DH 2010, day four

For me, the final day was the important one, with both the geography and history sessions taking place. The former saw three excellent presentations, from the University of North Carolina, Ian Gregory and the Hestia project. But the big news is that the UNC have built a locally-deployable, open source map server, called Main Street Carolina and available sometime this summer. There’s not much information available, but it is used for many of their projects including Going To The Show, and there’s a blurb and blogpost online. I have seriously high hopes for this, as a way of easily putting maps on the web without having to go down the Google route.

The highlight of the Professional Reflection strand was Claire RossPointless Babble or Enabled Backchannel, a witty and zippy analysis of twitter usage during three Digital Humanities conferences in 2009. Far more than 140 characters, without any excess and plenty of time for questions.

The History strand saw two very good presentations. And one that had me gawping in disbelief. Roorda’s Letters, Ideas and Information Technology, on visualizing seventeenth century correspondence, and Sainte’s Reading Darwin Between The Lines, analysing Darwin’s rare use of the term ‘evolution’, were very fine. But Blaney’s Developing a Collaborative Online Environment for History – The Experience of British History Online was a trip into the digital netherworld.

What British History Online wanted to do was crowdsource the Calendars of State Papers, those abstracts of government paperwork compiled in Victorian Times and now showing their age. So what do they do? Raise obstacles to participation. First, the CSP are behind a paywall, and as far as I can tell, there are no institutional subscriptions available. So the academics they hoped would annotate the documents had to pay for the honour. Then, to minimise contributions either malicious or erroneous, they deliberately put in obstacles and constraints to make annotation difficult. *rollseyes* Do they have any idea what crowdsourcing is?

Contributions were, unsurprisingly, sparse.

One of the audience asked about re-use. We were informed that the XML was locked up, the documents copyrighted (even though much of the material on BHO has long since passed into the public domain), but generously, we can print off as many copies as we wish. This was the only time I heard such sentiments expressed at DH2010; everyone else understood the importance of openness, of re-use, of contributing corrections and improvements, of sharing. It’s called community. And if you look at the graphic below, you’ll see it’s one of the prominent words (used 25 times) in the closing address from Melissa Terras, Present, Not Voting.

Wordle of Melissa Terras' speech at DH2010
Wordle of Melissa Terras’ speech at DH2010

(Click to view full size)

‘Transcribe’ and ‘Bentham’ also feature as this is a crowdsourcing project Terras is involved in. As she says:

one of the things we want to do with Transcribe Bentham is to provide access to the resulting XML files so that others can reuse the information (via web-services, etc). The hosting and transcription environment we are developing will be open source, so that others can use it. And this sea change, from working in small groups, to really reaching out to users is something we have to embrace, and learn to work with.

The prospect of easily setting up such collaborations is mouthwatering. Access, re-use, reaching out, yes yes yes. Sharing is fundamental to what we do, and we are stronger when we share. And right now the Digital Humanities community – like everyone else – faces terrible pressure, from government and university management, and needs to get stuck in:

We need people who are not just prepared to whine but prepared to roll up their sleeves and do things to improve our associations, our community, and our presence in academia.

Her whole speech was barnstorming, critical but not despondent, electrifying the audience, and the highlight of a conference that, for all the heat and rushing around and getting up way too early, truly inspired me.

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