And now for something completely different: DH Benelux and the freedom of Digital Humanities

This past week from 12-13 June the DHBenelux conference was held in The Hague, hosted by Huygens ING and the Koninklijke Bibliotheek.  ElenaElliHeidi, Misha and myself were a small fraction of the 166 attendees giving over 50 papers along with 26 posters and demonstrations. This was a formidable turnout, considering the conference is in its inaugural year.

‘Do something that matters to your community…. Do the stuff that only you can do.’-Melissa Terras

One of the highlights of this conference for me was the keynote address given by Melissa Terras. Since this was the first conference focusing on DH work in the Benelux region, the theme of her talk was appropriately all about possibilities, new beginnings, and situating our current work in a long trajectory of methods and applications in the Digital Humanities. Refuting the well-worn claim that DH is a flash in the pan, Terras showed through a series of projects such as counting words in conference abstracts (her own work) and counting the amount of times a thing is deemed an ‘abomination’ in the Bible, that actually, DH work has been going on long before Fr. Busa’s Thomas Aquinas project : ‘since 600 years ago, since the founding of humanities schools, people have been doing quantifiable methods.’ (By the way, Terras and her PhD students are currently interviewing the women Father Busa hired over the course of thirty years to create the punchcards, so keep an eye out for the results of that project!) The term Digital Humanities, ‘which really means nothing,’ Terras asserted, is ‘just a re-branding of cultural heritage informatics,’ and other previous phrases used under the umbrella of quantifiable methods.

Terras further raised a question specific to people in the Benelux community: are there significant publications coming out of Benelux in Digital Humanities, and if so, should they be in English? This became somewhat of an undercurrent throughout the conference; whereas coffee breaks were mostly held in Dutch, as were a majority of the discussions during the Demo sessions, the conference papers were given in English. And in fact, during the final panel one of the questions asked of Mike Kestemont, who will be organizing DHBenelux 2015 at the University of Antwerp, was ‘can we hold the next conference in Dutch?’ There was a noticeable ripple through the audience at this question, as those few of us whose native language is English had that uncomfortably familiar coupling of alienation and guilt: ‘Well, that would mean I couldn’t attend,’ and at the same time, ‘but of course, why should everyone be forced to speak in English?’  However, when discussing the various local ADHO and independent groups that have sprung up throughout the world,  Melissa Terras noted that they, regardless of native language, are overwhelmingly writing and speaking and conferencing in English. It is, as Franz Fischer stated during MMSDA, our lingua franca. (Het spijt me!/Es tut mir leid!/¡Lo siento!/Przykro mi!/Mi dispiace!/Je suis désolé!/Tá brón orm!/Anteeksi!/Förlåt!)

Going on to espouse the value of a local organization of DH scholars, Terras asked the Benelux researchers to consider the strengths of networking with the people in the nearby institutions, not just to foster a sense of community, but also to stay in touch with possible funding and collaborative opportunities.   Using her informal Bloomsbury group as an example, where it’s just a chance to ‘grab lunch and have a chat,’ Terras noted that when funding opportunities come up in the London area specifically, she knows exactly who to contact at the British Library and the British Museum.  In her words, ‘you never ever know when you come to something like this, that the person you meet over tea is the person two years down the line who you’ve got an award winning project with….That’s how it works.’

‘Sometimes, you just have to give it the old two-fingered salute.’-Melissa Terras

In the spirit of Melissa Terras’ keynote advice, I asked her if I could have fifteen minutes of her time, and she very kindly agreed. We ended up seated across from each other during dinner, and along with Elena, Elli, and Wout Dillen, we passed a very pleasant meal talking about the best way to get a PhD project off the ground. Among the most helpful pieces of advice I received from her involved giving one’s work the two-fingered salute during vacation, how to ‘get on with it’ even when faced with difficult colleagues/situations, the fact that it will get worse before it gets better (‘if you think you’re scared now, just wait until your second year’), and how to organize a working day to maximize productivity. She even helped me come up with an idea for a possible empirical study for my research.  Let’s just say, it pays to gird your loins and tap a stranger on the shoulder during a coffee break, especially if that stranger is Melissa Terras.

‘I’ll just leave my sausage metaphor as it is.’ – Thomaz Crombez

When I was preparing my thesis plan for my DiXiT application, I spent a lot of time reading and re-reading the work of the formidable Thomas Crombez, so it was a great pleasure for me to attend his paper presentation ‘Genetic Criticism and the auto-saved document,’ in which he asks what really constitutes a version of a document in the twenty-first century: is it the official final draft, or can/should it include the many auto-saved versions that were created during the writing process? Using a case study of contemporary theatrical adaptations of the Brothers Karamazov and Ted Nelson’s seminal work Literary Machines (check out this gem of a review from ’95) as a guide, Crombez continued and expanded on Nelson’s position that ‘a document is really an evolving ongoing braid.’ (1981) He then moved quickly into an ad-lib proposal that perhaps instead of a braid, it is a sausage, wherein everything is shoved into one casing, before (due to some very audible giggling in the audience, which I had nothing to do with), he back-tracked and stuck with the braid metaphor.

The idea of variants and versions all making up one long, ongoing process seemed to me the most obvious visualization possible, and yet one that I had never considered before. I hastily wrote down the name of the book, and plan to add it to my summer reading bibliography (NB: this book is crazy expensive).  I would also strongly encourage anyone not familiar with Crombez to check out his website, where you can find some very relevant posts.

The agony and the editing

Our own Elli Bleeker did us proud by presenting the continuation of her work on ‘Digital architecture and the role of the editor: Mapping invention in writing,’ in which she made an astute claim about the way in which we can understand communication, culture, and indeed humanity by closely reading scholarly editions.  From the handful of papers/ posters I attended, Elli’s contribution provided one of the best refutes to a claim that researchers in the Digital Humanities are focused more on ‘how’ to organize information, rather than the ‘why’ we study it at all.  The question of communication as a means to gain further understanding of culture is one that has been a cornerstone of humanities research for as long as humanities centers have existed; as such, Elli has situated her research firmly in the trajectory that Terras described.

Before the conference, Wout Dillen was someone I had been in contact with solely through his Twitter feed , and I was looking forward to meeting him at the conference. Creator of the LSE (an incredibly helpful resource!),  Wout is another one of Dirk Van Hulle’s PhD students at the Center for Manuscript Genetics/U Antwerp.  I was inspired and challenged by his poster presentation of ‘The Text of the Document. Image-Text linking in the Beckett Digital Manuscript Project’ and he graciously walked me through all of the different options for viewing the Beckett Archive, even offering me access to his Zotero bibliography.  The concern about how to present a text in a Digital Scholarly Edition so that it is not only elegant, but also useful is one that touches my own research, and I believe is a crucial research question for a portion of our projects, so Wout is a good person to gain contact with if you are so inclined. His paper abstract can be found here.

‘I made this visualization using a lot of diffs. Since yesterday I now know I should have used CollateX’ – Thomas Crombez

As for the demonstrations, a real joy for me was learning about CollateX for Python. A tool I have only used in tracking variants of mathematical proofs, I was eager to learn and see examples of it in the humanities (and indeed it makes much more sense used in this context!).  Ronald Haentjens Dekker shares my same goal of encouraging anyone to learn and use programming languages, so I was happy to see this Python project represented at DHBenelux. For a demonstration, please see here.

‘The humanist is becoming the reproductive organ of the digital machine.’ – Dirk Van Hulle

Chaired by Rens Bod, the final panel comprised  four members: Stef ScagliolaLars WienekeDirk Van Hulle, and Saskia Scheltjens.  These participants were charged with presenting ‘spicy arguments’ that would promote discussion and they certainly delivered.  In what was deemed ‘the quote of the conference’ by Mike Kestemont, Dirk said the above quote, to the general amusement of the crowd. Lars Weineke perhaps confirmed some of the worst fears for those of us who have been building the bridge from computer science/engineering to digital humanities: that digital tools bring obscurism, not positivism. This is something which perhaps directly relates to what Dirk was saying: that there is some inclination for us to let digital tools control us, instead of the other way around.

Many of the statements made by Scheltjens were those that I have been pondering myself, and indeed Heidi Dowding tweeted ‘So happy to see a librarian on the closing panel at #dhbenelux in @saschel – so true that we’re underrepresented in #DH conferences.’ Scheltjen’s presence was similarly significant to me: since my arrival at the conference, I was asked several times why a Swedish LIS person would attend a DH conference in Holland. Good question! In my thesis I plan to focus explicitly on the cross-over in skill sets between those who self-identify as Librarians/Information Scientists and those who choose the moniker Digital Humanist. Scheltjens certainly brought up points that have been on my mind: she asserted that there is no longer a distinction between libraries and digital libraries, and that she’s looking forward to people in the Benelux area making not just new things, but good things. This is a continual goal of all of the people I know working in the cross-referenced field of LIS/DH.  I really don’t think there is as much division as some people have suggested, both in my professional life at SSLIS, and in my personal conversations with other DH’ers.

My favorite point made by Dirk Van Hulle during the whole conference is something that I feel very strongly about: digital humanities courses need to become the standard, not just in the university, but in high school.  This will help teachers to understand how to integrate and gain control of an expanding world of available digital tools, but it will give students new to the world of technological research somewhat of an edge against their colleagues. Not that I want to promote any sort of competitive atmosphere, because I think a collaborative environment  is a much more effective motivator, but I do think that simple things like learning programming languages or how to design and publish digital editions will help younger researchers gain some kind of structure in the way that they learn about DH. I also strongly believe it will help educators and students alike learn ‘to bring the humanities sensibilities into technology,’ as Terras said.  I know that is something I have felt is lacking in this field; all the skills I have learned have been entirely ad-hoc and catch as catch can.

Having said that…

I appreciate the fact that I can take the tools digital humanists have developed and use them in a variety of different projects. For example, if I can gain access to the multiple drafts of Lucie Varga’s one article published in the Annales journal, I can track her changes  using the CollateX tool and better understand how she developed her ideas.  I also love that I can use digital tools to put together primary sources from my Master’s thesis: by tracing variants in the themes of the recorded oral histories of British conscientious objectors of the First World War, I can better understand the relationship between memory and identity. I feel more freedom in this field to take Terras’ advice to me during our coffee break, and to ‘go down the rabbit holes’ by following my diverse interests and see where they lead, and while I’m doing that, to also learn to use a diverse amount of tools. I want to take the collective strength of the DH/LIS community and do good work. Work that leads to a better understanding of our humanity, which is what we all ultimately hope for.

DH Benelux was an excellent introduction to the possibilities open to a diverse range of researchers in that geographical area, but it also provided me with a lot of insight into the very real tensions and concerns that come up in this field. I spent a week writing this post because I had so much to think about, and I think that’s the mark of a good conference: don’t answer all the questions, just complicate the picture, and provide more rabbit holes.

I’m already looking forward to DH Benelux 2015.



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