***Kayleb Barclay, Leah Matthews and Madiareni Sulaiman***
Having reflected on the varied presentations that took place at the BL Labs Symposium on 12 November 2018, our group met to discuss our individual areas of interest. In sharing our ideas we agreed that we could use each of our interests to display three different approaches to the projects. Therefore, in this post we outline the exciting developments and practical challenges for the digital humanities as a whole, look at how remixing data may challenge our understanding of a document, and reflect on the changing landscape of access and financing – something all projects must take into consideration.
Many speakers in BL Labs Symposium embrace digital humanities as a crucial issue to discuss. They presented arguments on cultural heritage digital collections in GLAMs (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums); Living with Machines project, which relates to data science and artificial intelligence; and various awards nominees that covered humanities aspects. One point that could be discussed further in this area is how we could assess the value, impact and importance of experimenting cultural heritage object in digital format.
Daniel Pett (University of Cambridge) and Mia Ridge (The British Library) presented the current approach to digital humanities practice.
“We consider that there is still so much to learn about the human, social, and cultural consequences of this historical moment… we aim to examine how technology altered the very fabric of human existence on the hitherto unprecedented scale.”
(Mia Ridge on BL Labs Symposium 2018)
Nowadays, GLAMs community is adapting 3D-recording in their conservation projects, such as photogrammetry and laser scanning. They offer a real potential for research: enabling museum objects to be accurately measured and recorded in the round and great detail; highlighting comparisons and distinctions; and facilitating long-distance discussions (Warwick, 2012). Moreover, this record represents a ‘digital fingerprint’ of the real object, which could also support analytical methods and identification for a better understanding of the material culture. Nevertheless, there are some concerns about its use, incorporate with the cost of technology and the overall process (risk of damaging the real object during the 3D recording and staff training). That is why there is a requirement for the international standard on its image capture, processing and storage, and also digital curation procedures.
BL Labs and partners showcase innovative and inspirational schemes which use the British Library’s digital content, contributing a platform for collaboration, networking and discussion in the Digital Humanities and Scholarship field as well as being a focus on the creative reuse of digital collections and data in the cultural heritage sector.
There is a phase – knowledge is power. If we can agree that it is typically those in power who create or control the record, we might also conclude that some documents in our collections may contain some level of interpretation or bias. It was, therefore, inspiring to see a number of creative projects using BL data to re-contextualise such records to present them alongside a narrative or focus that was different from the original.
The project Pocahontas and after did just that. Recognising that portraits of indigenous peoples from the BL archives may have exposed the photographer’s preconceived notions of culture rather than the authenticity of the subject, the team took equivalent modern portraits across a diverse group of volunteers, each of whom had complete agency over their identity and the way in which it was expressed in the photo. Side by side the images display a dichotomy that reminds us to consider and challenge the context of “truth” in our records.
Similarly, Pocket Miscellanies is a project that identifies and explores diversity and representation in medieval images. Produced as zines, a nod to both the size of medieval artefacts and a traditional ‘underground’ format, the miscellanies reflect on how topics such as sex, disability and racism are expressed in Elizabethan visual media.
Both of these projects seem to analyse the documentality of the BL data used – its historical context, social complexity, and for some users perhaps engaging a subjective emotional response. They reformat and annotate the original information to create an iteration that inevitably brings a different cultural meaning or understanding.
The combination of digitisation, open access and promotion of materials through different projects as seen at the symposium means that BL information is likely to be more widely circulated. The topic of wider engagement in order to better measure cultural value is one that has been investigated by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (Crossisk and Kaszynska, 2016). In giving access to a broader range of individuals and communities, how to explore a document’s social meaning (Buckland, 2015) could form the basis of many projects working in partnership with the digital humanities.
Funding and Accessibility
This was an eye-opening conference on technological innovation and the many ways in which contemporaries are developing the basis of traditional curation. However, amongst all the presentations and awards there appeared to be an underlying tension that had provided as the most prominent hurdle to the speakers. This tension came in the form of institutional support/financial backing.
As mentioned above, the first guest speaker was Daniel Pett, the Head of Digital and IT at the Fitzwilliam Museum, UK. He spoke of his previous position at Cambridge, one that had unfortunately ended due to a lack of funding for the project he had been working on. An unfortunate side-effect of working on open-access and not strictly profitable work is that institutions may often see it as not worth the financial burden. Any mistakes or hindrances that slow a project are seen to the project’s detriment rather than to their gain. Daniel raised a strong point in this regard – that in order to learn and recuperate from a setback, it was essential to celebrate failure rather than see it as a sign of an unsuccessful project. In a world as forefront and on the technical edge as digital curation, this is essential for progress.
Open-access technology and knowledge sharing show to be profitable for many entrepreneurs in the long scheme of things, such as in the case of another speaker, Alexandre Kitching. Alexandre presented the project that he had co-founded, Lume:‘a VR platform to explore, visualize and collaborate around your 3D Data.’ Interestingly, this project is extremely accessible in that it is listed as Free on Steam, a game/software sharing platform.
Having the Alpha software free for people to use creates a community of testers that can suggest improvements, find bugs and suggest the software to other people on their own accord. Garnering interest in a project like this creates the demand that would give a sponsor/institution motive to continue to support its development.
The Labs shed light upon a number of concerns to the innovation of digital humanities but also offered ways around them, as touched upon above. It seems that the best way to gain the backing these projects need is to make it as accessible/appealing to the public as possible – easier said than done!
Buckland, MK. 2015. Document Theory: An Introduction. UC Berkeley. Available at: https://escholarship.org/uc/item/87s642x7 (Accessed on 27 November 2018)
Crossick, G. and Kaszynska, P. 2016. Understanding the value of arts & culture. Arts & Humanities Research Council. Available at: https://ahrc.ukri.org/documents/publications/cultural-value-project-final-report/ (Accessed on 26 November 2018)
Warwick, C. 2012. Digital humanities in practice. London: Facet Publishing.