A Framework for Supporting the Digital Humanities: An Alternative to the DH Centre

by E. E. Snyder

The growth of digital humanities in the United Kingdom is visible in an increasing number of conferences, research projects, students interested in using digital tools, networks for supporting research, and new digital humanities centres.1 But there are many institutions in the United Kingdom and elsewhere that do not have the resources to set up a digital humanities centre; there are others where very fine digital research is being done across many departments of the institution. The creation of a dedicated centre may not be a possible, or even desirable, goal for every institution.

In addition, a considerable amount of digital work in the humanities goes on outside of the label of “digital humanities”. Many academics who engage with digital methodologies in their research may not consider themselves digital humanists. They may learn a text markup language, store data in databases, or use other digital methods. They may also be working in large project teams, where technology specialists are responsible for the direct creation of tools and resources that are then applied to more traditional humanistic problems and interests.

These researchers, regardless of whether they consider themselves to be doing “digital humanities” work, require appropriate and specialised support in drafting grant applications, developing tools and resources, and preserving and sustaining research data. These needs are perhaps most keenly felt by those researchers who do not consider themselves to be very “digital,” as they may not be aware of networks of support both internal and external to the institution. They are also more challenging to reach when developing support networks and raising awareness, as they may define their own engagement with “digital humanities” as instead an engagement with a particular research methodology. Furthermore, they may not be on Twitter, reading Humanist, or attending digital humanities conferences. However, they also may be doing new and exciting research, and they can be a great source of support for and champions of digital humanities research or computational methodologies within the institution.

Reaching these researchers, and creating infrastructure to support de-centred digital research across an institution, requires a commitment to “big tent” digital humanities and beyond. Patrick Svensson has suggested “an alternative model based on the digital humanities as a meeting place, innovation hub, and trading zone.” In this he builds on McCarty’s methodological commons. Svensson notes that, arguably, “bridge building and the bringing together of epistemic traditions is not optimally done from the position of discipline or department. The liminal position of the field is thus not seen as a problem but rather an important quality.”2 I will be using the example of the Digital.Humanities@Oxford project to discuss the process of creating just such an infrastructure to support digital humanities work outside of a dedicated digital humanities centre. While the project (and I) sat within the Oxford e-Research Centre, it involved a number of different project partners and supported a wide range of activity across many different humanistic disciplines and digital methodologies. (It should also be noted that, while this paper takes the university as institutional model, the ideas presented here are also applicable to libraries and museums, although members of these institutions may face additional constraints in operating.)

The University of Oxford approaches “the digital humanities” as a common area of activity and set of research methodologies; within this area of activity, there is a tremendous amount of work going on. In addition, Oxford is both large and decentralised, magnifying the problems of finding digital humanities research and supporting it. As of September 2012, there were 243 people at Oxford who had indicated interest in digital humanities, and 201 projects.3 The scale of activity in this area at Oxford is evidently enormous. The difference between digital humanities at Oxford and at other institutions may be more of scale than kind, however, as dh and e-research activities are often individual, dispersed, and isolated.

Digital.Humanities@Oxford was a joint project on the part of the Oxford e-Research Centre, the Humanities Division, IT Services, and the Bodleian Libraries to locate digital humanities research at Oxford, and to build better support structures and networking for staff and researchers in these areas. The project received initial funding from JISC as part of a larger project, during which time it gathered a considerable amount of information about projects and people interested in doing digital humanities, stored this information in a database, and built a website to display it. DH@Oxford later received support from Oxford’s John Fell Fund for a second phase of work. In between the phases, the project was lucky to secure the help of a developer who transitioned the site from Dreamweaver to ASP.net. I joined the project for the second phase, with much of the work of identifying projects done, but also with much of this information out of date and the website in need of cleaning up and refreshing.

The project had several key goals for the second phase, including better networking and surfacing of the digital humanities support already available at Oxford, developing webpages giving information on good practice in digital humanities work, refreshing the data that was held on people and projects, delivering workshops and seminars on digital humanities topics, and developing training for postgraduate students interested in digital humanities research.

The problems faced in delivering these goals included the size and decentralisation of the university, and the difficulty of reaching researchers who, while they use digital methodologies, are not active participants in digital humanities discussions or online fora. During the course of the project, it also became evident that the needs of doctoral students for support in conducting digital research were not the same as the needs of research staff on large, well-defined, and funded projects. The range of methodologies and research areas considered “digital” also causes problems when attempting to support researchers, as it is difficult to create comprehensive resources that are not overwhelming and that are targeted at the correct audiences. Finally, the people who contributed time, information, and expertise to building these networks were often doing so alongside of a full workload in other areas.

DH@Oxford had the advantage, in facing these problems, of considerable support from senior members of the university. It also had funding to bring me in as a Research Associate for a year on the project. Decentralised networks that lack both institutional support and dedicated time spent in creating resources will face serious barriers; if there is no position that has explicit responsibility for developing the network, the network may fall by the wayside in the pressure of more urgent responsibilities. Of course, considerable work may still be done to support digital humanities research on an informal basis despite these limitations.

As an institution, Oxford is very dispersed among Faculties and colleges. Within the University of Oxford, digital humanities projects span two Divisions (Humanities, and Social Sciences), fifteen Faculties, at least two institutes, IT services, the Bodleian libraries, three museums, and a number of smaller research centres. This dispersion presents additional challenges in creating support networks, as frequently researchers will be unfamiliar with digital research going on in other Faculties. If research staff do not consider themselves “digital humanists,” they may not note research making use of digital methodologies that they either use or wish to use if that research takes place in a humanistic discipline different from their own.

Any attempt to bring together such a disparate group of researchers, technologists, librarians, curators, and support staff also must be mindful that physical proximity and employing institution are likely to be the only dependable similarities among all of these people. A similar basic support system is available (libraries, IT Services, research facilitators, and so on), but even this is fragmented, with Faculties and museums not all making use of central provision for websites or research development. Digital methods can be used to counter some of this dispersion, but the existing communications strategies of the institution play a role, as does the fact that many people doing digital research work “exist” in different places online.

When I began working with the DH@Oxford project, a list of digital humanities projects and associated or interested people had been compiled. However, I do not believe that this is necessarily where a networking project must start; such a register can be compiled as the project develops and uncovers previously hidden research, support, and interest.

I would suggest that a useful first step in creating a network to support digital humanities research is to find allies who are strongly committed to encouraging dh work. Speaking to IT staff early in the DH@Oxford project allowed me to get an idea what kinds of digital research were taking place, and who was doing them. IT staff and librarians are both key in supporting digital research, and they may well feel the lack of a coherent infrastructure for digital humanities activity. They may also be able to pinpoint existing work at the institution, which expands the list of potential allies and experts. In my experience, it can be helpful simply to start a discussion group or plan an event and see who appears; these people can then help form the basis for a wider network of support. That network does not have to be formal!

An additional factor is the usefulness of a “flag”. Digital.Humanities@Oxford became a banner under which a considerable amount of disjointed activity was loosely organised, without removing any of that activity from its original context. Some of the events were created by the project itself; some were organised elsewhere in the university, and promoted as of potential interest to DH@Oxford’s mailing lists and Twitter followers. It can be easier to track events of methodological interest happening in different disciplines, departments and services if they are all badged as “belonging” to the project in some way. For instance, the TEI Summer School, which had been held at Oxford for some years, in 2011 broadened its remit and changed its name to the Digital.Humanities@Oxford Summer School, and now takes place under the same umbrella.

The project website was useful for similar reasons: it can be good to have somewhere to plant the flag. While, for the reasons noted above (lack of self-definition as digital humanists and lack of time among them), some potential allies may not visit a website very often, it is still helpful to have one central listing for the “umbrella” of activities. This becomes particularly important if the support network hosts its own events, or generates documentation (of research services and processes, for example, or of workshops and other activities). While the network site itself may not become a hub of activity, it can serve as a useful resource for pointing interested colleagues toward events and support they may find useful. The DH@Oxford site therefore served to raise the profile of digital humanities activity inside and outside of Oxford; it also served as a very useful gateway to external visitors when hosting events such as the DH@Oxford Summer School.

Of course, a decentralised research support infrastructure is only useful insofar as it serves to support research. DH@Oxford faced challenges in identifying and communicating effectively with its audience; these challenges will likely be shared by any initiative that attempts to support a growing interest in digital methodologies among a body of researchers active in many different disciplines and methods. When I joined the project, groundwork had been laid in the list of digital projects and interested people; however, additional projects are launched and researchers join the university all the time, and research interests of current staff evolve. Therefore DH@Oxford needed to build documents and services not only for its known audience of researchers, but also for a wide potential audience with equally varied needs. The process of researching and documenting requirements and available services acted as infrastructure-building in itself: identifying needs, speaking with potential users of documentation, and holding workshops all raised the profile of digital humanities at Oxford, brought the project to the attention of additional research staff, and strengthened networks among support and IT staff. In this way, the development of the Support and Training pages on the DH@Oxford site aided the development of real-time services, as members of staff consulted on and clarified existing procedures and developed new ones.

Early in the project, I met individually with IT Officers in Faculties. There are seven IT Officers covering Classics, History, Linguistics and Languages, Oriental Studies, Music, Philosophy, and the Ruskin School of Art; they are embedded in their Faculties and offer general IT support, as well as more specialised services for the discipline and for research and teaching. Digital projects created within the Humanities Division often rely for their long-term support on the efforts of individual Faculty IT Officers. My object in meeting with them was to determine what problems they experienced on a regular basis in dealing with digital humanities projects. In general, these involved sustaining old projects built in a wide variety of codebases, some of them proprietary or non-standard, after the end of the project; keeping such old projects security patched and stable as the technology aged; and insufficient time or budget allocated at project proposal stage for the expected technical work.

I also spoke to the Humanities Division research facilitators early in the project. They expressed a need for a single point of contact when referring researchers with digital project ideas to get specialised technical support, as well as case studies of the possibilities of digital projects, for themselves and to share with researchers. They also requested a workshop leading to additional guidance on what was, at the time, the AHRC Technical Appendix.

Once we had established requirements for documentation, resources, and events, the project held a series of lunchtime briefings to showcase digital projects and raise researchers’ awareness of their potential. These briefings happened from 1 to 3pm on four consecutive days, and covered four general topics: digital editions, large datasets, image analysis, and sound analysis.4 Lunch was provided, as an incentive to attendance; presenters then spoke for fifteen minutes each, from 1:15 to 2pm, and a discussion session followed (allowing both for extended discussion and conversation, and for staff who had come on lunch breaks to leave without missing presentations).

We learned a great deal through running the briefings, and our audience included people who had registered their interest with the DH@Oxford website, but also a share of people who had not—frequently these were students and research project staff. We encountered some issues during the week: for one, providing lunch was a useful draw but an expensive one. Additionally, the fifteen-minute time slots allocated to our speakers did not fit the 20-minute conference presentation format that most were used to, and we struggled to keep on time. The focus was often more strictly technical or research-discipline based than a blend of the two, and the different technical abilities in the audience meant that it was not possible to pitch the technical side accurately for everyone. (In fact, some attendees complained that the presentations were far too technical, while others wanted more information on the IT and found the overview vague.) Finally, the acoustics of the room left something to be desired.

The positive outcomes of running the briefings were a raised profile for digital humanities at Oxford, and a wide-ranging introduction to the possibilities of digital projects for the people who attended (one attendee treated the week as a quick way to get up to speed in a neighbouring research area, with the added benefit of sandwiches). We also handed around a survey, and received a set of helpful responses from a large percentage of our audience members. It should be stressed that this survey was highly informal, aimed at tailoring workshops and events run by DH@Oxford to researchers’ needs, and reached a small number of people; it is indicative rather than representative. Responses to the survey were very usefulfor DH@Oxford in determining what sorts of issues researchers, project staff, and doctoral students face in using technology in their research. They suggest that there is a consistent call for hands-on learning workshops on the part of researchers; unfortunately, the call is for several different kinds of workshops. Additionally, at times, researchers’ ideas of digital projects remain restricted by discipline rather than methodology; we received a suggestion that IT Services should run workshops for researchers who worked on a particular time period. This suggestion reinforces the point that for many researchers, home discipline comes first, even when they are asking for support in developing digital resources, and a methodological workshop might be more appropriate.

Another outcome of these survey responses was a consistent call on the part of doctoral students for some kind of student workshop, where they could learn and exchange expertise on digital technologies. Before I left the project, I helped arrange for the Oxford e-Research Centre and the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH) to host a postgraduate workshop, which began in Autumn 2012; the goal was for the workshop to be self-directed by students, though the Oxford e-Research Centre made some staff available for questions and assistance.

A final aim of the DH@Oxford project was to help ensure the sustainability of digital resources in a widely dispersed institutional context. As mentioned earlier, the wide-spread nature of Oxford’s digital projects, as well as their sheer number, create challenges for long-term sustainability. While many projects make use of the Bodleian or the university’s central IT Services, a number of them rely, wholly or in part, on individual Faculty IT Officers for development and hosting. The different Faculties of the Humanities Division had, as of Autumn 2012, created 77 data resource projects (not including tools, infrastructure, etc).5 Questioning the IT Officers showed that 45 of these projects were hosted by Faculties.

The initial discussions that I had with IT Officers pointed this up as a challenge to sustainability. Having numbers allows us to document the problem, and to start to work with IT Officers and Research Facilitators to come up with some solutions. As a first step, DH@Oxford created a considerable amount of information on support for digital humanities projects and training available at Oxford, and made it publicly available on the project website. A key message of the support material was that research projects should make sure to consult IT Officers early in the development of the project idea, to make sure that the project is built to a sustainable standard, and that allocated development time is sufficient for the planned work and budgeted correctly.

Information from this review of projects then went forward in an internal report, helping to make a case for institutional support that would increase the sustainability of these resources. At the end of the DH@Oxford project, this work was planned to be taken forward in an application to the John Fell Fund, to create and document pathways to sustainability and preservation for digital humanities projects. Documenting the need allowed us to make a case for resources to provide additional support to researchers.

The virtual network model for supporting research has two major limitations. The first is that, unless dedicated support can be found for the work of creating it, either as a funded project or as part of a job description, the work can be ad-hoc and hard to fit in around existing work and priorities. Creating a digital humanities network outside of a centre can take some time to develop; not everybody doing digital work is engaged in it all of the time, or even most of the time, so interest and needs are likely to be sporadic. An emphasis on de-centred things like collaborative workshops and student groups can help develop a broader base of engagement that is quickly responsive to researchers’ needs, but the success of the network does to some extent rely on the energy of one or a few people to schedule workshops, book rooms, send reminder emails, update the website with new events, and so on.

I would suggest that a second major limitation may be encountered in attempting to scale the network beyond the institutional level. Although digital humanities activities are fragmented at Oxford, they all occur in one university, with broadly similar central support systems. Trying to support a group of researchers spanning humanities disciplines, digital methodologies, and institutions would bring quite serious challenges. In addition, in such a scenario it becomes difficult to plan effectively for the sustainability of data resources at an institutional level. One way to mitigate these risks might be through careful consideration of the potential userbase of the virtual network. Researchers with a humanities discipline and/or a methodology in common would be easier to provide with support and resources across multiple institutions. William Pannapacker has identified collaboration between smaller institutions (in a US context) as of potentially great importance for digital humanities researchers; he suggests that “The future of digital humanities at many colleges depends on their ability to share resources and build relationships with the DH centers at major institutions, cultivating careers on the edge between innovation and tradition, as well as between research and teaching.”6 A de-centred network is one way of sharing these resources and relationships; however, without strong commonalities in digital or humanistic interests to build on, and without a commitment on the part of the participating institutions to supporting the careers of those involved, such a collaboration may prove hard to develop and sustain.

There are several positive aspects to building a de-centred institutional network for digital humanities support. For one, the network engages with people using digital humanities at all levels of expertise, and is multi-disciplinary almost by necessity, as it engages with interested researchers and staff across the institution. It also reaches people who would not be reached through channels of communication focused on digital humanities; this broad strategy of engagement can draw hidden interest and support out of the shadows. Finally, this model uses digital resources to work with a digital field, but also allows for and encourages in-person learning, teaching, and collaborative work.

As a final point, I find the range of methods of engagement with both the humanities and the digital to be a very positive feature of the current digital humanities “ecosystem.” I think that a general move toward a model where the primary mechanism for supporting digital humanities research is the establishment of a DH centre risks losing some of that diversity and becoming more codified. Researchers working in the area of digital humanities need a firm disciplinary grounding, but also a firm grounding in digital methodologies. An institutional ability to support several or many different ways of engaging with digital humanities and digital methodologies may prove beneficial; it may also allow the research network to be more resilient in a difficult funding climate. The session on “Digital Humanities as a university degree” at the Digital Humanities Conference 2012 opened with a discussion of the many computational humanities degree courses that have gone before, and closed.7 Embedding support for digital research in departments, and structuring digital research as less formal communities of practice, is an institutional model that takes time and effort to develop, but that may be less vulnerable to changing academic fashions and pressures on funding.

In her chapter “Institutional models for digital humanities,” Claire Warwick discusses the function of a dh centre as the hub of a network which can “help facilitate new ideas, connections and the kinds of collaboration that are essential for the proper functioning of digital humanities research.”8 The model that I have presented here does not have a centre to serve as anchor to the network; instead, it facilitates research support through shared services, and facilitates researchers’ connections with each other through those services. Warwick also brings up the need for recognition for digital humanities research in order to avoid losing researchers and key non-academic staff.9 The point is evident, and shows a vulnerability in the de-centred institutional model; while an informal network can yield impressive results in new research projects and exploring digital methodologies, it can be difficult to argue for the necessity of dedicated support without a visible centre of research. However, every model has its vulnerabilities, and the transition to a teaching department, with the necessity of maintaining enrolments, has its own challenges that the DH2012 session clearly indicated.

In his keynote address at the Digital Humanities Congress 2012, at the University of Sheffield, Andrew Prescott stated that:

One of the great challenges which digital technologies presents us is the need also to develop spaces which allow theory, making and tinkering to collide…. Ideally, this would be precisely what a digital humanities centre should be like, but sadly we have rarely achieved this. The pressure of university funding structures means that most digital humanities centres are soft-funded and are on a treadmill of project funding which restricts the ability to act as centres for innovative thinking. Moreover, in Britain at least, universities are increasingly making a stronger distinction between academic and professional staff. This is without doubt a retrograde development, but the political and administrative drivers behind it are formidable.10

While the de-centred institutional network of support does not solve these problems, it does at least offer a strategy for supporting digital research in institutions where a dedicated digital humanities centre is not possible or necessary. Through networking support staff, technologists, and researchers, it offers one mechanism whereby tinkering, making, and theorising can flourish. The people involved, and the communication between them, are key to this infrastructure of support.

  1. For more information see Claire Warwick, ‘Institutional models for digital humanities’, in Digital Humanities in Practice, ed. by Claire Warwick, Melissa Terras, and Julianne Nyhan. London: Facet Publishing, 2012. 193-216 (193).
  2. Patrik Svensson, ‘Beyond the Big Tent’, in Debates in the Digital Humanities, ed. by Matthew K. Gold. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012. 36-49 (46).
  3. http://digital.humanities.ox.ac.uk (Accessed 05/07/2013)
  4. http://digital.humanities.ox.ac.uk/Training/DHBriefings.aspx (Accessed 05/07/2012).
  5. https://digital.humanities.ox.ac.uk/SubjectAreas/subject_contents.aspx?Division=Humanities (Accessed 05/07/2013).
  6. William Pannapacker, ‘“Big Tent Digital Humanities”, a View from the Edge, Part 1’, The Chronicle of Higher Education. July 31, 2011. http://chronicle.com/article/Big-Tent-Digital-Humanities/128434/ (Accessed 05/07/2013).
  7. ‘Digital Humanities as a university degree’ panel at Digital Humanities 2012 conference, Hamburg. http://lecture2go.uni-hamburg.de/konferenzen/-/k/13929 (Accessed 05/07/2013).
  8. Warwick, 202.
  9. Warwick, 209.
  10. Prescott, Andrew. ‘Made in Sheffield: Industrial Perspectives on the Digital Humanities’. In: Clare Mills, Michael Pidd and Esther Ward. Proceedings of the Digital Humanities Congress 2012. Studies in the Digital Humanities. Sheffield: HRI Online Publications, 2014. Available online at: http://www.dhi.ac.uk/openbook/chapter/dhc2012-prescott.