Semantics and Siloization: A Few Thoughts on DH BeNeLux


This morning I posted a  to the , outlining some of the major themes and takeaways of the conference.  This leaves the choicer, more granular bits to be lolled about here on my personal blog.  So then, this post is meant to provide a deeper understanding of the conference, but is also really an avenue for me to work through a few concepts that have been sitting at the edge of my mind for the past week.

So first, to contextualize – the DH BeNeLux conference, in its first year, is a collaboration between various cultural heritage organizations and research centers in Belgium (Be), the Netherlands (Ne), and Luxembourg (Lux) and aims to foster a sense of local community within the larger context of the digital humanities.  While there seem to be a lot of meetup groups in various parts of the world, this multi-country collaboration, to me, felt fresh.  Because there were still researchers from very different cultures in attendance, the more international issues like conference language were broached; however, unlike a more international conference like , the use of English seemed a lot less justifiable as none of the organizing institutions utilize the language officially (to my knowledge).

The conference raised a lot of interesting points overall, and even the final panel discussion felt more like the beginning of a conversation rather than the end.  So with this fact in mind, here are a few discussion starters that I grasped from the various DH BeNeLux sessions I attended.

1. Digital Humanities is not digital humanities is not the humanities AS digital.

Whitacre’s Virtual Choir 3

This is a really important point  that was apparent in a lot of the breakout sessions, but truly laid bare by .  A faculty member at Leiden University College in The Hague, Fu’s (specifically highlighting the Virtual Choir work of , which should be watched and rewatched in surround sound) was a resounding hit as part of the Day One session on Crowdsourcing; however, it was actually her comments in a few other presentations that really put forth the need for a deeper discussion of semantics.

During a presentation by Niels-Oliver Walkowski on the  (as part of the generically-titled About DH session), Fu engaged Walkowski in an interesting discussion of his use of ‘digital’, in which she asserted that he was using the word predicatively, rather than attributively.  She again brought up a similar point during the final panel discussions, though apropos to what I don’t remember.  Her assertion, though a bit difficult to engage with outright, was something I wrote in my notebook as a point I wanted to return to.  Now that I’ve had time to roll it around in my brain (and refamiliarize myself with the grammatical terms – thanks, Google), I think it’s an important thing to talk about.  How do we as digital humanists (capital D capital H) differentiate from humanists working with the digital… or do we?

Further, what constitutes a digital humanities project?  Looking over some of the projects coming out of the top digital humanities institutes around the world even, I can’t help but often wonder “isn’t that just a digital archive?”  Speaking to a traditional humanist about this issue, he asserted that a lot of digital humanities projects seem like “humanities with maps”, often with a questionable methodology.  While that’s just one scholar’s understanding of the field, it really points to the need to pin down a semantic understanding of ‘digital’ in this context.  Or not.  But at the very least we need to illucidate what ‘digital humanities’ means in the context of our own projects, so that we’re not all being lumped into the same, often wrong, box.

2. External factors need to be better addressed in terms of their impact on the field.

Albert Meroño-Peñuela presenting on the Short Title Catalogue, Netherlands during the Linked Open Data breakout.

Albert Meroño-Peñuela presenting on the Short Title Catalogue, Netherlands during the Linked Open Data breakout.

One of the most interesting presentations I saw during the conference was that of Alastair Dunning, who discussed the in digital humanities projects, asserting that copyright has, to a large extent, excluded more recent works from being studied in the field.  As a copyright nerd, this was one of those ah-ha moments, where something so obvious was laid out so succinctly that I had to wonder why I had never considered it before.  The data from Dunning’s study of some of the top DH research centers (which can be viewed in his ) is very straightforward, and I’ll be interested to see what comes of it.

Another issue worth mentioning here is something that Max Kemman talks about in his post on the conference, and that is the fact that.  The heavily-attended Linked Data breakout on Friday provided some insight into how this is changing, but still there are issues (e.g., audience members asking how a project would map to other existing LOD projects like , and presenters not having a plan in action).  , librarian at Universiteit Gent, did address this issue in the final panel by suggesting that libraries were the place where desiloization occurs, but this raises yet another discussion point…

3. Digital humanities ≠ digital preservation, and we need to figure that out.

A common question in most of the breakouts that I attended was “What are you planning to do with the data once [insert techie project name here] is complete?”, and a common answer was that other researchers will figure that out once the data is published.  While it’s one thing to leave interpretation up to the scholarly masses, it’s a whole different issue that many (though not all) digital humanists leave long-term preservation of digital projects up to other entities like libraries to solve at the end of the project cycle.  As a digital preservationist myself (and now as someone studying the long-term sustainability of digital scholarly editions, har har) I can feel my blood start to boil just now.  Preservation strategies need to be implemented at the beginning of a project and adapted as it goes, otherwise the library is simply going to become a place where DH projects go to die.

This is probably a good stopping point, before the entire post becomes a heated discussion of best practices in digital preservation.  Suffice it to say that the conference was amazing for generating great ideas and discussions, allowed researchers to share final and mid-cycle projects and receive feedback, and also the conference swag was highly notable.