Digital Humanities at Aberystwyth University

Last week I attended the Digital Humanities Regional Networking Event hosted by Aberystwyth University on Friday 12th September & Saturday 13th September 2014. The event took place in the council chamber of the National Library of Wales – an excellent venue, and there were speakers from Aberystwyth, Chester, Southampton, Bangor, Roehampton, Oxford and London providing a wide interpretation of what constitutes the Digital Humanities.

I found the speakers and the subsequent discussion to be informative and engaging. These are my thoughts on the event.

The focus of the discussions that took place over the two days was on how to define a successful Digital Humanities project. This naturally involved looking at some of the pitfalls associated with such projects and how to avoid them, if possible, given the constraints within which the Digital Humanities operate.

From a user’s point of view the first constraint on assessing the success of any given project is its longevity. For example projects involving the reproduction of manuscripts or images have to deal with copyright restrictions and the negotiation of licences. The terms of such licences may only allow for material to be displayed for a fixed period of time. This sets an expiry date on the availability of these images unless provision has been made for the re-negotiation of such licences.

The disappearance of images and broken links give the Digital Humanities an ephemeral feel that encourages me to rely wherever possible on the printed word. I dislike the need to reference digital material that may have vanished before my supervisor has had a chance to see it.

But this can only be overcome with a consistent approach to the development of the Digital Humanities that allows for both resources and staff to future proof the data not only against changes in technology but also allows for the maintenance of licences, links and web space beyond the initial term of the research project.

The second constraint is that of usability. Many of the digital humanities projects are produced as part of a researcher’s own interests only to be published later once the material collected has fulfilled its primary function within the terms of the individual research project.

In this case a requirements analysis would ideally be undertaken before a digital project was published to the wider community of potential users. In some cases the data would have to be reexamined and perhaps even reformulated to suit the perceived audience. All of which takes additional time and resources.

With closer collaboration with IT and IS specialists it is possible that the data could be prepared at the outset with this wider audience in mind. This additional focus would also involve assessing what to release, how it should be accessed and the determining the caveats that should accompany the dataset. Incorporating feedback from the wider community, and sharing the knowledge and experience acquired among colleagues is an essential element in this process. It may even lead to new and unexpected research topics.

The third constraint is that of accessibility. It can be difficult to find some of the resources that have already been produced as most are not widely publicised outside the academy.

Again involving the wider community including libraries, galleries and museums not only advertises the project but it could also demonstrate the value of the Digital Humanities to the general public in new and innovative ways.

Overall this networking event was, for me at least, a huge success. Coffee, biscuits and lunch were also included.