SCI 3 Report
Digital Humanities (2005)
July 17-19, 2005
With funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the three CLIR Scholarly Communication Institutes (SCI) held in 2003, 2004, and 2005 have focused on ways to “organize institutional and discipline-based strategies for advancing the state of scholarly communication.” In the interest of catalyzing the development of digital scholarship, the institutes have convened scholars, librarians, technologists, publishers, academic officers, and others for short periods of intensive discussions and demonstrations of new methods of scholarly communication made possible by information technologies.
The first SCI focused on opportunities and obstacles facing digital scholarship. The 2004 Institute focused on the field of practical ethics and introduced traditionally oriented ethicists to the potential of digital technologies to advance core disciplinary agendas and to explore opportunities for inter-institutional collaborations. Three practical ethics experiments are now underway at Minnesota, Indiana, and U.Va. These ethicists, in conjunction with colleagues from Georgetown, will continue their discussions and collaborations in 2006. In 2005, the Institute focused broadly on digital humanities and invited experienced digital scholars to grapple with challenges of sustaining their scholarship and spreading the scholarly practices they have developed in the digital realm.
Common themes in all the institutes are:
- the need to establish the importance of digital humanities in a very competitive and resource-strapped academic milieu;
- the necessity of collaboration internally and inter-institutionally;
- the importance of rethinking promotion and tenure in a new environment;
- balancing intellectual property and copyright in the digital age to advance educational and research uses;
- the urgent need for leadership at many levels; and
- the need to resolve scalability and sustainability issues.
SCI III: Setting the framework
The sessions began with remarks from Stanley Katz and Donald Waters about the importance of digital humanities, the challenges to its development, and the trends emerging among certain leading fields. Katz emphasized that the “pre-digital” staples of scholarly communication—monographs, articles, and references materials—have given way in the digital realm to listservs, wikis, blogs, and databases. The streams of publication producing validated, peer-reviewed scholarship have not kept pace with these developments. Given the nature of these changes in communication practices, retrofitting the old (publishing e-monographs, for example) is not enough. A fundamental retooling is in order—if not for our sakes then certainly for our graduate students—and this demands new organizational models for scholarly communication.
Waters followed with a discussion of why digital humanities matters: new technologies are expanding our observational and analytical capacities and thus expanding our powers to address the “grand challenges” of our age.
Digital humanities are in fact technology-enabled applications of the most traditional activities that we associate with rigorous scholarship: discovering evidence, aggregating it, arranging and editing it for use, analyzing and synthesizing it, and disseminating the results through reports and teaching. But digital scholars are working in substantively different knowledge environments that would not be practical or even possible using traditional print-based methods. These environments are constructed by and for teams of scholars in collaboration with librarians, technologists, computer scientists, and others. Further development of these environments and their content for the humanities encounter significant legal barriers related to intellectual property, require significant curation expertise, and the development of new technologies and organizational commitments for sustainability. The data resources are valuable in direct proportion to their being aggregated, recombined, and reprocessed through computational means and across different domains. Ultimately, digital scholarship is significant because it brings us face-to-face with forces of change that require an all-hands-on deck effort of intellectual energy and courage to ask and answer some fundamental questions about the mission of our institutions.
SCI III: Emerging trends: the view from the ground
Using the specific examples presented by scholars and practitioners, the group explored what demands digital scholarship places on supporting infrastructures and what actions must be taken by whom in order to build that supporting knowledge environment. To begin with, scholars require digital information sources that are “repurposeable.” There is an urgent need to convert masses of analog materials to digital so that we can preserve and disseminate historical objects, creating access to the normally inaccessible.
Some questioned what the ultimate significance of this kind of work is in general: are we talking about new ways of doing traditional scholarly activities, or is there more to it than that? Is technology enhancing teaching and if so, how do we know? How do we measure the impact? At the same time that some were asking about how real the changes are, others asserted that something quite powerful is going on, and they were far more interested in exploring the questions of who decides what gets digitized and what sources are made more accessible. Access seems so important a phenomenon, one with so much power, that there was some fear expressed that sub-disciplines that were not well represented in both primary and secondary sources online were in fact disadvantaged.
SCI III: Sustainability
Participants identified the factors that promised sustainability over the long term, as well as those that loom as potential threats, either in the short term or the long. To flourish, digital scholarship must be valued by faculty and administrators within the academy. For example, in some institutions digital scholarship has raised the profile of academic departments, attracted new types of graduate students, attracted outside funding, and garnered (inter) national visibility. The faculty must be committed to digital scholarship and feel they own it. It cannot be seen as something done at the margins.
Funding is a perennial issue especially in digital scholarship. While some digital initiatives have adequate and reliable funding from their institutions most are operating on soft money, not knowing whether additional money will be available in the following year. Digital scholarship is more expensive than traditional humanities scholarship and requires the scale of institutional commitment often associated with lab scientists’ start up programs.
These presentations prompted several participants to home in on emerging and fundamental changes in the roles of scholars in this landscape. Is it now going to be their job to “worry about technology?” How will that relate to their intellectual agendas? And as one librarian commented, the concerns are not only about how to sustain these new modes of scholarship, but whether and how they will scale? Will scholars really become actively involved in production in ways unprecedented in the print world? If so, what support will they need from librarians and technologists? One scholar responded that this is precisely what scholars should and must be doing now, that republishing the core sources in digital form is, in effect, the new scholarship. But the experience of others was more like this: when one college studied what faculty wanted, the response was “a clear wish for a dry-cleaning model: we bring to you, drop it off and pick it up clean!”
There was some tension between the call—largely by librarians—for a close adherence to standards in order to make this new scholarship scalable and sustainable; and the response of at least some scholars that adherence to standards “risks losing everything that’s special and valuable about digital scholarship.” But the successful models, such as the human genome project, are those in which the professional, academic needs of the scholars align with their technological requirements; adherence to standards is part of “good lab technique.”
Several participants argued that many of the current barriers that are lumped into “sustainability” are illusory: if we were better able to articulate what value humanities brings to a community beyond our narrow interests, and if we acknowledge that all digital programs are built by large-scale collaborations, not solo flights of fancy, then we would be able to secure the scale of funding necessary to turn projects into programs. We are underselling the importance of humanities to the well-being of mankind, something we cannot accuse the better-funded scientists of. The future of humanities scholarship depends directly on us and our leadership.
SCI III: Scholarship in the Digital Age: Opportunities and Challenges
In his closing remarks, James Hilton drove home the need to redouble our efforts to push a digital humanities agenda: the future of all scholarship, indeed of all communication, is digital. We are undergoing fundamental disruptions in the academy, and scholarly communication is only one element of the underlying academic structure that is being transformed. He warned that, in his view, the greatest threat to the academy in these changes is the emergence of the pure property view of ideas. Our culture has shifted dramatically towards owners and away from promoting access and learning. We need scholarly publishing models in the academy that reinforce the ideas of sharing. University presses have strayed from the academic mission, for perfectly understandable economic reasons, and cannot survive under the current business model. The largest investment a university makes is to provide the space for the community to meet in the free exchange of ideas. Successful university presses will reinvent themselves to serve their institution’s core mission. Hilton concluded by urging that the massive disruption produced by new information technologies calls for bold experiments, but conceded that bold experiments can be risky for individuals in the academy. Libraries can be points of leverage for bold action. Libraries have the opportunity to reduce costs and take control of scholarly publishing and to do so in ways that preserve the culture of sharing and mitigate against the culture of ownership. The university is fundamentally about providing the ecology to encourage experimentation.