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Digital Humanites 2013: some commentary

July 19, 2013

It seemed to make sense to separate this personal commentary from the notes I took on various papers and presentations at Digital Humanities 2013. These are intended to capture the kind of things that occur to one while sitting in the venue actually listening to talks but that then quickly fade on the plane ride home as one’s brain returns to the matters awaiting one upon return. As such these are not intended to be entirely thought-out or nuanced observations, but rather perhaps as conversation starters. I hope to get a few comments that will help me arrive at that more reflective understanding of those thoughts bouncing around in my head.

International Cohesion

I mentioned the issue of the international character of this year’s Digital Humanities conference on Twitter, and couple of librarians I know countered with comments about how various conferences in our field are also international in character, something with which I agree, to a point. But there’s both a quantitative and a qualitative difference operating here, and I mean literally here, as in Lincoln, Nebraska. It bears noting that Lincoln is not Montreal, New York, or San Francisco, so the case can’t be made that the international attendance reflects a desire to combine work with pleasure in “in” places. (Please, please, please do not construe that statement as an yet another indictment of Lincoln or the Midwest; I’m the last person who would do that, as anyone who knows me and my relationships to places knows.)

There are, as a percentage, far more participants here at DH from other nations than one sees at any North American library conference I’ve experienced. They also participate more actively. Rather than just holding an invited talk, they actively ask questions, make connections, etc. Really, their level of participation is indistinguishable from North Americans. I also noted that there’s a high degree of awareness between various project groups about what’s happening around the field, regardless of geolocation. There’s simply more cohesion; it’s about the discipline or field, not the national tradition. Even if Germans speak at nearly every CNI, few attendees there (well, and no one ever goes to the German talks except the usual suspects, i.e.- those of us who are germanophone and/or experienced in German libraries and a handful of others) know the first thing about the German environment when they walk into the room. Not the case here at DH, where people seem completely open to how other nations do things.

We in libraries often struggle with the notion of library science (whatever we may call it) as a discipline, but that pales in comparison to the challenges we confront when it comes to developing truly universal approaches to practices and methodologies that we use in our daily work. Libraries in developed nations, regardless of locale, have largely similar issues, yet we see American, Canadian, Finnish, German, British, etc. approaches to solving them. Granted, there are some notable exceptions, so no need to point that out to me, and we do have a lot of conversations about such things. The point here is that within scientific or humanistic disciplines, one cannot work in a bubble. If you do a certain type of scholarly work, say, the history of analytical philosophy, it is done in the context of the global work on that field. Libraries, however, clearly operate at the national level nearly all of the time.

There are clearly a number of reasons why this is the case, starting with the resources (read: travel funding) available to librarians. But the root causes are far more profound, and likely based on longstanding historical practices, some of which I’ve explored in other work I’ve done on the interactions between German and American libraries. At any rate, being here reminded me of why working in libraries feels very different than working in a discipline.

Perfection is the Enemy of the Findable

Another observation concerns self-publishing semi-completed research. More than once, I heard a question where someone wanted to know more about a slide or wanted to get their hands on a graph or visualization, and the presenter would say, well, it’s not quite finished and there’s more work to do, etc. The implication was that only “perfected” work is valid for public consumption, which really reflects the power that the journal/book publishing mindset holds on humanities scholars. I admired those who spoke who just throw it all out there–via blogs or just a good old-fashioned Website–well before any formal publication occurs in order to invite contributions, commentary, and dialogue. In general, the presence of tenure systems and their still-rigid rules about what counts was very strong in many rooms throughout the conference. That’s a shame, given how long we’ve been having the conversation about considering alternative forms of scholarly production and impact.

Wifi Woes

When will poor wifi coverage at hotel venues in particular stop being a problem at these digitally intensive conferences? Given how many talks here thematize social networks and/or use data taken from them, the sporadic loss of connectivity seems to be not only annoying for individuals, but actually damaging to the digital footprint or echo of the event. Also, with many people at a conference coming from abroad, failing over to one’s own data plan is not really a viable or affordable option; this is compounded by the fact that tethering a laptop to a mobile device on the fly is not entirely simple and rarely satisfactory in terms of throughput. Wifi isn’t really a luxury at this point. We should choose our venues based more on wifi stability and bandwidth than on other creature comforts, perhaps, but I understand how hard it is for organizers to know this in advance, so this is not meant in any way as a criticism of the DH2013 organizers. Here’s a project idea: a registry of conference hotel venues where wifi cost/stability/bandwidth is recorded.

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