My British Library Doctoral Open Day for Digital Research Experience

I am ashamed to say that Christmas and New Year’s was a very fallow period for me as far as reading and research went.  Luckily, my lovely family and friends bought me a whole slew of fan studies/information science related books (plus a book on Dewey, the Library Cat) with which to expand (or confuse) my mind in the coming weeks.  I will now have to force myself to go against the grain and not be the voracious reader, which is my general inclination.  I must learn to skim read properly now, otherwise I may well have a nervous breakdown.

Anyhow, in order to alleviate any feelings of guilt that may have welled up in me during my study-free holiday period, I attended the doctoral open day for digital research at the British Library, which proved to be enlightening on more than one level.

As soon as I arrived I was able to speak to some very interesting fellow researchers and academics who were happy to share hints, tips and experiences with me.  They always tell you networking is a huge part of doing your doctoral research, but honestly… I have never exchanged so many Twitter follows in one day as I did today.  It is amazing how much in common you can find with other students who are researching completely disparate fields from your own, and one another.  I really learned to keep my ears to the ground and my mind open.  You never know what you might find out that’s of potential use.  Serendipity is a great finding aid.

Of course the purpose of the day was to concentrate on digital research, and this involved some excellent talks and some group exercises that encouraged us to get into groups and come up with a project plan  based on some digital sources and tools.  The plan had to be formulated in 30 minutes and presented in two.  What was amazing was how quickly our group was able to pool our resources and skills in order to come up with a research project that all of us were interested in actually looking into.

It was also rewarding in that I finally got a straight answer as to what Digital Humanities actually is (via King’s Andrew Prescott).  To paraphrase him: “The digital humanities is concerned with the use of computing tools in the humanities and the arts.  It is the sociology of knowledge.  It is cross-disciplinary.  It is the way we use computers in the humanities and the arts.”

Some other impressions I got of DH:

  • It has fuzzy edges.  For example, it has embraced social media and videogaming into its midst, even though these are not traditionally humanities or arts subjects: DH is trans-disciplinary.
  • It integrates technology and theory; computers and people.
  • It incorporates all types of media.
  • It makes use of both traditional art and data visualisation.

I may be wrong about all this (which wouldn’t surprise me, considering the fact that I read the entirety of Introduction to Digital Humanities and still had a very nebulous idea of what it was).  But I feel I actually have a handle on what it is now.  This is a very good thing as my research question just happens to be cross-disciplinary and therefore DH should be quite pertinent to my studies.  Fan cultural artefacts are, after all, analogue as well as digital objects, although they are increasingly more digital than they were in the days of fanzines and newsletters.  For example – many pieces of fan art start life as a paper sketch; many born-digital fanfictions are printed out in an analogue form so that readers may have a physical copy.  Fan practices such as ‘gifting’ (creating fan-related works to give to other fans or friends) often involves the exchanging of physical objects.  Lastly, fandoms themselves are ‘multi-disciplinary’, covering everything from comics to cult TV to videogames and manifesting themselves both online (e.g. on social media) and offline (e.g. fan conventions).  Taken in this light, DH seems to be a good fit.

British Library Labs aims to aid scholars in their digital research by opening up their digital archives for exploration and investigation.  This includes audio and visual data, and I am quite interested to see whether fan works are a part of those digital collections, and whether the history of fan information behaviours can begin to be mapped.

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