Interview with new UCLDH Director Dr Julianne Nyhan
By Lucy Stagg, on 25 September 2020
UCLDH welcomes Dr Julianne Nyhan as new Director, and asks her a few questions about herself and her hopes and aims for the Centre.
Congratulations on your appointment! Please tell us about yourself?
I joined UCL 10 years ago, having previously worked as a Wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin in Digital Humanities, in Universität Trier, Germany; before that I worked in the European Science Foundation, Strasbourg, France, where I moved after completing my PhD in University College Cork, Ireland. My PhD is in history and digital humanities and focused on the application of XML to the historical lexicography of Old, Middle and early-Modern Irish.
I am fascinated by everything to do with Digital Humanities, the History of Computing and Digital Cultural Heritage. In recent years, much of my research has focused on the history of Digital Humanities, and the social, cultural, intellectual and technical processes that have shaped the field that is at the forefront of conceptualising and analysing Humanities sources as data. I’m especially interested in how oral history can allow us to uncover previously overlooked contributions to the history of Digital Humanities. The book I’ve recently completed will be published by Routledge in 2021 and it looks at the devalued, feminized labour that was contributed to the Index Thomisticus project, a seminal project in the history of Digital Humanities and Humanities Computing. The book investigates how gender, and its collocations with technology, and the analogue labour history of concordance making in the humanities, were implicated, in ways that have previously been overlooked, in the hierarchies of labour and esteem that have shaped knowledge production in the field now known as Digital Humanities.
What is the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities, and why did you wish to become its Director?
Founded in 2010, UCLDH is an incubator that supports and facilitates wide-ranging technological engagement across the Arts, Humanities and Cultural Heritage. As a trans-faculty research centre, it reports both to the Humanities and Computer Science. UCLDH is also a vibrant showcase for the wealth of research activities that are undertaken in the field of Digital Humanities. Our recent collaborations include UCLDH’s Leverhulme-funded collaboration with the British Museum ‘Enlightenment Architectures: Sir Hans Sloane’s catalogue of his collections’; the transnational, multipartner Digging into Data challenge Oceanic Exchanges: Tracing Global Information Networks in Historical Newspaper Repositories, 1840-1914 and our contributions to the National Endowment for the Humanities-funded ‘Reconstructing the first Humanities Computing Centre’, which has created in an immersive “walkthrough“, 3D model of the first Humanities Computing Centre built in the Unity Game Engine, produced by Steve Jones, Howard Kaplan, Spenser Mason, and others at University of South Florida’s Advanced Visualization Center. In pursuing our activities, UCLDH brings together a vibrant network of people who teach and research in a wide range of disciplines. UCLDH is also proud to cultivate close working relationships across the university and beyond, with international institutions, culture and heritage sectors and industry partners. For all these reasons, the prospect of becoming UCLDH’s Director was an enticing one.
What are your specific priorities as Director?
My priorities are for UCLDH to be a place to critically and creatively explore what Digital Humanities was, is and can become.
We will continue to engage in cutting-edge research on the application of computing technologies to the Humanities and Cultural Heritage. We will also expand this frame of reference, by exploring how UCLDH can act as a conduit for connecting Digital Humanities expertise with emerging, data-intensive fields like Data Science, whose work raises fundamental epistemological, hermeneutic and ethical questions that require the input of the Humanities. Questions raised by the work of fields like Data Science include, for example, how can we develop digital algorithms that acknowledge the subjectivities of data collection? How can we develop digital algorithms that do not replicate existing mechanisms of exclusion or create new forms of bias? Recently, we collaborated with a number of colleagues on a report that speaks to this, led by the Turing Institute: ‘The challenges and prospects of the intersection of humanities and data science: A white paper from The Alan Turing Institute‘. Not so long ago, we also organized a successful Symposium on Data Science and Digital Cultural Heritage. We hope to continue to develop our expertise in this area.
We will also foreground questions of inclusion, diversity, the politics of knowledge production and critique the systems of power that shape the digital tools and collections that the digital humanities make and uses. At the moment, some of the most important and exciting ongoing work in the Digital Humanities is exploring these issues, in specializations like Feminist Digital Humanities; Postcolonial Digital Humanities; Black Digital Humanities and Global Digital Humanities. We hope to foreground and contribute to this crucial work through our Centre and its activities. For example, our new lecturer, Dr Adam Crymble, has been working with a number of partners in Latin America to build cross-cultural understanding of how digital humanities needs differ around the world and what the implications of that are for the promise of digital technology in the Global South. That research is already showing the importance of both the technical and the humanities side of the equation, to come up with relevant human solutions to technological problems.
Also, given my particular area of research expertise, I also hope to build a wider network of international collaborators interested in interdisciplinary approaches to the history of the (digital) humanities, oral history and digital history more widely. We have started planning a research symposium that will further this; we would welcome hearing from potential collaborators working in any of these areas
Becoming the Director of UCLDH will no doubt make your next few months tremendously exciting – and busy! How do you relax when you’re not working?
I spend as much time as I possibly can out on the Atlantic in my kayak. I usually go back home to Ireland in August to go kayaking, and spend most of the year looking forward to this time. I’ve recently taken up running to improve my fitness for some of the more ambitious sea kayaking adventures I’m planning for next year. The only thing I enjoy more than kayaking is spending time with my children, partner, family and friends.