About Me

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I am Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Glasgow and Theme Leader Fellow for the 'Digital Transformations' strategic theme of the Arts and Humanities Research Council. I tweet as @ajprescott.

This blog is a riff on digital humanities. A riff is a repeated phrase in music, used by analogy to describe a improvisation or commentary. In the 16th century, the word 'riff' meant a rift; Speed describes riffs in the earth shooting out flames. The poet Jeffrey Robinson points out that riff perhaps derives from riffle, to make rough.

Maybe we need to explore these other meanings of riff in thinking about digital humanities, and seek out rough and broken ground in the digital terrain.

25 February 2012

Thinking about Infrastructure

A colleague drew my attention to NicolaOsborne’s liveblog of the very interesting event at the University of Edinburgh on 24 February 2012, Digital Scholarship: A Day of Ideas. It is wonderful to see that Edinburgh University, which, through EDINA and other activities, has made such important contributions to the growth of digital scholarship over the years, is continuing to develop new initiatives – the appointment by Edinburgh of a Dean for Digital Scholarship is particularly noteworthy. Mind you, it must be admitted that the idea of digital scholarship creates some problems. One worry that constantly nags away at me is whether we should privilege the digital in the way that we do. Other technologies have the capacity radically to transform humanities scholarship – it is possible, for example, that nanotechnologies, by offering new approaches to the conservation of cultural heritage, have just as much to offer the humanities scholar and curator as the digital. Perhaps we should be thinking as much about nano-scholarship as digital scholarship. Certainly, it would be worrying if humanities scholars restrict their engagement with technology to the digital.

My reflections on the day derive from Nicola Osborne’s liveblogging, so apologies in advance if I consequently get hold of the wrong end of the stick here and there. Melissa Terras in her presentation evidently demonstrated very vividly the way in which digital resources and tools have transformed the practice of humanities scholars over the past twenty years.  Yet, as Mel pointed out, there is a fundamental dilemma here. The most important developments have not been driven by scholars, but by libraries and commercial publishers. The resources which have become indispensable to humanities scholars are commercial packages such as Eighteenth Century Collections Online, Early English Books Online or the British Library’s Newspapers Archive. As Laura Mandell has emphasized, these resources are designed on the model of the library microfilm surrogate, intended to enhance public access to library collections. Their searchability is very limited, and they are often positively misleading. The digital humanities, as formally constituted through centres such as UCLDH and the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College London, have been largely irrelevant to this process, and have general not produced any resources which have had the same impact on scholarship as these commercial packages. If a scholar working on the early nineteenth century was asked to choose whether funding should be used to secure access to The Times Digital Archive or to continue a project like Transcribe Bentham, most would unhesitatingly choose The Times.

One of the most urgent issues for digital scholarship (as Laura Mandell has emphasized) is to develop closer links with librarians and publishers to influence the creation of these commercial packages. But it seems that, floating around the Edinburgh day, was the suggestion that a far more critical issue is one of infrastructure. In particular, in both Jane Ohlmeyer’s presentation and in some questions after Mel’s presentation, seemed to be flickering the idea that in some the United Kingdom had taken a step backwards by ending funding for the Arts and Humanities Data Service and by not taking a sufficiently active role in the European Dariah initiative. The way forward, it appears to be suggested, is to invest in infrastructure, and the UK, it is also suggested, has characteristically thrown away an early lead in this area.

I must admit instinctive nervousness about infrastructure, which can only be explained in terms of my own engagement with digital developments. The British Library, through its Initiatives for Access programme between 1994 and 1997, established a remarkable portfolio of pioneering digital projects, including Portico, the first British Library website, the Burney Newspapers digitisation, Turning the Pages and Electronic Beowulf. Indeed, in many ways this programme explored almost all of the aspects of the technology which have subsequently preoccupied us. There was clearly a need for these activities to build closer links with work in other sectors, particularly that of the JISC, but in many ways the British Library mapped out through Initiatives for Access a remarkable template for future. But, at the conclusion of the programme, the Library’s view was that the most pressing need was investment in technical infrastructure, particularly given the Library’s ambition to embark on legal deposit of electronic resources. So, a large and ultimately unsuccessful programme to procure a major piece of new technical infrastructure was put in place, and the British Library threw away the advances that it had made in the 1990s. It is striking that the British Library has since failed to exercise any decisive leadership on the development of wider digital scholarship in the humanities. There have been some interesting developments, such as the UK Sound Map or the Codex Sinaiticus project, but the major British Library developments have been through commercial partnerships, as with the newspapers. Digital scholarship has been sacrificed for infrastructure.

For scholars working within British universities, the three most important pieces of infrastructure provided by the universities themselves are barely mentioned or discussed. These are: the network provision through JANET; the collective licensing of commercial digital packages through JISC Collections; and the NESLI2 licensing of access to online journals which (although extraordinarily complex and often fraught) provides access to the enormously expensive journal packages of publishers such as Elsevier or Wiley-Blackwell. Take any of these components away, and the digital revolution described by Melissa would disappear overnight. These provisions are not cheap – online journal provision for a publisher such as Wiley-Blackwell can still easily cost a university library over a million pounds a year, even with the discounts negotiated through the NESLI2 agreements. All British universities libraries spend the bulk of their acquisition budgets on the provision of online resources – a fact of which most academic users seem blissfully and happily unaware. However, these pieces of infrastructure bring enormous benefit, one of the most important of which is an equality of provision across UK universities. I feel strongly about this, because while I was Librarian at the small university in Lampeter, the excellent work of JISC Collections meant that I could easily build up a portfolio of electronic resources which, in those areas taught at Lampeter, bore comparison with much larger universities. Contrast this with the appalling situation in the United States, where very large and wealthy universities can afford a huge range of subscriptions to electronic resources but smaller colleges have nothing at all. For example, look at the library catalogue of St Vincent’s College in Pennsylvania, an excellent Catholic liberal arts college very similar to Lampeter, which lists just four very limited electronic resources. This is an immense digital divide, which the work of the JISC has ensured does not occur to the same degree in Britain (although there are exceptions, such as Parker on the Web, where the scandalous refusal of Stanford University Library to agree terms with JISC Collections mean that this important resopurce is unavailable in most British universities) .

At this level, Britain possesses an infrastructure which has successfully fostered digital scholarship in the arts and humanities. In this context, clearly the most important priority is to protect this infrastructure, and it is an infrastructure which is under threat. It is a constant struggle to negotiate affordable rates for journal subscriptions. In this sense, the recent Elsevier boycott is beside the point – many other publishers, such as most notably Wiley-Blackwell, are equally culpable of what is really nothing more than exploiting monopoly advantages. In the current financial situation, sooner or later, some British universities will not be able to afford to continue subscriptions to journals or databases which scholars have become dependent on. What happens to the digital revolution then?

These seem to me more pressing structures of infrastructure than refighting old battles about the Arts and Humanities Data Service. The withdrawal of funding was very sad, and at King’s College London we are enormously proud of the way in which Sheila Anderson and her colleagues have created from the Arts and Humanities Data Service a tremendously successful Centre for eResearch which in many ways is pushing forward new methods of researching in even more remarkable ways than under the AHDS. The Arts and Humanities Data Service was established in the mid 1990s at a time when it was assumed that much of the creation of digital content would occur within universities and that some kind of infrastructure was necessary to facilitate this. AHDS was also intended to promote awareness of the need for sustainable standards. AHDS was certainly successful in ensuring this attention to appropriate standards, and some former components of the AHDS, such as the History Data Service, Archaeology Data Service and the Oxford Text Archive, have flourished notwithstanding the loss of central AHDS funding, and still perform this function very successfully. But the question must be asked – is the vision of large quantities of university-created digital content requiring central curation still the most pressing issue? Isn't this a vision more appropriate to 1995? David Robey has consistently stressed how the AHRC is still funding many research projects which have a digital content. A list of some of these is available here.

So the loss of funding for the AHDS has not inhibited the engagement of humanities scholars with digital methods – do we in fact need that sort of function at all? Most of the projects funded by the AHRC of this kind represent small-scale activities of the type which Andrew Green of the National Library of Wales has called ‘boutique digitisation’. Andrew argues that the major issues for both humanities scholars arise from the impact of commercial initiatives such as Google Books, and I feel sure that, in thinking about infrastructure, it is these wider more strategic concerns which are more pressing than whether we have data repositories to support small-scale low impacts projects such as Transcribe Bentham or the 1641 Depositions in Ireland (and, yes, I would include projects like Electronic Beowulf in this category as well). We need infrastructures which will instead address our dangerous dependence on commercial initiatives by a range of companies from Gale to Google.

In this context, I think it could be argued that the United Kingdom is in fact now pointing the way forward in terms of the necessary infrastructure in a rapidly changing digital environment more effectively than through models like the AHDS, which reflected the situation in the mid 1990s. Indeed (and I’ve hesitated in case I am being unduly chauvinistic here, but I don’t think I am) I think there is a danger in the UK being asked to turn the clock back by those who are only just reaching the stage that Britain reached fifteen or more years ago.

One important point to bear in mind is that Britain today is very different to Britain fifteen years ago. Having worked in Wales, Scotland and different parts of England, the impact of the creation of an increasingly devolved country (or countries) is one of the most important issues. It is indeed striking that an Irish scholar speaking in Scotland refers to what Raymond Williams called ‘the Yookay’ as if it was a single entity, which it is no longer. The AHDS reflected an assumption about the type of infrastructure for Great Britain which was appropriate in London in 1995 but no longer fits Great Britain today. Many of the most important recent initiatives have stemmed from the devolved nations where national governments have been undertaking interesting investment in digital infrastructure. For Wales, I have described some of these in my recent article for Lorna Hughes’s book on Evaluating and Measuring the Value, Use and Impact of Digital Collections. An activity like the Welsh Journals Online project, partly funded by the Welsh Assembly Government and co-ordinated by the National Library of Wales, is, as Andrew Green has described, consciously designed to seek to counter the baleful cultural effects of a project like Google Books. Likewise, the People’s Collection, which was a manifesto commitment of the last Welsh government, anticipates on a smaller scale many of the features on the major Digital Public Library of America which looks likely to be the single most transformative piece of infrastructural work for digital scholarship over the next few years. Catcymru, providing integrated access to all Welsh libraries, is again a remarkable illustration of the way in which the evolved nations are using digital infrastructures to create a new sense of national identity.

A similar story could be told in Scotland, where for example Scottish universities have been pioneering new methods of securing joint access to on-line journals and databases, and the National Library of Scotland has been working with Scottish universities to develop projects to provide (for example) on-line access to collections of maps. But where it seems to me that in Britain we are engaging with more current issues of concern than is evident from Jane Ohlmeyer’s description of the situation in Ireland is our awareness of the issues posed by the commercialization of digital scholarship, of which Ireland seems blissfully unaware. It is in the initiatives that are responding to this threat that Britain is still taking a lead. Open access is an obvious area, and the work of the JISC is promoting awareness of the issues around open access has been critical here. There are rumours (no more than that, sadly) that a ruling will be made that only work available on open access may be submitted to the REF, and no more important measure could be taken to support digital scholarship at the moment than the implementation of such a ruling. Repositories remain a key tool for tackling such issues, and again I think Britain has been leading the way here – one of the most interesting projects with which I have ever been involved was the Welsh Repositories Network, which ensured that every university in Wales has an open access institutional repository – that’s an amazing achievement, and needs to be trumpeted more. Other projects which I think point the way forward more firmly than hankering after the AHDS include the British Library’s Ethos project to make doctoral dissertations more easily available. We might also point to recent work on research integrity which seeks to link data curation more closely to the research process, and support for these initiatives is perhaps more pressing than worrying about storage services.       
In short, the issues confronting digital scholarship in the humanities are less to do with the storage and curation of data and much more to with creating models which resist the commercialisation and commodification of knowledge, and save us from the maw of companies like Microsoft and IBM. Here, I believe Britain still continues to point the way. It is very tempting to feel that digital issues an be resolved by the purchase of a splendid piece of kit, and I worry that such an instinct too often pervades our thinking about infrastructure. In the sciences, such large initiatives are often tied to research questions which cannot be addressed without major investment in equipment: think Hadron Collider, Square Kilometre Array, Diamond Light Source. But in the humanities our thinking about infrastructure is too often disconnected from research issues. We worry about creating services. Maybe we shouldn’t.   

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20 February 2012


I was very pleased that my contribution to the special double issue of the journal Arts and Humanities Research on ‘Digital Humanities, Digital Futures’ appeared this week. It is an honour to be published alongside such distinguished scholars as Alan Liu and Patrik Svensson. My contribution deals with some of the themes I discussed in my inaugural lecture, so it is good to have it available so quickly after the lecture.

My article is entitled 'Consumers, Creators or Commentators? Problems of Audience and Mission in the Digital Humanities', and is a criticism of a digital humanities community that seems to me excessively inward-looking, over-pleased with itself, and lacking in links to wider humanities scholarship. These limitations of the digital humanities as currently practiced are apparent from the way in which discussion of such major themes in current humanities scholarship as gender, sexuality, ethnicity and identity is absent from such leading digital humanities journals as Digital Humanities Quarterly and Literary and Linguistic Computing. It is astonishing how the names of many of the key thinkers whose work underpins current humanities scholarship are absent from much digital humanities literature: 'In rebuilding links with the constituency of humanities scholars, the digital humanities community first needs urgently to reengage with the humanities by exploring the debates around the thought of key thinkers such as Raymond Williams and Merleau-Ponty whose names are at the moment absent from the digital humanities literature. Re-engaging with these more current intellectual debates will immediately open up new audiences for the digital humanities and engage new constituencies'.

These issues of the failure of the digital humanities (as represented by the international associations which comprise the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organisations or by the digital humanities centres in North America and Europe) to engage with the wider concerns of cultural theory have also been discussed by commentators such as Alan Liu, whose masterly discussion at the 2011 MLA of the question 'Where is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?' is available here, and I regret that I didn't pay more attention to Alan's paper in my article. In his piece for the Arts and Humanities Research special issue, Alan again emphasises what seems to me the astonishing fact, that 'The side of the digital humanities that descends from humanities computing lacks almost all cultural–critical awareness'. Indeed, there appears to be among many practitioners of the digital humanities a conviction that computing offers a means of escape from the hard work of theoretical discussion and a return to the comforting certainties of data and empirical observation. I quote in my article the declaration in a New York Times piece on the digital humanities that 'Members of a new generation of digitally savvy humanists argue it is time to stop looking for inspiration in the next political or philosophical “ism” and start exploring how technology is changing our understanding of the liberal arts. This latest frontier is about method, they say, using powerful technologies and vast stores of digitized materials that previous humanities scholars did not have'. This is a point of view that verges on the anti-intellectual. One of the great achievements of the humanities over the past forty years is the creation of a sophisticated set of cultural and theoretical tools which enable us to explore cultural artefacts with real richness and depth. Yet too often humanities scholars cast aside this critical training and mentality when they sit in front of a computer screen.

Part of that great achievement of what Terry Eagleton has called the 'Golden Age of Cultural Theory' has been to create a more liberal and inclusive view of the subject matter of the humanities. We now accept that (for example) comic books, television, magazines and texts associated with non-elite groups are suitable subjects of scholarly discourse. We recognise that women, children, marginal ethnic groups, poor people should figure just as prominently in our scholarly discussion as those elite groups who dominated the vision of humanities scholars of earlier generations. Bringing these people and subjects into the consideration of scholarly discourse has been one of the great achievements of modern cultural theory.

If the digital humanities spurn an engagement with theory, they also run the risk of returning us to the world of Matthew Arnold, T.S. Eliot or F. R. Leavis, in which humanities is identified with the civilizing effect of ‘high culture’. And, indeed this is precisely what the highly formalistic view of the digital humanities which has dominated the field thus far is apparently doing. Of the dozens of digital humanities projects from the University of Oxford featured on the University's digital.humanities@oxford portal, only a handful deal with the period after 1850, and the majority are concerned with the period before 1700. Themes such as ethnicity, gender, sexuality - key themes of modern humanities scholarship - are noticeably absent. The selection of projects offered by the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College London isn’t much better in this respect.

It is in this context that, I think, we need to pay very serious attention to, and engage with, the recent movement to #transformDH. I really didn’t know enough about this movement when I wrote my article for Arts and Humanities Research. I first really became aware of it when I attended the HASTAC conference in Michigan in November, and met the excellent Alexis Lothian, who has been a leading protaganist of the need to #transformDH. The origins of this movement lay in a panel on the American Studies Association in 2011 on ‘Transformative Mediations? Queer and Ethnic Studies and the Politics of the Digital’. This led to a call for action by Amanda Phillips, available here, which urged "Digital Humanities" (used here in the most expansive sense possible) … to diversify itself in terms of inclusion, approaches, theorization, and application to social justice issues’. Alexis Lothian herself provides one of the best short discussions of #transformDH in a blog post here: ‘most of us also felt that the majority of DH projects did not speak to our areas of queer, feminist, critical race studies, cultural studies (within which we study a wide range of literature, theory, media and culture between us). We started #transformDH to think about how those interests might intersect with DH – how, most importantly, they might already be intersecting. We were not, I think, trying to take away from the good experiences others have had in the DH community: just to add to them, in the specific ways that mattered to us, transformatively’.

Some digital humanities scholars have pointed out in response to these criticisms that digital humanities is always open, collaborative and welcoming, although this is difficult to perceive from the mix of projects generally offered in the digital humanities, which rarely stray beyond old-fashioned ideas of high culture. Technology is too often presented in digital humanities as something that is raceless, sexless, genderless. One fundamental role of digital humanities scholars must surely be to point out that our new technologies are in themselves complex cultural artefacts, whose origins after all lie in the military-industrial complex of the 1940s and 1950s. To quote Amanada Phillips's summary of Tara McPherson's comments on the 2011 ASA session, ‘We need more critical race coders. We need more feminist media scholars who can't write code to run software labs. We need more people fighting to make these paradigms play nice with each other’. This should not necessarily be as surprising as it perhaps seems at first sight. It is a commonplace of library studies that catalogues are highly gendered constructions: one need only look at the way in which the British Library’s manuscript catalogues treat women’s names to see that. Likewise, code and software are cultural constructs which require analysis and criticism.

Another objection is that digital humanities by definition involves some hands-on work – it is about building things. #transformDH perhaps looks too much like an attempt to turn digital humanities into another form of cultural or media studies. But that doesn’t explain why we focus on papyri, medieval charters or great authors in developing digital humanities projects. Part of the excitement of the digital humanities (as the Proceedings of the Old Bailey project has emphasized) is the way it opens up new methods of exploring the lives and achievements of non-elite groups.

The oppositional rhetoric of #transformDH is necessary and important, because there is a danger that Digital Humanities, having been proclaiming itself as the next big thing for twenty years or more, will otherwise continue to be deluded by its own rhetoric. But in the end #transformDH is fundamentally about reconnecting digital humanities with fundamental themes of current scholarship in the humanities, and avoiding it becoming a refuge for the high-minded and elitist. Alexis Lothian in her blog on the HASTAC conference commented on the keynote by the Chair of National Endowment for the Humanities, Jim Leach: ‘I was fairly taken aback by his discussion of the humanities as a “civilizing project” that would spread from a "new digital class" based in the US out to the rest of the world. Comments on twitter and to Micha’s post suggest that this unabashedly imperial notion of civilization is what we must accept if we want to be funded for our digital projects, and discussions I had informally at the conference reminded me that anything that seems overtly ‘political’ will (after so many years of the culture wars) be unlikely to appeal to US government bodies’.

I think it is at this point – the way in which we fund and structure the digital humanities – that #transformDH has something very powerful to say. We are urged by governments to develop the digital humanities as a means of taking forward the ‘digital economy’, to develop ‘connected communities’ achieving ‘digital transformations’. Since the continued existence of many digital humanities centres depends on the ability to pull in research funding of this kind, digital humanities will dance to governmental tunes in this way. But should we? Should not the role of digital humanities be precisely to challenge these kind of assumptions? That means rethinking the way we do digital humanities, maybe moving away from the big funded research project, or at least making it less centre of stage than hitherto. We need to move away from our assumption that dh=projects, into broader intellectual activities. Certainly, we should urgently being developing more community-based activities of the types showcased in HASTAC and elsewhere. Here for example is a session at HASTAC on a Chicana feminist archive described in tweets by Alexis Lothian. This is the type of activity which will #transformDH.

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