In Generous Interfaces for Digital Cultural Collections, Mitchell Whitelaw writes the following about the increase in digital collections in recent years:
This is a truly generous mass: large, abundant, ample. Yet in response to this abundance, collection interfaces wheel out miserly lists, one page at a time. Generosity entails more than scale, too: another of its senses describes an ethos of giving or sharing freely.These values tally well with the aims of many collecting institutions — especially public institutions, mandated to provide broad and open access. But here too, search is ungenerous. It fails to be liberal in sharing: instead of throwing open the doors, its greeting is “Yes, what?”
While I agree with this statement, the idea that digitizing meets the mandate of providing broad and open access is not true. Is a collection truly accessible if the user interface is as described in the beginning of this article? In the same way an open source software is not accessible if it doesn’t include documentation, a digitized collection without a generous interface is useless. As Whitelaw alludes to, using research on Information Retrieval and User Experience, users reliably follow certain models of search, and one particular facet of search is that if there is too much resistance in the search, they’ll abandon it completely. This is not new to the digital age, but can be seen in visiting physical locations of a library or archive, with too many barriers the location becomes inaccessible. Archive or Library anxiety can set in and suddenly any resources that are housed in that location are off limits.
One of my favorite digital projects that is particularly useful to my own research is Mapping Titian a project developed by Jodi Cranston at Boston University. In evaluating the project using Whitelaw’s standards, it seems the Mapping Titian project has developed a generous interface. One particular facet is the idea of representing the collection
Notably in order to understand the features of a collection that might be represented, we must first represent the collection: the riches and voids in each collection are only evident through a process of exploratory visualisation.
While the catalogue page is simple and includes the entirety of Titian’s painting oeuvre, what makes it stand out is understanding what is missing, which is clearly delineated by an empty frame, the name of the painting, and what happened to it (lost, destroyed, etc. ) It also includes a very prominent “Image Not Available” for paintings that are documented and still extant but do not have images (for example if they’re in a private collection). The project doesn’t currently offer a way to do an advanced search through the images or a way to sort through the images that you browse. What sets this tool apart in not just the collection of Titian images in one place though. The creators have combined mapping data with the collection, that can then be manipulated and visualized. One can decide to view the mapping data of Titian’s Poesie, and see how the pictures dispersed after leaving Phillip’s collection. There’s also the possibility to see the provenance data in an animated timeline.
Ultimately, the interface is almost as important as the digital objects themselves. Without a good interface to facilitate the access and exploration of digitized material, the material is essentially ineffective.
Rather, we believe that we need to critically and soberly assess where computers, networks, and digital media are and aren’t useful for historians—a category that we define broadly to include amateur enthusiasts, research scholars, museum curators, documentary filmmakers, historical society administrators, classroom teachers, and history students at all levels. In what ways can digital media and digital networks allow us to do our work as historians better?
Clearly digitization is an important aspect in digital art history, however I would argue that it is only the first step. It is not enough to just digitize the material, one has to do something with it. Cohen and Rosenzweig briefly touch on this in their “Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web,” writing about Designing for the “History Web”, Building an Audience, and Collecting History. I would say there are two major aspects to doing something with the digitized material. The material needs to accessible, and it (preferably) needs to do something different or as Cohen and Rosenzweig write, “allow us to do our work as historians better”
Access is important because it is fundamental to the process of digitizing. If you’re not increasing access with the digitization of material, what then is the point? As it is best practice to keep the original even after you digitize, you then have two things to preserve- the physical thing and the digital thing (because yes, digital things have to be preserved too!) so why bother if you’re going to continue to limit access? Digitization offers the opportunity for the kid in middle of nowhere USA to see the collection at the Met. It offers grad students doing dissertation work the chance to view a good digital surrogate for their item, (somewhat) diminishing the cost of research. It allows for people groups to try to recreate narratives. (Granted this is all based in access to the internet, which varies widely across the country and is a problem in and of itself)
As an archive or library, providing access is an incredible next step after digitization. After that one can begin to use the digital material in ways that the physical material can’t. The first example I was going to link to was the interactive version of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, however it seems that it has been taken offline (another important aspect to consider when digitizing) Bosch’s Garden is exhausting to look at in one sitting, you have to keep coming back to it to really get the details. This interactive project allowed for annotations of the work and tour through the painting at a zoomed in level, allowing one to focus on the details. It brings the painting alive. When I was teaching this painting this spring, I brought this project in and my students thoroughly enjoyed learning from the interactive version, and ended up retaining it much longer than anything else. In reference to more historical collections, digitized newspapers that have converted into text files allows for using text mining tools to analyze the newspapers in more ways than one could by just reading them.
Ultimately the onus is on the scholar to something new and different with digitized material, however they need that digitized material to do something new and different.
While speaking more so from an English Literature perspective, Adam Kirsch essentially argues that digital humanities as a whole is suffering an identity crisis, and does not have an agreed upon definition. He compares the two main visions of the field, one being that DH ia discipline that will change the way humanities are done, and the other marking it simply as a facilitation tool like word processors or spell check. Ultimately Kirsch makes the argument that despite digital humanities being a “growth industry” and humanities “obsession” with digital, it will harm the discipline more than it will help it. He writes,
The humanities can not take place in seconds. This is why the best humanistic scholarship is creative, more akin to poetry and fiction than to chemistry or physics; it draws not just on a body of knowledge, though knowledge is indispensable, but on a scholar’s imagination and sense of reality.
According to Wikipedia, Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, which explains his view of the humanities as strictly creative. He implies several times that digital humanists are asking boring questions, but perhaps that was just the nature of the field in 2014. In 2017, a scholar named Whitney Sperrazza was hired at the University of Kansas as a digital humanist and researcher. She studies representations of sexual violence by female poets in the English Renaissance, from roughly 1500 to 1700. A topic that yes, could be done without technology, but she points out that:
Digital humanities [are] a way to ask questions about humanities that we simply weren’t able to before, or using technology to examine things in a new light…Digital humanities allows us to ask questions we haven’t been able to before and bring our questions to a wider public
This is reminiscent of Kirsch’s discussion of tools like Google ngram, and that if you “ask a broadly phrased question and you get a meaningless answer” Just as people probably criticized the computer for doing the same thing a human could do, like math, in early days, I’m sure they would be shocked at concepts like Big Data and Machine Learning. A google news search for ngram brings up a variety of topics- warspeak as related to political tensions, othering as related to Toni Morrison, and French Kissing related to World War II. Perhaps this is an example of “data illustrating a truism rather than discovering a truth” but what Kirsch seems to ignore here is two fold. First, in reference to Sperrazza’s earlier point tools like Google Ngram bring the humanities to a wider public, it sparks interest for the armchair historian to explore theories they may hold, and to become interested in the little bits of knowledge they may glean from the tool because perhaps they were not formally educated. Kirsch for the most part doesn’t address the access that digital humanities opens to people outside of academia. The second is that while finding these patterns may take a humanists’ mind to spark the question, ultimately to answer it, it must be supported by evidence. One could spend X amount of years going through these books by hand to track the use of a word, or they could use this tool in a matter of minutes. So yes, humanities take time to percolate and evolve, but using a tool to find the evidence doesn’t negate the time that it took the scholar to come up with the original spark of idea.
The other issue I see here is the complete disregard for the process by which many humanists work. Kirsch writes that digital files “facilitates but does not change the actual humanistic work of thinking and writing” With programs like NLTK for Python the way the scholar can interact with the text can fundamentally change. Instead of merely reading, and taking notes, and perhaps comparing one text to another, python scripts allow the computer to take a more scientific approach to the text as well as a certain type of creativity that can come out of playing with the code. Coding as a whole can be a creative pursuit, in fact some may suggest that teaching kids to code at an early age can improve their creativity Coding makes you ask questions, and develop solutions to problems- isn’t this what we do in the humanities too? When we set out to research we may actively think about our “research questions” some may be banal, but they can lead to other more interesting questions. In terms of answering those questions, rarely is the answer easy, it requires creativity in sources to find, or thinking deeply about the lives of those in the past. Having a program like NLTK, or a VR model, or even just the ability to visualize a large amount of paintings at once- all of these will develop new questions. It changes your thinking and forces you to be more creative than simply relying on words in a book. You can ask questions of a book, but it won’t talk back. You can ask questions of a computer, and it will spit out bits of information that you can then string together and run with.