In addition to rising job opportunities, the rise of digital humanities was felt at the annual meetings of professional humanities organizations this winter. The Association for Computers and the Humanities compiled a list of the many sessions with digital humanities talks at the December 2007 Modern Language Association convention; at the American Philosophical Association‘s annual meeting, the APA Committee on Philosophy and Computers coordinated special sessions on “The Ethics of Emerging Technologies” and “Technology in Support of Philosophy Research” (covered in Inside Higher Ed); and the American Historical Association had a number of events at its annual meeting ranging from teaching with new media, to digital archives, to “Tech Tools for Historians” (where yours truly spoke about Zotero to a large and thankfully quite excited crowd). Once again, a nice upward trend.
Following a nice evening at the Italian Embassy, the conference “Using New Technologies to Explore Cultural Heritage,” jointly sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (CNR, Italy’s National Research Council), kicked off at the headquarters of the NEH in Washington. Sessions included “Museums and Audiences,” “Virtual Heritage,” “Digital Libraries: Texts and Paintings,” “Preserving and Mapping Ancient Worlds,” and “Monuments, Historic Sites, and Memory.” The discussion was wide-ranging and covered topics both digital and analog.
Museums and Audiences
In the morning, Francesco Antinucci, the Director of Research at CNR, showed the audience some fairly depressing statistics about visitors to (physical) museums. There are 402 state museums in Italy, but only a few of them have large numbers of visitors–even though many of them have fantastic collections that are basically equivalent to the popular ones. For instance, the museum at Pompeii receives six times the visitors of Herculaneum, even though both were destroyed at the same time and Herculaneum is better-preserved and arguably has a better museum. Name recognition and museum “brands” clearly matter–a lot.
To make matters worse for cultural heritage sites, studies of museum visitors show that about half completely fail to remember what was in a gallery after they leave it. When asked, many can’t name a single painter or painting, even the gigantic, striking Caravaggio at the center of one of the galleries they studied.
Unfortunately, visitors to museum websites are equally disengaged. The average visit is one minute to the sites of the Italian state museums, and very few visitors are doing real research on these sites. In both the real and virtual world, we need to figure out how to reach and involve visitors.
In the discussion of Antinucci’s presentation, Andrew Ackerman, the Executive Director of the Children’s Museum of Manhattan (who had just presented on his museum’s new antiquities wing for kids), argued that museums and websites have to engage people with a wider variety of styles of learning and presentation. Others wondered if new technologies like podcasts and vodcasts might help. One very good point (again, by Ackerman) was that museums do a very poor job providing an overview and navigation to new visitors. The top two questions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York are “Where are the restrooms?” and “Where is the art?”
Maurizio Forte, a senior researcher at CNR’s Institute for Technologies Applied to Cultural Heritage, showed off some new technologies that are revolutionizing archaeology, including Differential GPS, digital cameras (on balloons and kites), and mapping software. What’s interesting about these technologies is how inexpensive they now are. This has allowed archaeologists to begin to create top-notch 3D modeling and maps for the 85% of archaeological sites that have only had poor hand sketches or no maps at all. New display technologies allow scholars to take these maps and recreate sites in vivid virtual representations, or move them into Second Life or other virtual worlds for exploration.
These 3D displays have the great virtue of being compelling eye candy (and thus great for engaging students who can fly through a historic site as in a video game, as Steven Johnson would argue) while also truly providing helpful environments for scholarly research. For instance, you can see the change of a city across time, or really understand the spatial relations between civic and religious buildings in a square.
Bernard Frischer of UVa agreed that “facilitating hypothesis formation” was a key reason to make high-quality virtual models. Frischer showed how an extensive digital model can blend real-world measurements, digitally reborn versions of buildings, and born-digital additions of elements that may no longer be present at a site. The result of this melding is very impressive in Rome Reborn 1.0.
Digital Libraries: Texts and Paintings
Andrea Bozzi, the Director of Research at CNR’s Institute for Computational Linguistics, discussed the new field of computational philology–using computational means to recover and understand ancient (and often highly degraded) texts such as Greek papyri and broken ceramics. Fragments of words can be deciphered using statistics and probability.
Massimo Riva, a Brown University Professor, presented Decameron Web, an archive completely built by teachers and students; a site for the collaborative annotation of the work of Pico della Mirandola; and the Virtual Humanities Lab, which also allows for collaborative annotation of texts. I’ve been meaning to blog about the rise of many online annotation tools; I’ll add these examples to my running list and hopefully post an article on the movement soon.
Preserving and Mapping Ancient Worlds
Massimo Cultraro, a researcher at CNR’s Institute for Archaeological Heritage, Monuments, and Sites, spoke about the “Iraq Virtual Museum” CNR is building–in part to reestablish online much of what was lost from looting and destruction during the war. The website will include virtual galleries of artifacts from the many important eras in Mesopotamian history, including Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, Achaemenid, Hatra, and Islamic works. They are making extensive use of 3D modeling software and animation; the introductory video for the site is almost entirely movie-quality computer graphics. (The site has not yet launched; this was a preview.)
Richard Talbert, a professor of ancient history, and Sean Gillies, the chief engineer at the Ancient History Mapping Center, both from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, presented the Pleiades Project, which is producing extensive data and maps of the ancient world. Talbert and Gillies emphasized up front the project’s open source software (including Plone as a foundation) and very open Creative Commons license for their content–i.e., anyone can reuse the high-quality maps and mapping datasets they have produced. Content can be taken off their site and moved and reused elsewhere freely. They advocated that scholars doing digital projects read Karl Fogel’s Producing Open Source Software and join in this open spirit.
The openness and technical polish of Pleiades was extraordinarily impressive. Gillies showed how easy it was to integrate Pleiades with Yahoo Pipes, Google Earth (through KML), and OpenLayers (an open competitor to Google Maps). (This is just the kind of digital research and interoperability that we’re hoping to do in the next phase of Zotero.) Pleiades will allow scholars to collaboratively update the dataset and maps through an open-but-vetted model similar to Citizendium (and unlike free-for-all Wikipedia). Trusted external sites can use GeoRSS to update geographical information in the Pleiades database. The site–and the open data and underlying software they have written–will be unveiled in 2008.
Monuments, Historic Sites, and Memory
Gianpiero Perri, the managing director of Officina Rambaldi, discussed the development and integration of a set of technologies–including Bluetooth, electronic beacons, and visual and digital cues–to provides visitors with a more rich experience of the pivotal World War II battle at Cassino. He called it a new way to engage historical memory through the simultaneous exploration of the landscape and exhibits online and off, but it was a little unclear (to me at least) what exactly visitors would see or do.
Arne Flaten, a professor of art history at Coastal Carolina University, presented Ashes2Art, “an innovative interdisciplinary and collaborative concept that combines art history, archaeology, web design, 3D animation and digital panoramic photography to recreate monuments of the ancient past online.” All of the work on the project is done by undergraduates, who simultaneously learn about the past and how to use digital modeling programs (like Maya or the free Sketchup) for scholarly purposes. A great model for other undergrad or grad programs in the digital humanities. Like Pleiades, the output of this project is freely available and downloadable.
The Center for History and New Media will once again be hosting a summer workshop for historians to explore the theory and practice of digital history. Since it is run under the auspices of our history of science project (ECHO), applicants must be working on a topic related in some way to the history of science, technology, or industry (broadly construed). Participants will explore the ways that digital technologies can facilitate the research, teaching, writing and presentation of history; genres of online history and tools; website infrastructure and design; scholarly collaboration; digitization and online collecting; the process of identifying and building online history audiences; and issues of copyright and preservation. A great opportunity; please apply soon if you’re interested.
I went to the first of these last November and it’s well worth attending. This year’s theme is “exploring the scholarly query potential of high quality text and image archives in a collaborative environment.” The colloquium will take place on October 21-22, 2007, with proposals due July 31, 2007.
I’ve been going to digital humanities conferences of one kind or another for many years now, but last week’s summit of digital humanities centers at the National Endowment of the Humanities showed that finally there is extraordinary interest in the field. People in positions of power and influence showed up for the first time. Vint Cerf (one of the founders of the internet and now evangelist for Google) was there. Many funders came as well, which is important since the work I and my colleagues do at the Center for History and New Media is not inexpensive. In general, an excitement permeated the room—the feeling that with the exponential growth in digitization and the rise of digital tools, we are on the cusp of a new age of scholarship. Here are my rough notes from the meeting.
James Harris, the Dean of Arts and Humanities at the University of Maryland began the summit by highlighting how critical collaboration is. This theme continued for the rest of the meeting; it was probably the single word that came up the most in discussion.
Bruce Cole, the NEH Chairman, candidly told the audience how he started the job as a tech newbie but has presided over great strides in the digital realm, such as the NEH’s recent digitization of 30 million pages of historical newspapers. He now believes that we are entering a new era in which rapid advances in digital technology will have a profound impact on the humanities.
Cole said there were three goals of the digital humanities initiative at NEH: 1) use digital technology to make the humanities more accessible to everyone; 2) use the technology to foster increased collaboration in the humanities (he raised the human genome project as an exemplar from the sciences); 3) explore how digital technology will change the way we read, think, write, and create tools, and how we might turn huge digital corpora into wisdom. He highlighted the new programs at the NEH: digital start-up grants (over 70% of applicants are new to NEH, so it’s reaching a lot more people, he noted); digital humanities fellowships (encouraging scholars to think about how digitization and digital technology will change their field); digital humanties teaching grants; digital humanities challenge grants (to endow large-scale projects and centers). He said that NEH’s working with IMLS on these fronts has gone very well, and he believes that digital humanities centers will be critical for building the scholarly cyberinfrastructure.
John Unsworth continued that theme in his plenary address, “Digital Humanities Centers as Cyberinfrastructure.” He began by asserting that digital humanities centers are cyberinfrastructure. These centers offer a chance to really engage the consumption of primary materials in digital form, and they can create relationships with institutions like libraries and other collection-holders over time that can then be built upon in ways that individuals can’t do. These relationships are important. Centers thus build trust so scholars don’t have to do. They can also build relationships with corporate entities, and they can match researchers’ interests with institutions. They can also mentor people in digital technology and grant writing, offer grad students experience, and connect with other programs (like library and information sciences).
Unsworth further noted that the cultivation of leadership critical. Human infrastructure is as critical to the success of digital humanities as the cyberinfrastructure. It takes a long time and many talented people to create things like the NCSA. Unfortunately, the ad hoc nature of the current digital humanities infrastructure is difficult—we need long-term funding, interoperability, the technological and the social.
Unsworth concluded by emphasizing that we have had many failures, but that failures are important and provide lessons. Very few standards and robust tools have come out of academic software development. But maybe academic software should be more for proof-of-concept. The honest reporting of failure is important, so we all can learn. “Stop hiding the bodies!”
Vint Cerf then took the stage to discuss “Google and Digital Humanities Centers.” To laughs from the scholarly audience, he admitted that when you finish a Google search you are not done with your resesarch—it’s vital to remind people that everything of value is not online. He said that Google Book Search is their attempt to add to the online corpus and at least make things findable. And to no one’s surprise, he said that indexing of books should be fair use, as long as the display of snippets is limited. He believes “copyright is a mess and needs to be rethought” (e.g., Creative Commons). Cerf encountered considerable resistance from one member of the audience (and later I heard from a few others who partially or fully agreed with that antagonist), who noted that Google is a big company in the business of making money from its scans. Cerf tried to defuse the tension over this issue by offering to meet the dissenter in the alley for a duel (more laughs).
Cerf ended with a “1000 year view”—he argued we need to plan for that time horizon. But it’s unclear what to do right now. It might be that having an 8-bit ASCII version of everything (thus losing layouts and images) is the only way to deal with the 1000-year question, i.e. to ensure longevity. We need in the near future to learn how to make the digital world sufficiently stable—as stable as the world of print. On a positive note, he said that collaboration is something that’s unexpectedly arisen out of the internet, e.g., Wikipedia. The threshold for publishing is much lower: the minimum publication used to be the article, but now you can contribute two sentences to the web if you want.
Two wikis with greater information about the digital humanities came out of the conference. The first is the wiki for the conference itself, which contains many more details than I’m able to relate here. The second is a wiki I set up with the blessing of the group to try to have a single location for those interested in the digital humanities to find information about centers, people, tools, standards, and other elements in the multifaceted world of the digital humanities. Please contribute to it if you can.
I’m back from vacation and have lots to catch up on, but wanted to pass along some quick notes about upcoming opportunities and deadlines that might be of interest to this blog’s audience.
I feel incredibly fortunate to have received an American Council of Learned Societies’ Digital Innovation Fellowship for the next year. 2006-7 will be the first year for this fellowship, which is supporting five projects, including efforts involving GPS, corpus digitization, map mashups, text and data mining, and software development. The call for applications for 2007-8 has already gone out, and the paperwork is due in just a couple of months, on September 27, 2006. Having written one of these applications, I recommend getting an early start. Beyond the normal “what I’m going to do” narrative, you need to come up with a budget and think about institutional support for your project (digital projects often require such things).
The Chicago Colloquium on Digital Humanities and Computer Science has sent out a call for papers in anticipation of a meeting on November 5-6, 2006. The meeting is going to expand upon the topics discussed in the March 2006 issue of D-Lib Magazine. I’m going to try to be there. The deadline for applications is August 15, 2006.
Finally, we still have a few spaces for beta testers for our upcoming release of Scholar for Firefox. For those who are hearing about this for the first time, Scholar is a citation manager and note-taking application (like EndNote) that integrates right into the Firefox web browser. Since it lives in the browser, it has some very helpful—and, we think, innovative—features, such as the ability to sense when you are viewing the record for a book (on your library’s website or at Amazon or elsewhere) and to offer to save the full citation information to your personal library of references (unlike del.icio.us or other bookmarking tools, it actually grabs the author, title, and copyright information, not just the URL). Scholar will have “smart folder” and “smart search” technology and other user interface capabilities that are reminiscent of iTunes and other modern software. And we hope to unveil some collaborative features soon as well (such as the ability to share and collaborate on bibliographies and notes, find new books and articles that might be of interest to you based on what you’ve already saved to your library, etc.). If you’re interested in testing the software, please email me. The limited release beta should be available around August 15, 2006.
If your work deals in some way with the history of science, technology, or industry, and you would like to learn how to create online history projects, the Echo Project at the Center for History and New Media is running another one of our free, week-long workshops. The workshop covers the theory and practice of digital history; the ways that digital technologies can facilitate the research, teaching, writing and presentation of history; genres of online history; website infrastructure and design; document digitization; the process of identifying and building online history audiences; and issues of copyright and preservation.
As one of the teachers for this workshop, I can say somewhat immodestly that it’s really a great way to get up to speed on the many (sometimes complicated) elements necessary for website development. Unfortunately space is limited, so be sure to apply online by March 10, 2006. The workshop will take place from June 12-16, 2006, at George Mason University’s Arlington campus, right outside of Washington, DC. It is co-sponsored by the American Historical Association and the National History Center, and funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. There is no registration fee, and a limited number of fellowships are available to defray the costs of travel and lodging for graduate students and young scholars. Hope to see you there!