“Big Digital Humanities: Minding the Gap”, by Michael Moss

Yesterday I attended a very last-minute lecture by Professor Michael Moss, of the University of Glasgow and HATII, at the Llanbadarn campus of Aberystwyth University. The content of the lecture was taken from a joint paper he wrote with James Currall for the Tokyo Digital Humanities Symposium, organised by Tokyo University (details of the content of that symposium can be found here, having been transcribed live by Geoffrey Martin Rockwell of the University of Alberta, Canada).

Professor Moss talked about the idea that hitherto, the digital humanities have been isolated projects with short-term funding; a “bespoke industry” which doesn’t learn from projects being developed around them. Data isn’t re-used or maintained, despite expectations from the user that the assets are continually refreshed and updated. Very few projects have a continued life. And ultimately, these bespoke projects have had little impact on the way we conduct humanities research.

Bigger, better maintained projects are changing the way we research. Professor Moss cited Google Books and Ngram viewer, which searches the entire corpus for specific words and provides a visual representation of where the words are used and the precise location of words within texts, as representing “a step-change”. If these tools are used appropriately they can transform the way we research.

However, within the scholarly community there are those who “affect to despise” such tools as Google Scholar, which they believe is “industrial-scale digitization for commercial gain”. This is allied to ”an ingrained suspicion of the amateur”, in which projects like Scotland’s People Centre, which focuses almost entirely on genealogy, are deemed as inferior to actual scholarly research. Professor Moss pointed out (quite rightly, in my opinion) that “the family history stuff” is often just as academically rigorous as anything produced within the academic community, and that the information gathered during these projects and the revenue it generates are increasingly relied upon by the scholarly community for their own research.

Robert Darnton, Director of the Harvard University Library, has profound concerns about Google Scholar and what he believes is Google’s “tremendous power over information”, and the “commercialisation and monopoly” of information. This interview with Darnton explains his opinion of books, ebooks, Google Books and the DPLA (Digital Public Library of America). “We are dealing with an extremely difficult area…it [is] a commercial speculation by a great company. However, libraries are not intended to make money. Our job is to get books to readers, free…”.

Humanities scholars are in danger of making themselves marginal by disdaining the digital and deifying the analogue. But what we need are resources that users can understand, without ambiguity. Moss commented that there also needs to be a resistance to the making of “new, incompatible islands”, as has been done in the past – what Michael Pidd  of Sheffield University referred to as “digital silos”, so perhaps the answer to this is that assets should be made to conform to a specified standard? Professor Moss explained that The National Archives are regularly asked to take over digital assets but are unable to do so in most instances because the code used to develop the resources cannot be accommodated, or there’s a problem with the format.

Ultimately, Professor Moss suggested that the future for digital resources is “a move away from guardianship to dialogic methods”; from a “bespoke industry dependent upon elaborate mark-up”, with assets conforming to a specified standard. We should be moving towards user-generated content and exploiting the potential of the Cloud. Digital humanities components should be embedded at undergraduate level (although there is then an expectation that students learn skills which are not always necessary for their designated courses). There should also be a closing of the gap between the amateur and the scholar, a gap which Professor Moss believes has only developed in the last 60 years.

Whilst nothing particularly new was added to the current discussion on the digital humanities, Professor Moss was able to put the current debates across in a succinct, coherent way – which was helpful to one of my digital humanities colleagues here at Aber, who has only just embarked upon his PhD research. I also bumped into my unofficial supervisor and intermittent coffee date Dr Susan Davies (biography here at p.14) who, I was unsurprised to discover, knew absolutely everyone in the room, including Professor Moss. I periodically thank my lucky stars that she is so supportive, in spite of the fact she isn’t officially affiliated to my PhD project in any way. In fact, I am extremely lucky altogether in my designated supervisors, who seem quite unfazed by my momentary lapses into panic.

I’m feeling a sudden surge of energy after a few weeks of really struggling to get myself together effectively; this may manifest itself in a flurry of blog posts, so I apologise in advance!

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