Audience and Mission

This post considers the problems of audience and mission in the digital humanities.  The aim is to reflect on a topic that is of concern to the digital humanities community and to relate it to the MADH Practicum project. This is the fourth in a series of blog posts about the Practicum project. The first and second posts outline the purpose and scope of the project and the third post reflects on the future of the archive in a digital environment.

In a 2011 article published in Arts & Humanities in Higher Education, Andrew Prescott discusses the problems of audience and mission in the digital humanities, arguing that an inward-looking perspective in the community has resulted in a failure to engage new audiences and develop successful collaborative partnerships (67). This is at odds with the visionary dialogue of the digital humanities community, which emphasises the importance of active engagement in the task of creating an audience for humanistic learning. The challenges of developing and maintaining new models of research practice to encourage collaboration and audience engagement are well documented. The Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0 itself recognises that doing this is not as straight-forward as it might seem. It asserts “…interdisciplinarity /transdisciplinarity /multidisciplinarity are empty words unless they imply changes in language, practice, method, and output” (3).

How can digital humanists address the problems of audience and mission? Using The Proceedings of the Old Bailey project as a best practice example, Prescott suggests that fostering user relationships and a strong research vision can assist digital humanists in reaching out to the wider community of humanities scholars as well as new audiences outside the academy (71).  This is an important message for the MADH Practicum project.

Fostering user relationships

In their assessment of good practice in the construction of digital humanities projects, Warwick et al. note that multi-disciplinary user groups necessitate new requirements from digital humanist content producers (8).  They recommend that user group identification and consultation should be an integral part of project design, development and implementation. (12) Recognising the importance of audience engagement, a survey of user needs has been conducted as part of this project to help identify potential users across the various disciplines and user groups.  The survey has highlighted the ways (and the extent) to which users would like to engage with, contribute to and use a digital archive of meteorological resources. An initial, tentative analysis of survey results demonstrates a marked potential for audience engagement, with 143 responses returned by individuals from a range of different disciplines.  It also demonstrates a noticeable openness to participation and user contribution, with 66 out of the 143 respondents noting that they are either ‘interested’ or ‘very interested’ in helping to transcribe data.

Following from basic audience engagement, the digital humanities community seeks to move towards a more participatory model of collaboration, which focuses on audience as creator rather than observer.  Borgman  writes “…[there has been a] shift over the last two decades from a focus on the audience – those who might learn or appreciate the cultural content presented – to a focus on participation, in which scholars, students, and the public can contribute content or conduct their own investigations” (par. 49). Determining how the various user groups for this project might like to participate will inform the decision-making and planning process for the construction of this digital archive. Will a transcription facility be included?  If so, will it focus on data or descriptive information? What tools will best suit the varying transcription skills and needs of different user groups? As an exploratory project, the basic ‘mission’ of this digital archive (the purpose, scope, design and development) must be relatively flexible so as to discover and address the varying needs of the audience. User-generated web content within the model of the audience as ‘creator’ will strengthen the capability of this project for user engagement. Terras argues that this type of content creation by ‘pro-amateur’ communities is better placed to interact with wider online audiences and make collections more interesting and useful (436).

While this is a promising start, the complex problems of mission and audience will be a continuous challenge for this project. An awareness of (and commitment to) fostering good user relationships will certainly assist the project in developing collaborative partnerships and creating new audiences for humanistic learning.

Strong research framework

Yet, user engagement and participation will be transformative only if fully grounded in a strong research vision and good scholarship. The digital humanities community advocates a much more sophisticated, multi-layered level of interaction with the digital environment. They see the potential to move beyond the idea of technology as a tool and to consider the opportunities that technology offers as a new modus operandi for Humanities research.   Earhart notes “…digital as a tool versus the digital as a means to new forms, ontologies, reading or analysis — is a theme replicated across digital textual scholarship and projects.” (21). Terras recognises that digital access cannot be accepted as digital scholarship. She argues “…memory institutions should be aware that it is no longer acceptable to ‘scan and dump’ their digitized collections into online databases and expect them to be used” (436).  This is an important consideration for the Practicum project.  Lack of access to the pilot balloon collection has been the most significant driver for the initiation of this project so it will be important to ensure that improved access through the provision of surrogates is not the most significant outcome too.

Humanists may learn from accessing digital surrogates of sources but these objects have no contribution to make to the transformative mission of the discipline. The digital humanities community acknowledges this distinction and insists on a more critical engagement with technology.  Flanders notes “…where that sense of friction is absent – where a digital object sits blandly and unobjectionably before us, putting up no resistance and posing no questions for us – humanities computing, the meaningful sense, is also absent” (par. 12). The digital archive of pilot balloon records must be much more than an access-centred collection of images or data. It must also be grounded in a strong research framework that will make a useful and meaningful contribution to humanities scholarship.

These reflections on the problems of audience and mission are useful for guiding the Practicum project on a topic that is of importance to the wider digital humanities community of practice.  Seeking out (and learning from) best practice examples of user engagement should help to correctly position the project with regards to the problems of mission and audience.  This broader reflection is a reminder of the challenges faced by a wider digital humanities community in meeting a transformative mission of audience engagement.  Steps have been taken to foster user relationships and ensure a strong research framework but continued awareness of these issues will be necessary throughout the project life-cycle.

Works cited

Borgman, Christine L. “The Digital Future Is Now: A Call to Action for the Humanities.” 3.4 (2009): n. pag. Digital Humanities Quarterly. Web. 10 Apr. 2015.

Earhart, Amy E. “The Digital Edition and the Digital Humanities.” Textual Cultures 7.1 (2012): 18–28. JSTOR. Web. 10 Apr. 2015.

Flanders, Julia. “The Productive Unease of 21st-Century Digital Scholarship.” 3.3 (2009): n. pag. Digital Humanities Quarterly. Web. 10 Apr. 2015.

Prescott, Andrew. “Consumers, Creators or Commentators? Problems of Audience and Mission in the Digital Humanities.” Arts and Humanities in Higher Education 11.1-2 (2012): 61–75. Web. 10 Apr. 2015.

Schnapp, Jeffrey, Peter Lunenfeld, and Todd Presner. “The Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0.” 2009. Web.

Terras, Melissa. “Digital Curiosities: Resource Creation via Amateur Digitization.Literary and Linguistic Computing 25.4 (2010): 425–438. Web. 10 Apr. 2015.

Warwick, Claire et al. “The Master Builders: LAIRAH Research on Good Practice in the Construction of Digital Humanities Projects.” Literary and Linguistic Computing 23.3 (2008): 383–396. Web. 10 Apr. 2015.

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