The Future of the Digital Humanities Centre/Archive

This is a republishing of an article I wrote for the Strange Bedfellows project.  The original url is here.

I have been working with Professor William Bowen on an initiative to create a Digital Humanities Research Centre (DHRC) on the University of Toronto Scarborough‘s (UTSC) campus, much like the HRC on the University of York’s campus.  While the concept of such a centre is very nascent at UTSC, many of the faculty and staff I have talked to seem to share an idea of this centre ultimately being a repository for all of the digital work going on at UTSC whether that means a collection of data points or contacts for various digital tasks.  Due to this, I have been researching a lot about digital humanities centres, including their various functions, ideologies, and output, and I have found that a lot of scholarly writings directly address this idea of a Humanities Research Centre as a digital archive.

The idea of an DHRC and its role as an archival centre is complicated, in part because it is difficult to pin down exactly what the HRC should do.  Interested faculty and staff are often just beginning working with the Digital Humanities (DH) and they often are unsure of where to start or who to go to in order to discuss their interests.  As Orville Burton notes, “the web has moved so quickly from having a few sites to being saturated, that guides are needed on how to evaluate sites on the web and where to find history projects and archives” (Burton 209).[1] Coincidentally  the library often does not have the resources to support staff and their research projects so a physical centre is needed to address this.  However, such a communal space does not ensure a functioning digital research community.

Instead the initial effort of collecting interested members, gathering resources, and actually creating such a centre pales in comparison to establishing, and maintaining, a community at a DHRC rather than dissolving back into individual factions once the task is complete.  Proactively creating a DRHC often results in creating the same situation as like-minded open-source projects.  “As I review the results of the past six years of Mellon/RIT activities, and the histories of our distributed, collaborative, open–source software development projects, the primary lesson I draw is what I call the “Field of Dreams Fallacy”, best summarized as “If you build it, they will not come” (Mackie).[3]  It is not enough to create a DHRC; a community is needed from the initial impetus past completion.

I think that a lot of the problem with a DHRC functioning as an archival centre lies within its creation.  Many faculty members find themselves in a similar situation, like needing DH support for their research, so they join together to establish a DHRC for the campus but at the end of the day they each go back to their own research.  However, a DHRC cannot exist only as a place to go to dump a database or a resource to use as needed.  This fragments both the mission and output of a DHRC in that the centre becomes a piggy bank for loose change and the archive eventually becomes cluttered with data which is meaningless without context.  Even with a more organized approach to depositing information, access to a DHRC’s content is often obfuscated by technical issues as much as organizational. (Arms & Larsen 4)[4]

Diane Zorich, in her survey of DH centres in the USA, found that a DHRC acting like an archive is not helpful for DH scholarship in the long run.  Instead, it creates three main problems:

1. The silo-like nature of current centers is creating untethered digital production that is detrimental to the needs of humanities scholarship.  Today’s centers favor individual projects that address specialized research interests. These projects are rarely integrated into larger digital resources that would make them more widely known and available for the research community.  As a result, they receive little exposure outside their center and are at greater risk of being orphaned over time.

2. The independent nature of existing centers does not effectively leverage resources community-wide.  Centers have overlapping agendas and activities, particularly in training, digitalization of collections, and metadata development.  Redundant activities across centers are an inefficient use of the scarce resources available to the humanities community.

3. Large-scale, coordinated efforts to address the “big” issues in building a humanities cyberinfrastructure, such as repositories that enable long-term access to the centers’ digital production, are missing from the current landscape.  Collaborations among existing centers are small and focus on individual partner interests; they do not scale up to address community-wide needs. (Zorich 1-2)[2]

In a way, a DHRC needs to function as an archival centre.  It must support individual faculty and staff on its campus and contribute to the goals of that specific university.  If it did not, it would not be sustainable.  In addition, part of the DH involves digitizing and storing materials for further research and preservation.  However such a centre should not lose sight of a community, across the campus and across campuses.  This means that it would not make sense to digitize early modern texts for an individual member’s research since sites like EEBO are already doing it. A DHRC can still support that member’s research, maybe just in other ways, but there should be a significant effort made to avoid overlap between DHRCs.  This brings us back to an earlier issue of navigating the saturated part of the Internet related to DH projects.  I believe that a DHRC which originates with these points in mind will be able to avoid the pitfalls of its predecessors and therefore be able to more easily support its local members and the larger DH community.

[1] Burton, Orville Vernon. “American Digital History”. Social Science Computer Review (23) 2005: 206-220.

[2] Zorich, Diane M. A Survey of Digital Humanities Centers in the United States. Washington D.C.: Council on Library and Information Resources, 2008.

[3] Mackie, Christopher J. “Cyberinfrastructure, Institutions, and Sustainability”. First Monday (12) 2007.<http://www.firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/1908/1790&gt;

[4] Arms, William Y. & Ronald L. Larsen. “The Future of Scholarly Communication: Building the Infrastructure for Cyberscholarship”. Report of a Workshop Held in Phoenix, Arizona. April 17-19-2007.

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