5 things we’ve learned about Digital Humanities in the last 5 years

By Melissa M Terras, on 24 May 2015


At the end of May, 2015, it will be exactly five years since the formal launch of UCL Centre for Digital Humanities. Our mission is “is to champion, catalyse, promote, facilitate, undertake, advise and publicise activities in Digital Humanities (with as wide an interpretation of that phrase as possible) throughout the founding Faculties and UCL, in all areas of teaching, research, enabling, and public engagement”. We’ve covered a phenomenal amount of ground in the past five years, most notably with the establishment of our ground-breaking MA/MSc in Digital Humanities, and the building up a list of (often prize winning) research projects with associated funding that runs into the tens of millions of pounds. 5 years! It’s all at once no time at all, and a chance to pause and consider what we’ve achieved in that time, whilst planning ahead for the future. In a fast paced research environment such at UCL, what have we learnt about Digital Humanities itself during that time?

1. DH is about the Digital as much as the Humanities

When UCLDH was founded, we were a research centre in a department (Information Studies) in the UCL Arts and Humanities Faculty. Although we did always have encouragement from UCL Faculty of Engineering, it became quite clear that our remit, did, and should, extend well beyond this one Arts and Humanities department, and that our constituency wasn’t just the Arts and Humanities: to do this properly we needed core support and buy in (not just financial) from the Engineering Sciences at UCL. In the last year we’ve now formalized that agreement, and I believe our DH centre is rare in that it reports to, and is supported by, both the Engineering Faculty and the Arts and Humanities at UCL, equally.

This isn’t lip service. We have equal membership across computer science and information studies, and input from, say, Civil and Geomatic engineering as well as Dutch, and work closely with Medical Physics as well as Information Science at UCL. We’re a bona-fide cross faculty hub, now: the place you go to find project partners, to get advice, to start on the interdisciplinary path, and to present work in our (often sold out) research-in-progress seminars. Our core team members are developing computational projects in the Arts and Humanities that benefit our understanding of human culture and society, as well as bringing gnarly cultural and heritage problems to the computational sciences, developing new approaches and techniques there. This duality is also reflected in our MA/MSc programme: students sign up to a core set of courses, but graduate with either a master of arts or a master of sciences, depending on the optional courses and dissertation study we tailor for their background and aspirations. We also have a range of doctoral students operating across this disciplinary divide quite successfully. DH is, and should, operate across the computational sciences and humanities space, and we’re doing something special at UCLDH by being equally present with a foot in both camps.

2. Starting a DH centre? Start local!

As UCLDH has become more well known over the past few years, I’ve been asked to give a range of talks about how to set up a Digital Humanities centre, and my main take home message is this: start local, with a project appropriate and important to your institution, which shows people what DH is in the doing, rather than the telling. One of the first major successes we had with UCLDH (working with the Laws Faculty and the Library, and others) was the Transcribe Bentham crowdsourcing project, which, as well as being a successful research project, received a lot of coverage and has won various prizes. However, it turned out to also be an institutionally strategic move: Jeremy Bentham is such a totemic figure to UCL, that people “got” what we were trying to do with Digital Humanities whilst avoiding the “what is Digital Humanities anyway?” conversation. “Oh, you’re the people who do stuff with digitization, and platform building, and playing, and support, and infrastructure, and the research is all that… oh I get it!” Institutional support and goodwill is incredibly important when building such a cross-faculty research centre, and Transcribe Bentham gave us an immediately understandable project on which to hang the “we do that sort of thing” tag. My advice is therefore: start local. What can your institution do, that no one else can? What do you have in your collections, your library, your architecture, your vicinity? Build your first DH project around that, so people get what you are trying to do, and the space in which you inhabit. It means you’re centre will be trusted with the next mad-cap idea which perhaps isn’t so obvious (such as the Panopticam, showing the world what Bentham sees, which is our latest wheeze…)

3. DH is about supporting the micro as well as the macro

D’you want big infrastructural projects that will change the world! We got ‘em! UCLDH are leading the development and coordination for rolling out non-English character URLs across the whole Internet. We’re leading the building of infrastructure to allow access to historical and modern census datasets in the UK, and supporting the use of the census to study migration issues. We’re involved in large scale, long scale European projects to provide Handwritten Text Recognition Technology for libraries and archives and to explore cultural aspects of European identity using text mining. But building up a capacity for DH within an institution is, aside from these projects which reflect the research aims of the academics involved, also about the small scale, and it is necessary to undertake building blocks activities to help boost the research culture in the space of using computing technologies in the humanities across the institution. As well as the big projects, we’re equally as proud as the small ones, such as the Slade Archive Project, a pilot project which has explored how to use digital technologies to explore the archive of a world leading art school at UCL, and support an area – Art History – which has historically avoided using digital research methods. Or the projects which are undertaken by individual scholars, such as Julianne Nyhan’s Hidden Histories project, documenting the early scholars and teams working in Humanities Computing. This gig isn’t all about the biggies, but its also about supporting and encouraging the research environment, and individual scholars in their research interests. It’s incredibly important to do both, to establish the research centre as a serious concern, whilst also encouraging a change of culture across college that supports and encourages this type of activity. In that regard, one of the things I’m most proud of doing in the past few years is the creation of the UCL Multi-Modal Digitisation Suite, providing a facility for research in and teaching of digitisation technologies, supporting a range of activities at UCL and resulting in prize winning outputs such as the Great Parchment Book project. Watch this space, there’s more about to come that has resulted from building up that capacity…

4. DH is about digitally walking the digital talk, or, it ain’t what you do, it’s how you do it

When talking to UCLDH’s Designer at Large about organising #UCLDH5, he remarked upon the fact that I shouldn’t be printing up mugs and producing geegaws and tchotchkes and stuff… we are digital, and that should speak for itself. And its true: if we want to be taken seriously in the Digital Humanities space we have to show that we know digital and we do digital and we understand digital and that we are delivering high quality digital products, in the way we promote and hold ourselves, and everything that we do. We take design matters very seriously at UCLDH (often contributing to UCL’s webspace along the way – in the internal style guide we are listed as being a centre to look to for exemplary web presence, and we’re now involved in helping the institution roll out its next CMS). We like to think we are showing how playful and creative digital design can be. Look at the gorgeous designs for UCLDH5, produced by Rudolf, and see how it harks back to our own culture of design, such as our logos, and in our related facilities and projects… We’re taking our digital identity seriously, as we should. Design and digital identity is an often overlooked aspect of the Digital Humanities – but not at UCLDH.

5. There ain’t no party like a DH partaaaay

Much of the work we do in DH is linking people: people to things, people to institutions, people to funding, publishing, and presentation opportunities. To do so, you need to know enough people – but UCLDH operates in an institution where most people live a couple of hours commute away, and there isnt a culture of hanging around to see what is happening of an evening. Our planned social program is incredibly important to our success as a centre, as we provide the space for people to hear more about DH, whilst meeting others, and discussing DH projects (such as in our seminar series) or seeing where DH – or humanities, or computing – happens, in our visits to likeminded places around college. Our “Friends of DH list” – people around UCL who want to hear what we are up to – now numbers over 300, and as the community keeps changing, its important to keep that broad understanding of the who, the what, and the why around college, so you can pounce on opportunities as they strike. “Oh, you should talk to…” and “Does anyone know anyone who works on X” are the two most common phrases spoken around here. If you want to be part of a hub, you have to make the hub happen.

With that in mind, we wanted to throw a party for our #UCLDH5 celebrations, but we had a choice to make: either do something to show off our achievements, or do something a bit more nuanced that would look to both the past and where we came from, and plan in the future for a large event every year showcasing the best in DH (not just from UCL). We’re looking forward to establishing the Susan Hockey Lecture in Digital Humanities as an annual event in which to come together to discuss and share ideas about DH, and build up the DH community across London – and beyond – further.

6. With DH, there’s always more than you thought…

Yeah yeah, I said 5 things for 5 years, and here’s 6. But that’s the thing with DH, there’s always opportunities flying past on the wind, and room for cramming in just one more experimental project, one more meeting, one more research paper. The area is evolving and changing rapidly, and you have to be agile and respond to things are much as possible, and expect the unexpected. Who knew, for example, when we started out with Transcribe Bentham, that we would end up using the crowdsourced transcripts to develop holistic Handwritten Text Recognition (HTR) technology? You gotto roll with the punches. The environment we are working in is much changed to the one that UCLDH was founded in, and as we confidently say we’ve done everything we set out to do 5 years ago – and then some! – we now need to look to the future, and see how UCLDH can contribute to different initiatives on our horizon such as UCL East, the Alan Turing Institute, and new possibilities of collaboration with the UCL Institute of Education. This place, and this subject, doesnt stand still… and there’s always room for one more thing…

So there we have it. 5 – nay, 6! – things we have learnt about DH at UCLDH in the past 5 years. These hints and tips are very local to us, showing how we work within the institutional context at UCL. But that’s where we are: what are the things you’ve learnt about the Digital Humanities in the last five years, from where you stand? We’d be interested in hearing! Do share, either online, or in person, at #UCLDH5.

With thanks to @profserious for the idea of what to write about when writing about #UCLDH5.