I just returned from a small Digital Humanities Conference at Rutgers at which everyone agreed that “The Digital Humanities” should not exist. It was decided that next year’s Digital Humanities conference would be on this theme. Kidding. I saw some great things, though, chief among them the work of Dan Cohen and Gregory Crane, two people who have not only thought about the problem of digital humanities a lot but also made something, and in each case something fantastic.
Dan Cohen is the man behind the Center for New Media and History at GWU, and in particular the mega-super-awesome tool Zotero. Cohen gave an overview of Zotero development, and talked in some detail about the advantages of making it open source, not only for all the right reasons, but also because of what it has done for development of the tool. I mean really: Zotero is so clearly head and shoulders above most undertakings of this sort in the humanities, and I think a big part of that is the openness and inclusivity of the project. It also makes it dramatically more flexible than most digital humanities projects, which are mostly modeled on the monograph–doing one thing well and in detail, and along the model of the individual scholarly project.
Zotero, by contrast, is quickly becoming a “platform” technology which anyone interested in “digital” anything can think about extending in ways that Cohen or his close associates may have had nary an inkling of prior to seeing it emerge. Add to that Dan is embroiled in an “interesting” lawsuit with Thomson-Reuters which I do not envy, but am eager to see resolved in favor of open scholarly tools.
Gregory Crane is the man behind the Perseus Project, one of the longest standing digital database projects, and an attempt to intelligently digitize and mine the Classical Greek and Roman corpus. Crane talked a lot about all the different kind of research that have become possible with such a corpus, spanning the gamut from basic computer science questions about intelligent mining algorithms to linguistic “treebanks” that can make texts talk to one another in all kinds of new ways. Crane followed my talk by explaining that he had one published article in an anthropology journal, but that the reaction to it was so savage he never tried again 🙁
He also asked us, playfully, “who is the most important classicist of the 20th century”? The answer: Ali Hoseyni Khamenei. According to Crane, Khamenei’s regime was an implementation of Plato’s republic. I have no idea whether to believe him, but his point was that Classicists have lots of ways to recover bits and pieces of the classical heritage in greek and latin, but almost none to do so in persian, arabic or urdu. And maybe ten people in the world who can speak the relevant combination of languages. He made a compelling case that we now have the technology to research such a question if only scholars would turn their efforts in that direction.
Crane and others were also well aware of the need to make scholarship open access, and to do so now, but also the need to leverage the existing legitimacy of the credentialling publications so that younger scholars don’t have to worry about getting tenure, or getting respected, if they want to make their sccholarship open access. Crane made a very strong case for the necessity of open access for another reason: the computability of our work. Which is to say, that the research article is no longer the end of the game if we can now start thinking of ways to mind, analyze or process large databases of scholarly literature, for whatever reasons, as objects not only to be read and digested, but used to generate new kinds of knowledge. Crane added that this approach opens up research possibilities far beyond graduate work to create “participatory humanities”— the idea that if you create good platforms you can enable research at all levels, not just the highest. He gave the example of how undergraduates learning greek and latin can make the diagramming of a sentence—a routine part of understanding how grammar works in a language–into a contribution to a treebank, or a contextually sensitive digital version of a text….principles of participation that are much more familiar today in the wake of Web 2.0 and wikipedia.