Exploring Digital Humanities in the Alps

How can humanities scholars make the data they uncover discoverable and usable by other researchers?

What is the place of digital humanities in the human era?

How do you make a computer recognize fuzzy historical dates like “six months before the war”?

In July, two members of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities staff traveled to Switzerland to ponder questions like these at the 2014 Digital Humanities conference (DH2014). Organized by the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations (ADHO) the Digital Humanities conference provides a forum to discuss the ways technology can serve the interests of humanities education, research, and publication throughout the world. This year’s conference took place in Lausanne, Switzerland, on the campuses of the University of Lausanne (UNIL) and Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). More than 700 graduate students, faculty members, and staff from historical societies, publishing houses, and cultural institutions from around the world attended this year’s conference. VFH was represented by Sue Perdue, director of Documents Compass, and Peter Hedlund, programmer for Encyclopedia Virginia.

The first two days of the conference were dedicated to workshops with an emphasis on hands-on training. Perdue, who has been developing a digital publication called People of the Founding Era, led a workshop that explored best-practices for designing, managing, and integrating large biographical datasets called prosopographies. Perdue’s workshop was attended by a diverse group of scholars working on projects including an exploration of the connections among fictional characters from nineteenth-century Mexican literature as well as a project focused on creating a comprehensive history of Canadian beer brewers.

On day three, the conference began in earnest. More than 300 papers, posters, and keynote lectures were spread out over three days. Hedlund focused his attention on sessions that explored creative ways to think about time and place. Even in its infancy, Encyclopedia Virginia has compiled a vast database of “whens” and “wheres.” Hedlund believes that this temporal and geographic data can be used more creatively and can lead to new ways of thinking about Virginia’s history. As it turns out, there were a lot of people thinking about time and space at Digital Humanities.

A few panels stood out. Karl Grossner and his colleagues at Stanford University are working on making fuzzy dates readable by computers. His paper asks: “How does one encode ‘for 6 months before the war,’ ‘around 1832,’ or ‘during harvest seasons in her youth’?” Encyclopedia Virginia has more than 12,000 dated events in its database and is keenly aware of the inherent imprecision with much of that data. Tomás Ó Murchú and Séamus Lawless of Trinity College in Ireland have also been working to address the uncertainty of historical data. They have been exploring this challenge as it relates to visualizing the dates and locations of murders tied to the 1641 Irish rebellion. They recognize the shortcomings of extracting data from historical texts by computational means alone and suggest that linked data may be able to address the limitations plaguing these types of visualizations.

Linked data is a way of publishing data so that it can be connected from one project to another by computers. It is often called the Semantic Web. Many of the digital projects presented at the Lausanne conference were incorporating linked data (including People of the Founding Era).

Some of the projects presented at the Digital Humanities conference emphasized community engagement beyond the walls of academia. Of particular interest was the Australian project called HuNI, or Humanities Networked Infrastructure, which aggregates data from twenty-eight different cultural datasets. With the tagline “Unlocking Australia’s cultural datasets”, HuNI is the largest aggregation of humanities data in Australia ranging from indigenous cultural materials to media, arts, and history.

The conference was a reminder that the incorporation of digital tools and technologies into research and scholarship is pervasive and worldwide. From ambiguous data to linked data the 2014 Digital Humanities conference was a forum in which humanities practitioners grappled with the limitations of humanities computing and marveled at its possibilities.

VFH’s own digital initiatives are out on the forefront, grappling with the complex issues that arise when you marry traditional humanities scholarship and modern computing technologies. Lausanne, Switzerland made a beautiful backdrop for these discussions and we were delighted to be a part of the 2014 Digital Humanities conference.