colors and an easy-to-use interface, it also incorporates real cancer research data. By playing the game, participants help researchers recognize the patterns of various cancer cells, which, in turn, is used to find real solutions to cancer and cancer symptoms. There are other citizen science projects that have created games to further research; Reverse the Odds! is just one such example.
  • Tag! You’re It! and Freeze Tag! at the Brooklyn Museum – Though now retired, these two projects intertwined games with crowdsourcing in a new way. The Tag! game had volunteers providing collection tags to items in the Brooklyn Museums’ collections, with an interface that volunteers “playing” against each other for points. The Freeze Tag! component then gave volunteers the ability to revise and correct others’ tags, ensuring a built-in verification and moderation process. The project was a success for the museum and the use of game names that referenced clear childhood memories (at least for those of us who played the school yard game Tag) no doubt helped draw more volunteers to the project.
  • What Was There – Finally, a project not associated with an academic or nonprofit institution. What Was There was created by Enlighten Ventures, LLC, a digital marketing agency. The platform invites participants to upload old photos of their local community, then tag those photos with location and year. Once uploaded, the photos can then be overlaid with Google Maps Street View, providing a real-time visual example of how cityscapes and landscapes have changed over time. According to the website, the project hopes to “weave together a photographic history of the world (or at least any place covered by Google Maps).” That’s a fine goal, but there’s the potential for historians, architects, urban planners and conservationists to use the data gathered by the project for further research. Enlighten doesn’t (yet) mention what is done with the tags gathered, nor make it available to the public, but should they decide to open up the data, there are possibilities here.

Crowdsourcing in DH, Part 1

Earlier this afternoon, myself and my classmates in the Digital Humanities Theory and Practice course gave brief presentations on various crowdsourced projects, most of which related to Digital Humanities and/or citizens science in some way. I’ll write more later this week on crowdsourcing in DH in general, but for now, a bit of information on my chosen project:

The What’s on the Menu? project at the New York Public Library launched in 2011 and aims to transcribe and geotag the library’s entire collection of restaurant menus (approximately 45,000 menus dating back to the 1840’s, making it the largest menu collection in the world). The NYPL had some great early successes (its initial goal was reached within the first three months of the project’s launch) and while it seems to have stalled a bit since then, the data compiled by the project provides a fascinating look at America’s culinary and nutritional history.

Visit the project website for more information.


What is Digital Humanities Anyway?

To paraphrase Shakespeare, that is indeed the question.

It’s a question I heard quite often after informing family and friends I would be moving to Ireland to undertake a Digital Humanities degree. At the time, I usually described it as “the intersection of computing and technology with the humanities,” which, while technically correct, doesn’t fully capture the range and diversity in this field and its tools.

In April 2011, at the Defining Digital Humanities program at Columbia University, Dan Cohen (then Professor of History and Director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, presently founding Executive Director of the Digital Library of America) presented his own definition of Digital Humanities:

Digital Humanities is the use of digital media and technology to advance the full range of thought and practice in the humanities, from the creation of scholarly resources to research on those resources to the communication of results to colleagues and students.

While there isn’t, as of yet, any one standard definition of Digital Humanities, I quite like Cohen’s definition for a few reasons. Coming from a communications background and having a great deal of interest in media, I appreciate his inclusion of “media and technology” (emphasis mine). Many digital humanists tend to focus on the computing technology aspects of Digital Humanities, for good reason, but I believe media (particularly digital and social media) have an equally important role to play. Cohen’s definition also emphasizes “the full range of thought and practice” in the humanities. Digital Humanities is not limited to one particular area of research; indeed, the diversity and broad reach of Digital Humanities projects are part of why it is difficult to define the field.

Most importantly, though, by specifically highlighting communication with colleagues and students, Cohen has, in my opinion, narrowed in on two of the most essential components of Digital Humanities. At its core, Digital Humanities is a collaborative process, much more so than any other humanities area. Ongoing communication and collaboration with other researchers and academics is what helps drive Digital Humanities forward, as does the continued education of the next generation of digital humanists, those who will build upon the foundation laid by present-day collaborations.

In that same speech, Cohen also refers to Digital Humanities as “a moving target.” It’s an apt description of a field in constant motion, evolving with each new project. Digital Humanities is a field that will continue to change, just as the technologies used now won’t be the same in five, 10 or 15 years. As a result, a standard definition might remain elusive.

Perhaps the best we can hope for is a definition of Digital Humanities as it stands now, with the understanding that any definition is a fluid idea bound to change. I plan to revisit my idea of a Digital Humanities definition towards the end of the semester and the end of the year. We’ll see how my ideas (and Cohen’s, too!) hold up over time.

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