What I'm Loving About Digital Humanities This Month

What I'm Loving About Digital Humanities This Month

It’s been a month since I returned from a trip to South by Southwest Interactive where I was fortunate to be part of a fun panel on “Why Digital Maps Can Reboot Cultural History.” Has it taken me a whole month to recover from four days in Austin? Nope, I’m just lucky enough to have spent the last few weeks being busy with a number of digital humanities (DH) events and projects. Libraries/archives/museums/technology ended up being one of my themes for March, and that’s a theme I can always get behind.

For the past few years, there has been a small but strong contingent of library, archives, and museum (LAM) people at SXSW. Along with checking out the newest 3D printers at SXSW Create and visiting the full-scale model of NASA’s Webb Space Telescope, I also had the chance to attend some fantastic panels related to technology and its use in and by cultural institutions. Perhaps one of the most engaging was the “Culture Hack: Libraries and Museums Open For Making” panel with representatives from Europeana, the Digital Public Library of America, CLIR Digital Library Federation, and the Open Knowledge Foundation. I’m very excited for the imminent launch of the Digital Public Library of America on April 18 and intrigued by the possibilities for linking collections in order to support wider usage of current and historical materials.

Beyond the “official” SXSW sessions, I dropped by the ER&L + ProQuest #ideadrop house for more casual conversations with librarians and others interested in the combination of technology and cultural heritage materials. The house was a bit away from downtown Austin, but it was worth the trek for the great discussion on open source tools for cultural institutions. Unexpectedly stumbling upon the delicious food at a Korean/Mexican fusion food truck didn’t hurt either.

That collaboration and sharing of ideas is one of my favorites parts of the LAM and digital humanities culture.  Thankfully, we have an active DH community here in Philly so hearing about new innovations isn’t limited to annual conferences or only reading Twitter announcements. The Greater Philadelphia Digital Humanities Group (PhillyDH for short) partially grew out of THATCamp Philly, an unconference held in Philadelphia each fall that provides individuals with a place to discuss ideas and develop possible collaborations. I’ve been involved in THATCamp Philly for awhile and am happy to see the initiative expanding. Even though PhillyDH is just a few months old, the group has already held a Digital Project Incubator event with a PhillyDH@Penn workshop/conference day planned for June 4 and other workshops and events coming soon. PhillyDH is a decentralized organization (meaning we’re not linked to any particular institution) and anyone is welcome to join.

Other local Philly professional groups are also focusing more on how technology intersects with their work. Continuing with the “March = DH” theme, I gave a presentation at the March meeting of the Delaware Valley Archivists Group on the digital metrics we gather for PhillyHistory.org, the website that provides access to the historic photographs of the Philadelphia City Archives. We’re data geeks here at Azavea so we’ve implemented three different systems for tracking how people use PhillyHistory. That makes for a lot of data, which can be both useful and overwhelming. Evaluation of digital projects and user engagement seems to be a key issue as more organizations explore expanding their online and mobile presence. After we build these amazing digital projects, how do we actually measure whether they are meeting our intended goals? The group had some intriguing questions, and I’m interested to see the best practices and standards that will develop as the DH field wrestles with project evaluation.

Along with a few other DH related things, we ended March and kicked off April with an announcement of our recent Small Business Innovation Research award from the National Science Foundation to develop the Temporal Geocoder, a web-based tool that will enable historians, scholars, the public, and others to assign geographic locations to historical materials. After geocoding thousands of photographs for PhillyHistory.org, I can tell you all about the fun of finding the location of an address that no longer exists (I’m looking at you – portions of E. Noble Street!). With a large spatial component to many DH projects, we’re hoping a temporal geocoder will fit well with the work being done at the New York Public Library, OpenStreetMap, and other organizations around historic locations.

Temporal geocoders, historic digital maps, linked data repositories, and user evaluation metrics are just the start of what I’m finding interesting about DH these days. Gaming, user generated content, and digital storytelling are high on my list of topics to explore next. Perhaps April will need to be another month of digital humanities…