When people talk about uncertainty in a historical context in digital humanities, most of the time they talk about questions such as the exact date of birth of a person, whether two names refer to one or two persons, what geographical location a place name refers to, or the location of a person at a specific point in time. These are important questions and it is important to find ways to computationally model the associated uncertainty. However, history is ultimately not about drawing exact maps or time lines, even if those can certainly help: history is about causality. In this talk, I would like to reflect on some of the issues on the level of historical interpretation, i.e., historiographical rather than historical uncertainty.
Last year, Wolfgang Schmale wondered in a blog post (in German) whether the expression the digital age has established itself as designation of a new historical period, noting that it is “doing quite well in the competition with other labels such as ‘postmodernity’ or ‘postmodern era’.” The following is a free English translation of my German-language comment on this post.
I have a long-standing interest in
electronic digital publishing. In fact, my first job after getting my master’s degree was with a large scientific publisher, so besides having the experience of an author and editor, I also know a thing or two about the role of scientific publishers. It is from this time that I still have a rubber stamp saying “SGML,” which I keep because it says a lot about scholarly publishing.
The last two days I’ve been teaching a course on formal modeling in the context of our new doctoral program in Digital Studies (Programme doctoral en études numériques); in fact, it was the first ever course taught in this program. It would certainly have been easier to give a course on the basis of material that you already have, but I wanted to teach something new rather than just warming up old material. In accordance with my ideas for developing the digital humanities at UNIL, I decided on the topic of formal modeling. This meant, however, a lot of work over the summer and, with the date of the course coming closer, nagging doubts about the—newly developed and thus untested—content. Would I have enough material? Would the participants be able to relate to it, or would it be too hard? And so on.
In his recent blog post Die Digital Humanities brauchen ein Ziel: DH-MAX, Wolfgang Schmale wondered whether the digital humanities need a goal and suggested one potential goal, which he calls “DH-MAX.” At the core of DH-MAX is, as I understand it, a new publication infrastructure made up of “megaportals,” i.e., repositories of all the research results that do not really warrant a long-form, narrative publication, organized by interdisciplinary topics such as memory, remembrance, border, migration, othering, nationalism, etc.
This post is a response to Wolfgang Schmale’s post. As his post is in German, my response is also in German. In summary, I disagree that the digital humanities need an explicit goal, because there is no such thing as the digital humanities. I do agree, however, that new forms of publication are needed, and I argue that nanopublications could form the technical infrastructures for the megaportals he envisions.
Documents of all types have always played a central role in the humanities, both of an object of inquiry and for documenting research results. The digital humanities are thus also concerned with documents and with digital documents in particular. Apart from “traditional” scholarly questions, this raises many new questions, for example, on encoding, markup, and processing of texts, where technical and scholarly aspects interact.
It’s already some time now since I’m back from the digital humanities conference double pack, which involved about 3,000 km of rail travel: first DHd 2015 in Graz, then the DH Summit in Berlin. In Berlin several people, who couldn’t make it to Graz, asked me about how it was; here’s basically what I told them.
As I’m writing this, I’m on my way back from the conference “(Digital) Humanities Revisited – Challenges and Opportunities in the Digital Age,” which was organized by the Volkswagen Foundation and which took place from December 5 to 7, 2013 in Herrenhausen Palace in Hannover.
Organization and catering were excellent, Herrenhausen Palace is a perfect conference venue, the program was excellent, and I got to meet many great colleagues. There is one thing, however, that increasingly irritates me. It doesn’t have anything to do with this conference, but it is rather a characteristic of the field called “digital humanities.”