DH experts on (Nordic) DH


On March 16, 2016, I had the privilege to deliver a keynote for the first conference on digital humanities in the Nordic countries. The conference – with 235 registered participants – took place in Oslo (at the University of Oslo and the National Library). In preparing for the talk I asked a group of international DH experts and leaders for advice and input. I deliberately did not include Nordic digital humanists (as they were part of the discussion at the conference). In total I asked 29 people (14 women, 15 men, mostly scholars, but also other types of experts). I received 14 responses (two of which just said they did not feel that they had anything to add). I was very happy to receive very generous responses – the experts really took time to think about the question and really provided valuable input to the conference. While the responses relate to the question I asked, I think all of them are relevant for the digital humanities as a whole. In retrospect I keep coming up with other people I should have asked, but I will have to wait to ask them until next time.

During the talk, I experimented with the format and medium. I went through the responses (ten of them, I asked two people late (my fault) and hence could not incorporate their responses), indicated portions of the them (as some of them were fairly long), and asked my collaborator Stephanie Hendrick to read those. Hendrick did a powerful reading of the texts, I put them together as a file and during the talk I played the audio file – about 8 minutes in total.

Here is the question I asked:

What advice would you offer to the new Digital Humanities in the Nordic Countries association (which is part of EADH/ADHO) and the attendees of the first conference for digital humanities in the Nordic Countries?

I also added the following note:

I am not suggesting that Nordic digital humanities is not doing well or that it is in need of help or that it does not have a history, but that it would be useful to get your advice and pointers given your experience and outside (in relation the Nordic scene) position.

I said that responses could be very short or longer – it was up to the experts.

And again, I would like to thank the contributors. See below for their responses. The sound file (with 10 out of 12 responses) is available here:

The video recording of my talk can be found here (with some references here).

These are the experts (in the order they were presented in my talk):

Matt Gold [web], the Graduate Center, City University New York [response]
Johanna Drucker [web], University of California at Los Angeles [response]
Matt Ratto [web], University of Toronto [response]
Lorna Hughes [web] University of Glasgow [response]
Nishant Shah [web], Leuphana University [response]
Sally-Jane Norman [web], University of Sussex [response]
Alex Gil [web], Columbia University [response]
Paul Arthur [web], Western Sydney University [response]
Molly Wright Steenson [web], Carnegie Mellon University [response]
Zach Horton [web], University of California at Santa Barbara [response]
Sonja de Leeuw [web], Utrecht University [response]
New York University Digital Scholarship Services team [web], Utrecht University [response]

See below for all the responses:

Matt Gold, the Graduate Center, City University New York:
What an interesting question. Mostly I would encourage Nordic DHers to join the global conversation by both sharing their work widely and exploring work outside of their own purview. In part, this involves an act of listening and broadening: what conversations are going on outside of this region that should be brought back and used to expand what is already going on there? But secondly, and just as importantly, is an act of sharpening and sharing: what is distinctive about Nordic DH and how can others outside the region be made usefully aware of it? What assumptions/complications does work in the region have that should be considered when we talk about DH in a global context? My guess is that there is a lot to build on particularly in the areas of geographical/physical location (Finn Jørgenson’s work on cabins comes to mind, as do temporal/diurnal issues related to daylight.). On the other hand, language and history (Icelandic sagas come to mind) are obviously important issues.

But generally, I would just encourage people to reach out, get involved, build regional networks, go to conferences, etc

Johanna Drucker, UC Los Angeles:
I think an association that is regional makes sense–for information sharing, collaborations, knowledge transfer, and infrastructure support. But I think that a “Nordic Digital Humanities” field is a mistake. The professional activity will benefit from networks, but the field should not be inward focused, regionally defined, or topically restricted.

That’s my thought!

Matt Ratto, University of Toronto:
I would encourage approaches that focus less on the application of digital tools and methods to humanities questions and more on the application of humanities insights and values to questions regarding digital technologies and modalities. I think it has never been more important to link humanistic perspectives to our increasingly digitally-mediated life world and, preferably, to use the resulting insights to intervene, to construct human-centric infrastructures and systems. The instrumental power of the digital has never been so strong. And yet, never has there been a time when the sociality of the technological has been more recognized. There is a real opportunity – not to mention a responsibility – for DH to help shape our environments in critical-creative ways.

Lorna Hughes, University of Glasgow:
I don’t think I have any definitive answers, but I think there are real opportunities around fostering better connections and collaborations with cultural heritage organisations, especially archive, museums and libraries. They are often the providers of ‘digital stuff’, but they are also mediating access to digital content in new and interesting ways, and I think there is a great deal of potential in bringing curation and scholarship closer together. Right now at Glasgow we have very exciting opportunities to collaborate with Glasgow Museums, and I think this is a fruitful area for DH. It relies very heavily on mutually respectful cooperation, which we are good at in Digital Humanities. However, it raises questions about the emerging research agenda around digital culture and research, and what it means to be human in a digital age, as well as questions about publishing and disseminating this sort of research.

I also think (if I am allowed two ideas) that scholarly publishing is in desperate need of an overhaul. After (well) over 20 years in digital humanities, I have seen very little impetus in digital publishing to move beyond reproducing the cultures of the book electronically. I’ve said before that there is an opportunity to ‘rock publishing’ and that this should be a priority: but it will need considerable disciplinary/national/international co-operation. In the UK (and indeed many unenlightened Anglo Saxon cultures), we look to the Nordic countries for open, cooperative, and innovative development of initiatives in the public interest, and maybe you can bring some of the positive Nordic traits to scholarly publishing!

Nishant Shah, Leuphana University:
1. We have learned that the one point fetishisation around infrastructure which drives so many DH projects right now, is flawed. When we think of infrastructure, we generally only look at technology platforms, gadgets, applications, interfaces, storage, computing etc. However, at the core of DH infrastructure are people. Taking care of people, protecting them, valuing them, giving them space for affective and experiential engagement with the data and information ensures that the political values and social commitment of humanities is not forgotten in the material arguments of infrastructure building. In a forthcoming book titled ‘Making Change’, we are in fact arguing that by its very definition, infrastructure is something that is below the structure. Our computational equipment and digital devices are not infrastructure but actually the products of DH. In order to really understand what is at stake, we might need to look at what is beneath this recognised infrastructure – infra-infrastructure, if you will – so that we can bring back the questions of politics back into the DH debates. And so we are suggesting that we read people as infrastructure for the digital, even as we think of the digital as the infrastructure for the new Humanities.

2. It has been useful for us, not to think of Digital Humanities as a measure but as an indicator. There is a danger, if we take DH to be a singular measure as defined by certain influential pockets in the world, to make a lament argument about how there is not enough DH, not enough good DH, and not enough good DH that can mimic those hegemonic structures in our part of the world. We are not subscribing to the idea that DH was conceived in one geography and the rest of us now have to measure up to it. Instead, we are looking at how the DH practices can look like if we were to begin here and now. It has enabled us to expand the scope, the focus, and the formats of what DH can be, tracing histories and identifying instances which otherwise would have been ignored in mainstream DH discourse because they don’t look like DH everywhere else. Our task, then, is not only to operationalise DH projects but foundationally define the forms, formats and functions that they will acquire as they unfold in South Asia.

Sally-Jane Norman, University of Sussex:
My experience in the Nordic Countries dates back to engagement with Swedish partners on European Framework initiatives in the 1990s (Information Technologies, then Information Society Technologies programmes). It has since extended to further missions in Sweden, and in Finland (conferences and vivas, panelist for the foundational review underpinning the creation of Aalto University, Helsinki Collegium activities with Sussex Humanities Lab), Denmark (vivas, conferences), and Norway (notably regular involvement in the unique Norwegian Arts Fellowship Programme). Apart from their singular cultures and legacies, which build a rich intellectual landscape, the Nordic Countries as I have encountered them in these contexts over the past twenty years have been consistently characterised by an unusually strong sense of human-centredness and humanism, of pragmatism and thoughtful labour, and of insights generated by sometimes simple, subtle, yet determinant moves beyond predominant perspectives.

It is these essential, exceptional qualities I would hope to see recognised, claimed, and foregrounded, in Nordic digital humanities. In this way, I believe that the Nordic Countries can make a valuable and vital contribution to broader digital humanities networks.

Alex Gil, Columbia University:
Dear friends,

Nordic countries have an opportunity to embrace a diverse model for inclusion in digital humanities that goes against the grain of their international reputation as mono-cultural societies. Given that the digital humanities is in a very real sense a re-construction of the academic and cultural record, you could show how even within majority dominated records and national narratives, one can be fair to a pluralistic past and present. This continues the wonderful work you have done already in welcoming scholars from all over the world. I would encourage you to continue to involve the global community and minority voices in your academic cultures. In that sense, I would also encourage you to keep the door open to non-textual, non-macroscopic manifestations of our work, and to keep your eyes open to the labor conditions and technological debt of your projects. As you may know, on our lab we emphasize minimal computing approaches to several genres of digital humanities work, even as we work to invent new ones. Although complexity can lead to grants and recognition, our debt to future generations and practitioners can become unwieldy.

My sincere best wishes to all of you on your collective enterprise!

Paul Arthur, Western Sydney University:

When any new association is formed, or a field reaches a critical mass where there is energy to have the first event of its kind, then the question of local versus global is raised. Why have a Nordic association, why a South African association? We asked the question in Australia, and this was posed in the workshop that you kindly spoke at in 2011 in Canberra, following which the association was formed. The answer through that workshop and other similar meetings that took place, was that there was already a lot of excellent digital work that had taken place over a fairly long period of time, centred around certain institutions and researchers. They hadn’t used the term ‘digital humanities’ and in many cases were working quite independently and some weren’t aware of the others. We invited people from New Zealand, partly because it was within the funding guidelines from the Academy of the Humanities that we should engage ‘regionally’ which means beyond Australia (ie Pacific or Asia). What was found through involving NZ is that they too had key digital projects, centres, in other words a shared history. But in most cases there was almost no knowledge in Australia of the work that was going on in NZ, and to some extent vice versa was also the case. It became clear that there was a need and an interest in this ‘community’ (even though it didn’t have a name), but there were currently no frameworks in which to draw those people together and for them to identify around a common area. The history of projects across Australasia was very broad, and often linked with established disciplines that had provided the support (financial and intellectual) for the projects/people etc. For eg, the excellent work of Hugh Craig and before him John Burrows at the University of Newcastle’s Centre for Literary and Linguistic Computing, just to name one.

Digital Humanities was thought of as a field that could connect across these established disciplines, and help to find common ground between people working in digital social and cultural research, broadly understood, and spanning researchers, technical staff, policy people, the full range in other words. Part of the rationale for that inclusiveness was the the digital projects we saw in Australia and NZ tended to be large and collaborative, involving multiple expertise. Of course there were many projects undertaken by individuals, but it seemed that the collaborative projects had drawn people together, and that a new association should aim to do the same.

I’m talking about my experience, rather than thinking specifically about the Nordic experience, but you may be able to draw some similarities (or note differences, which could also be helpful).

The theme of the first aaDH conference in 2012 was ‘Building, Connecting and Mapping’. We chose the theme with the genuine goal of wanting to better understand what the character of this new field in our region could be; or what character traits we wanted to develop. Because the conference was held in Canberra, we had a very high attendance from libraries, galleries, archives, what we call the ‘collecting’ institutions. This seemed to correspond with the view of digital humanities as developing out of and being closely linked with libraries. And yet, the papers that were offered suggested that the points of connection were now around broader issues being faced by many kinds of institutions, especially around data management and curation of collections, regardless of whether they were coming from libraries, universities, government or any other kind of organisation. Our exercise in ‘mapping the field’ showed that the term digital humanities was resonating with a much wider audience than expected. I also had the sense that representatives from our national research council were interested in it because digital humanities seemed to have the potential to draw researchers in the humanities together with the sciences, opening new funding opportunities. Establishing the association had an important political role, because many of the large projects referred to above, and gone through various funding cycles, and there was a real shortage of funding for digital/infrastructural kinds of programs that the humanities could access. Naming the field, and creating the association, was a signal to funders and policymakers.

We started to frame the description of aaDH on the website around the breadth of digital humanities, and emphasized engagement with the cultural sector as well as related agendas such as e-research and infrastructure policy. Rather than following or repeating some of the more familiar models for digital humanities, such as its background in textual studies and analysis, digital editions, etc, we highlighted the possibilities it opened for new ways of thinking and bringing people into contact that wouldn’t have otherwise had the opportunity. I have often referred to HUMlab and to your remarkable work in creating an energy and sense of open possibilities, and that collaboration and networking of people and ideas is at the heart of that way of thinking. We tried to emulate that idea in planning the second aaDH conference in 2014, which was on the theme of ‘Expanding Horizons’. We mainly intended this to be interpreted as being the expanding of disciplinary horizons – again, following the very inclusive sense of digital humanities.

When people ask me as they sometimes to, ‘what is digital humanities’, I feel like answering ‘it can be what you want it to be’ (but usually give a clearer answer). I fully believe that the growth of the field has been possible because the set of activities it describes can be so broad (it can be narrow too, depending on what context; I prefer the wider view).

So, the advice I would give, is for the Nordic association to keep open a broad view of digital humanities, and to allow it to develop its character over time, rather than having a particular view of it imposed from the start. Let the people and the projects emerge and become digital humanities as it is understood in that part of the world!

Molly Wright Steenson, Carnegie Mellon University:
Look outside the boundaries of digital humanities where they have been tightly defined and seek affiliated approaches.

Consider collaborations with design: design is still a largely untapped collaborative area for DH, and there exists opportunities in how DH scholars use design processes for novel forms and interactions. Moreover, what might happen if DH and architecture merge? What projects might be launched, at what scale?

Zach Horton, University of California at Santa Barbara:
I think the future of the digital humanities lies beyond the digital. The digital has given us new tools, new perspectives, and new scales of inquiry. But the interesting question is no longer “how has digital media changed our cultures?” or even “what is the digital?” but rather, “what is possible in the world as it exists today?” That is, “what futures are open to us?” And here the analog is back, more interesting than before, because it has been activated in new ways by digital networks. In the same way, we are moving beyond the idea that the digital is somehow inherently positivistic or deterministic: good news for those who feared that the humanities would become, in their “digital” form, quantifiable and inert, and perhaps bad news for those who would like them to be so. The humanities, armed with digital tools, can indeed become more empirical, but empiricism does not have to be limited to quantifiability and positivism. In this next stage of the digital humanities (“experimental humanities” might be a better term), I hope that the digital will be liberated as a creative force, set free to tango with the analog, to navigate our environments in new ways… indeed, to create new worlds.

Sonja de Leeuw, Utrecht University

That is not an easy question as I don’t know much about the DH in the Nordic Countries Association.
I found some information on the website; it is more about informing each other on research and projects so it seems.
Is there a particular reason to have a specific DH organization for the Nordic countries? [We don’t have one such organization for the BeNeLux for example]
And what is it then apart from informing each other? Does it have to do with the availability of datasets in languages you all would be able to understand?
That would make sense indeed. However apparently an urgency was felt to have this organization.
What then could the added value of the Nordic Association be?

Maybe to combine different disciplines in the Humanities? Or to combine these with Computer Studies across the Nordic countries.
Maybe to develop and test use case scenarios across the Nordic countries?
Maybe to explore new culture histories of the Nordic countries (especially from the point of view of cultural hierarchies, and reference cultures, drawing back on each of the Nordic countries historical and political development): cross-cultural research!
Or cross-cultural research (the Nordic countries in relation to the rest of Europe and/or Russia f.i.)

Exchange expertise (not inventing the wheel again)
F.i. taking a look at your neighbour’s lab (side visits)

That is what I could come up with, acknowledging my lack of knowledge of the Association itself.

New York University Digital Scholarship Services team (through April Hathcock)

Here is the statement from the New York University Digital Scholarship Services team:

We like to emphasize the importance of community, communal learning, sharing, and exploration. That includes being willing to put in the time, effort, and even money needed to build and encourage the growth of that community. It’s also essential to be intentional about welcoming marginalized voices and perspectives into the community and making it an inclusive space for creating and sharing knowledge.

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