Public Digital Humanities

Posted in Events, Talks

“What are the opportunities and challenges that exist for the Digital Humanities to reach a broader public and to confirm the relevance of the humanities in today’s society?”

The roundtable “Public Digital Humanities” held on April 30, 2012, at McGill university, brought together a number of recognized scholars in the Digital Humanities as well as a wealth of interesting perspectives. The six panel members were  Sophie Marcotte (Concordia University), Ichiro Fujinaga (McGill University), Susan Brown (University of Guelph & Alberta), John Unsworth (Brandeis University), Laura Mandell (Texas A&M), and Bênoit Habert (École Normale Supérieure de Lyon); with Ray Siemens (University of Victoria) providing a concluding statement and moderating

The event organized by Stéfan Sinclair and Matthew Milner. Stéfan Sinclair introduced the discussion by posing a question to the panelists: name a compelling example of the public Digital Humanities and speak to the way this project confirms the relevance of the Humanities.

The roundtable moved towards a discussion of the specific aspects of a uniquely public Digital Humanities that would be significant to the future development of the Humanities.

The public Digital Humanities refer specifically to the aspect of the Digital Humanities which allows Humanistic Scholarship to be shared widely outside of the academic community through the help of digital communications technology, namely the internet.

The centrality of the internet as the means of dissemination was not discussed explicitly, however, for the most part the panelists relied on the elision that “public” was synonymous with “accessible to the public through the internet”.

John Unsworth provided a perfect anecdote illustrating the basic potential of the internet as forum for the public Digital Humanities. He noted that Project Gutenberg , arguably the first public Digital Humanities project, was begun in 1971 even before the internet as we know it had taken form. The evolution of the public Digital Humanities is constitutive of the evolution of the internet itself.

Key to the panelists discussion was the capacity of the internet to reach and interact with a great number of people. The power of the public Digital Humanities to engage with individuals was variously identified by the panelists as the public Digital Humanities propensity towards a reliance on “crowdsourcing,” “volunteerism,” “the public as creators,” or on “citizen scholarship.” The wealth of terms provided by the panelists describing the participation of the public signals the importance of substantially engaging the public.  Laura Mandell noted this, people want to be humanists themselves, they want to participate.

Furthermore the roundtable made it very clear that the public Digital Humanities mark a transformation of intellectual work. Websites provide forums for discussion as well as accessible venues for publishing research- at least those that aren’t blocked by  fee walls. It is an opening of the scholarly process even to the extent that the public Digital Humanities envisions a space that is marginally academic. The citizen scholar does not require the current institutions of knowledge production and academia, all that they require is the current tools provided by simple websites.

Ray Siemens’ conclusion brought the discussion back in engagement with the traditional function of the Humanities within a society. They represent a natural and ubiquitous process. The Humanities is the iterative engagement with cultural production of the past as a means to mediate the current situations.

This very clearly becomes important as one recognizes that many of the public Digital Humanities projects discussed focus on the digital embodiment of aspects of our cultural patrimony, as mentioned by the panelists: Projet HyperRoy (Sophie Marcotte); The Orlando Project, Old Weather Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History, Oral History, (Susan Brown); Project Gutenberg  (John Unsworth). The public nature of these projects reframes them as means of gatherings our culture experiences and reflecting on it collectively.