Understanding the Digital Humanities and WIC’s Role

In late September, a few of us from WIC attended a Penn Humanities Forum event titled “Libraries, Labs, and Classrooms: Locating the Digital Humanities.”  The three speakers, influential thinkers in the DH field, illuminated some important points that helped me understand the evolution and future direction of DH studies, as well as how libraries, and WIC in particular, fit into the DH picture. (View event video)

In addition to providing a brief historical overview of DH studies, John Unsworth emphasized the importance of the library’s need to evolve with the scholarly practices of its users.  He described how undergraduate courses in DH studies can be unevenly divided between the critical or theoretical study of sources versus the hands-on components of coursework, such as performing text encoding or mining.  Neil Fraistat, who spoke about digital humanities centers, talked about such spaces as “safe places” for scholars to experiment with the kinds of hands-on DH work as Unsworth mentioned.  Finally, Nicole Coleman expounded upon the previous points in discussing humanities “labs” as hubs of experimentation, where scholars define the parameters of their projects and adapt the scope as their data models develop.  (For more on the event, take a look at The Daily Pennsylvanian‘s 10/1/12 article.)

As I listened, I kept thinking of ways in which WIC fits nicely into all of the above categories.  As a center for technological exploration, we continually adapt to the needs of students and faculty; one example of this would be our iPads in the Classroom project.  Secondly, WIC acts as a “lab” of sorts for students and faculty, a place to learn about technology and bridge the gap between the theoretical and the hands-on, as Unsworth put it.  As such an incubator for creative experimentation, WIC provides students with a place to dabble in computing that they may not have tried before, and to get a feel for technology before applying it directly to their academic or personal projects.  When listening to Coleman’s presentation, I couldn’t help but think of the Vitale Digital Media Lab as a place of such exploration, where students and professors design and carry out collaborative or personal projects with the help of staff.  Most importantly, WIC serves as a space that promotes group work and activities among students and faculty, which highlights the collaborative nature of DH projects.

How can WIC promote DH projects among our students and faculty and provide the resources to make such studies come to life?  One way is to encourage faculty members to use our facilities for their classes.  Many faculty members bring classes here each semester, as our “Course Usage” page displays.  By publicizing to individual humanities departments the successes of past DH-related courses at WIC, we can encourage professors to use technology to reinforce more hands-on aspects of their coursework (see, for example, Prof. Jim English’s spring 2012 course that WIC assisted with, and a WordPress site that WIC helped a History graduate student to create last year).  Secondly, we can demonstrate how our workshops and in-house technologies could help students and faculty enhance their own productivity.  Having more workshops in the future, such as the innovative “Tools, Not Toys” series that Caitlin Shanley is teaching this semester, provides an excellent opportunity to promote the academic usefulness of everyday technologies such as smart phones.  WIC can also work harder to advertise the hidden gems of technology that we have on-hand such as ReadIRIS, an OCR scanning software that specializes in recognizing difficult texts or characters, including foreign languages.  Such software could be instrumental for text mining or encoding. WIC can also explore ways to collaborate with the Special Collections Center scheduled to open next year.

Finally, I think WIC has the potential to accept Neil Fraistat’s call to promote “digital publics” through DH work.  Fraistat explained that such projects extend DH work beyond academia, with an end for helping the public at large (check out the MITH Center’s project with BrailleSC for an example).  There are plenty of opportunities to put our work with technology toward broader public use.  One example includes the Penn Institute for Urban Research’s upcoming conference and photo exhibit, called “Feeding Cities 2013.”  Such a project, which calls for original digital photographs from across the Penn community, uses people’s interest in photography to ignite dialogue about the problem of urban hunger, and in this way, seems like a great example of the kind of “digital public” that Fraistat mentioned.

What are your thoughts about how DH studies fit into WIC?  Do you have suggestions for how we can improve our connections with DH work on campus?

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