Source: Capacities and functions of online digital resources

Although digital humanities projects often extend meaningfully beyond the computer screen, DH efforts are often deeply interrelated with the web. As a discipline, DH has grown and matured with the Internet, taking advantage of new capacities of Web 2.0, social media, and the limitless possibilities of interactive web apps to develop increasingly complex, intricate, and collaborative projects. The basic function of the web—the ability to quickly and easily share data across a global network—still undergirds these expansive new capabilities, but the character of web-based DH projects and resources has qualitatively changed as a result.

While humanities researchers have used networked technologies since their earliest days to share digital research and resources, as well as to build community,1 they are now able to disseminate projects that are both aesthetically and conceptually dynamic, engaging users with the ability to add, click, comment, and manipulate in real time. For example, the Summer of Sculpture project,2 developed in July 2014 by the Restless Collective, leveraged the social media platform Instagram to crowdsource an image collection of public sculpture from across the US, and utilized Tumblr to create a partial archive of this dynamically generated collection. As another example, Mapping Gothic France,3 developed by Stephen Murray, Andrew Tallon, and Rory O’Neill, invites users to explore the Gothic architecture of medieval France through an interactive map, enabling each user to negotiate their own trajectory through this rich data and thus facilitating further research and discovery.

These kinds of projects blur the boundaries between the creator and user of the scholarship, as by virtue of their dynamism open themselves up to the continual generation and addition of new knowledge. If the founding myth of humanistic research has always been that research begets more research in a never ending conversation of scholars (e.g. Newton’s vantage from the shoulders of giants), these kinds of projects actualize this sentiment in the users’ additive mouse click.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants, Library of Congress, Rosenwald 4, Bl. 5r

This qualitative shift—which we might broadly label a trend towards interactivity, including both the increased capacity to interact with datasets as well as an increase in the avenues of interaction between the creator and user of a project—requires the critical attention of the DH community. Online resources for humanities research are more prevalent than ever, and these resources are consistently making use of and making available innovative practices, tools, and methods. As the novelty of interactive and dynamic web resources wears off, and these become standard tools in our methodological wheelhouse, the DH community will need to develop and articulate an understanding of the capacities and functions of these kinds of online resources. What is the purpose of a project that supports or encourages interactivity? How (and why) should a project be published on the web?

I am not suggesting that the DH community does not need to reach any kind of consensus on these and other related questions—indeed, different researchers may have very divergent rationale for integrating the expansive capabilities of the web into their projects. My point though is that DH researchers need to be prepared to discuss how digital tools are working in relation to their overall intellectual agenda. Just as a researcher of a traditional journal article might discuss and strategically position her methodology, articulating how a certain tool, such as discourse analysis, works in service of her scholarly project, creators of DH projects need to be able to reflect to this end as well.

Tim Sherratt, in a discussion of his project Invisible Australians,4 offers a useful example of this kind of critical reflection.5 Sherratt’s article not only provides transparency, which is hugely beneficial to any kind of scholarly project (digital or not), it also makes a case for the unique value of DH projects. As in Sherratt’s case, he could only have developed this project through this interactive interface that allows users to connect humanizing photographs of marginalized Australians with their archival documents. In this process of interaction, the user uncovers the narratives of these individuals’ lives, restoring value and dignity lost through government processes of documentation. Sherratt makes a clear case for the method he employed, and in doing so deepens the worth and capacity of his project.

Another example of an online resource that incorporates and encourages this kind of critical reflection is the Library as Incubator project.6 Started in 2011 by three librarians, Erinn Batykefer, Laura Damon-Moore, and Christina Jones, Library as Incubator has the express goal “to promote and facilitate creative collaboration between libraries and artists of all types, and to advocate for libraries as incubators of the arts.”7 This includes a huge range of projects, from efforts to digitize stained glass cartoons to spotlighting engaging art exhibitions in library spaces. The project fosters the practice of libraries as centers of creativity by featuring exemplars from around the world in their frequently updated blog posts; but the project also actively encourages all kinds of libraries to implement these creative projects by offering a plethora of resources to librarians and by developing a multi-platform social media presence to host and nurture communication about innovative arts projects in libraries.

Digital Projections, an art exhibition at the Glasgow School of Art, featured on the Library as Incubator blog.

The Library as Incubator team is clear about their goals and methods, articulating the intent and function of the project as both an online and IRL resource. However—perhaps just as powerful as the active efforts of the team members to encourage, describe, and feature arts projects through blog posts and other online outreach—the Library as Incubator website serves as a “dynamic online forum for sharing ideas,”8 providing a space for other institutions and individuals to both reflect on and develop digital and physical arts projects. This forum is the kind of space where a community can pose and negotiate the kinds of questions I raised above. What’s the value of a particular digital resource? What function does it serve and what new capabilities does it open up? Through the blog and social media platforms maintained by the Library as Incubator project, these kinds of conversation have space to occur and are open to anyone with an Internet connection.

 

NOTES

[1] See, for instance, this early assessment of the use of electronic bulletin board systems at Columbia University in 1982 by Janet F. Asteroff.

[2] http://summerofsculpture.tumblr.com/

[3] http://mappinggothic.org/

[4] http://invisibleaustralians.org/

[5] Tim Sherratt. “It’s all about the Stuff: Collections, Interfaces, Power and People.” Discontents (November 2011). http://journalofdigitalhumanities.org/1-1/its-all-about-the-stuff-by-tim-sherratt/

[6] http://www.libraryasincubatorproject.org/

[7] Library as Incubator Mission Statement, http://www.libraryasincubatorproject.org/?page_id=9.

[8] Ibid.