Introductory blog: where does the interpretative work happen in digital scholarship?

blog / Wednesday, January 10th, 2018

Hello, reader. I’m Katie Carline, a PhD student of South African history at Michigan State University. In this series of blog posts for HST 812 (History in the Digital Age), I’m going to be reflecting on the intersections of Digital Humanities scholarship with my own research interests, as well as discussing the practical project that I build over the next four months.

This week, I’ve read several articles by DH scholars about what constitutes digital scholarship, and what sorts of data, categories, and collection methods scholars should use when they build digital scholarship.

Archivist Kate Theimer, in “Archives in Context and as Context,” examines the different ways that professional archivists and digital humanities scholars define an “archive.” Archivists stress the principles of provenance and original order in preserving an archival collection. Theimer notes with interest – and some concern – that digital “archives” created by humanities researchers are usually digital facsimiles of items brought together from multiple physical collections. Theimer’s caution to DH scholars is that while digital version may make cultural heritage documents and items more accessible, uncritical digital collecting could obscure the necessary context of their creation and provenance. Theimer’s call to remember provenance and metadata in digital scholarship is reflected in the Santa Barbara Statement on Collections as Data, which recommends including metadata, code, workflows, and other context into digital collections.

In “What’s Next: The Radical, Unrealized Potential of Digital Humanities,” Miriam Posner takes Theimer’s broad caution against uncontextualized digital scholarship and makes a number of pointed suggestions for how DH can critically re-contextualize the data and categories it works with. Rather than simply representing analog data in bigger, more interactive ways, Posner argues that the radical potential of digital scholarship is to critique and contextualize data categories (race and gender particularly) in ways that have not been previously possible. She gives the example of using digital tools to map the ways that categories like race change across time and place.

The specific, bold suggestions that Posner and the Santa Barabara Statement make about digital collections are applicable to William G. Thomas’ chapter “The Promise of Digital Humanities and the Contested Nature of Digital Scholarship.” Thomas contends that one of the major obstacles to DH scholars is that their “home” disciplines don’t know how to adequately evaluate the digital scholarship that they create. While digital mapping, annotating, or collecting is inherently and interpretative task, many DH projects are perceived as simply amalgamations of data rather than scholarly interpretative work. Thomas suggests a solution to this problem is to identify the key forms of DH scholarship (digital narratives; interactive scholarly works) so that each discipline can establish the specific standards it holds for these publications.

While Posner’s and Thomas’ arguments are complementary – they both stress the fact that all digital representations of texts and data are selective and interpretative – Posner’s argument is particularly compelling and relevant to me as an Africanist historian. As a white scholar from North America, I have personal and ethical obligations to make my scholarly findings available to the people whose history I research. Digital tools are an effective way to accomplish that goal, particularly when digital tools allow me – in the ways Posner suggests – to interrogate the contingent histories of race and gender categories.

Moreover, as a graduate student whose career in academia might last for several decades more, Posner’s challenge seems to have more long-term significance. Thomas’ call to define discrete forms of digital scholarship might be fully realized in a few years, and scholars will accept universal standards for interactive scholarly works, or digital editions. But surely the debate over the interpretative role of digital representations won’t suddenly end?

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