Fresh & New(er)

discussion of issues around digital media and museums by Seb Chan

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Report from THATCamp Canberra

August 30th, 2010 by Seb Chan

Ingrid Mason who is working on the Museum Exchange project for the Powerhouse went to THATCamp in Canberra on the weekend to talk about the project (more on that in a post shortly!), and to absorb some new thinking from Australian ‘digital humanists’ (the opposite of ‘analogue fundamentalists‘?).

I asked Ingrid a couple of questions about this gathering in wintery Canberra.

F&N: What is THATcamp?

THATCamp is The Humanities And Technology Camp. Take a look here for the idea: http://thatcamp.org/ There are camps happening all over the world – next one is in Cologne – where people are interested in how humanities study and technology is working, can work and is transforming as a result of increasing use of computing technologies. The THATCamp in Canberra for example had people from academia, from the galleries, libraries, archives, museums, PhD students, technical developers and representatives from national technology initiatives and eresearch bodies such as the Australian National Data Service (ANDS) and Victorian eResearch Strategic Initiative (Versi).

There is no – pitching – of – tents or bonfires but there is great exchange of information and at times debate – plenty of bonhomie. The by-product of this is catalysing of and gathering up interest to build some momentum in the digital humanities and stimulate innovation and collaboration. The THATCamp was called an “unconference” in that no-one prepared papers but people came with ideas they wanted to offer and questions to ask. If this is what an unconference is, it is great, and a lot like the “birds of a feather” sessions you get a major conferences – except more dynamic.

F&N: Can you explain what, exactly, is/are digital humanities?

Digital humanities is “in process” you could say.

Over dinner with Dr Craig Bellamy and Conal Tuohy from Versi in Melbourne I learned that the humanities has been computing since the 1940s. That came as a surprise, but then on further questioning it emerged that this early start in digital humanities was the development of concordances. We also talked about the field of linguistics which is strong in the use of computing technologies. I guess with using words as units for data mining and analysis this seems obvious and straight forward. What I see as digital humanities is much bigger and broader in its manipulation of data. However this text processing work is fundamental and foundational to other areas of the humanities (and not just the humanities btw) that also deal in text, in sound, in colour.

I’m sure there is more that I can articulate but by example if we study games as cultural artefacts, then we are going to have to figure out how to enable annotation in multi member and player gaming spaces and enable the publication of the researcher’s observations and “data” and “publication” to be in a multimedia form. Without knowing what curricula are available internationally in the “digital culture” and “digital humanities” I can’t say where digital humanities is. The comment I will make though is eventually I assume that we’ll lose the “digital” in digital humanities and the technology will be so embedded we won’t notice it, or, it will get its own specific title, e.g. nanotechnology. How about – annotechnology – the technologies used to draw together and analyse and create meaning drawing from annotations?

F&N: What were the best things you saw/heard at TC?

Formal conference presentations are good to go to and the time to sit back and reflect and explore ideas. THATCamp was alive and wildly mentally stimulating because it is group and knowledge exchange all happening at once. I’m pretty focused 80% of the time on learning quickly, exchanging ideas and getting stuck into doing something – so I was in my element surrounded by thinkers and doers and active communicators. In that heady brew of ideas and challenges to immerse myself in several bubbles of inspiration and ponderence caught my attention and snagged my thoughts and interlinked as I drove back to Sydney from Canberra.

1. The concept of “network literacy” – that a really good understanding of how the ‘net works is critical to digital humanities study. There was plenty of discussion about “how much” and I raised the question of whether it was knowing as in “familiar with” or “how to” encapsulated by the French words connaitre and savoir. Strikes me this is where digital humanities research is going and new discourses will be emerging if they aren’t already! See the software studies/cultural analytics work being done at Calit2.

There is also a general level of understanding the web and its connections that all humanists can benefit from, at the most simple, in citing complex web content in bibliographies. I think network literacy has an obvious relationship with information literacy, traditionally taught by librarians to new university students to help them with their information seeking.

2. The need for a tools and a platform to be developed to support complex use of web material, capture, citation and archiving. This can be done by those that know how to use the tools and how to archive but this process of using web material in the course of research isn’t supported within a platform with tools plugged in for ease. I’m sure the Bamboo project in the US has picked plenty of this up already.

Essentially the humanities scholar’s desk and room needs to be recreated and enabled to support sourcing, coordinating, referencing, and archiving of digital material including the data and publications that are generated.

3. The necessity for scholarly environments to change to support these changing needs of scholars undertaking eresearch. For humanities scholars, well, their relationships with collecting organisations and use of their collection material, have been long and strong. Notably there was a strong representation from both domains at the THATCamp: collectors and scholars. This is a key issue to address in the tertiary sector and that message came through clearly.

4. The opportunity for collecting organisations and scholars to collaborate and undertake joint research is ripe. The Dictionary of Sydney is a good example of this. It is a great opportunity to skill share and provide the different needs and outcomes as components of a research project together.

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