Digital Frontiers 2014

Posted on September 21, 2014 by

I have just returned from Digital Frontiers 2014, a conference at Texas Woman’s University in Denton, Texas where I had the pleasure of spending two days with a wonderfully diverse crowd of people representing K-12 education, higher education, academic/public libraries, and museums. Thank you to our wonderful host, Spencer D. C. Keralis and the great team of people running the event, including Maristella Feustle, Anjum Najmi, Courtney Jacobs and many others! As Spencer put it, this conference is an experiment, which possibly makes people feel uncomfortable or like they don’t belong (as Dorothea Salo discussed in her keynote. The attendees represented a diverse set of disciplines, institutions, and backgrounds who may normally not cross paths at their disciplinary or professional organization-specific conferences, yet there is one thing that brought us together—our common curiosity and involvement with the digital humanities—which I think is an integral part of what makes us a community, and as Miriam Posner stated in her keynote, a “community happens when people are genuinely invested in seeing each other succeed.” 

In the opening keynote, “Here and There: Creating a DH Community,” Miriam Posner shared her rules for building community, which were a poignant reminder of why we do what we do. It’s not about the Digital Humanities, it’s about the Community, which is made up of our faculty, students, colleagues, and others. She provided honest answers about the current environment and culture many of us work in; pointing out that the things we need [i.e. server space, resources] in order to build DH projects are often not available to the newly hired DH academics and librarians, whose job duties call for the unattainable – building a DH center/community/project/program without any support. Posner also provided suggestions about building relationships with individuals at your campus who will be advocates or allies, as well as participating in the scholarly conversations and activity on campus—meeting your faculty or students where they are. She offered her view of workshops, specifically workshops that are meant to train people on DH tools or software, citing the often-low attendance and poor retention of skills, despite the hours of preparation and labor required on behalf of the librarian or instructor. Posner pointed to another option, immersive training over several days or a week, which still won’t teach the participant everything about the topic they are studying, however it will give them a chance to focus, experiment, and ask questions over a longer period of time. Following the keynote, someone asked a question about negotiating with our administration to get resources, such as staffing, money, equipment, server space, etc.—this type of question was raised several times during the conference. Posner proposed that we keep track of how much time we spend on different tasks, what are we not doing or can’t, because of time spent elsewhere, encourage your administration to be tolerant of a slow ramp up period—necessary to figure out what the capacity will be for DH projects and initiatives.

There were many great papers and talks given over the course of two days, but I will only mention a few that were of most interest to me. Christopher J. Dowdy’s paper on “Right Remembering by Digital Means” in the first paper session Problems in Digital Methods in Cultural Memory, discussed several curated digital projects that explore sensitive topics or what he termed “difficult memories.” He is developing a curated exhibit of lynching in downtown Dallas in 1910 and has assessed a number of different archival digital exhibits, including those from the Minnesota Historical Society, Lowcountry Digital History Initiative, and Mary Turner Project, all of which have tackled with curating and presenting primary sources and narratives around “difficult memories.” Dowdy is very conscious of the effect these primary source materials may have on the community and is therefore interested in curating the content in a way that is not inhospitable to the community who experienced the original event.

In paper session 2: Social Networks in Digital ScholarshipNathan Hall presented findings he gathered from interviews with faculty about their use of digital libraries/repositories and open access publishing in “Sociotechnical Affects in Digital Library Use.” He sampled junior and tenured faculty and found that many did not fully understand the function of open access repositories or open access publishing. In addition, Hall identified a lack of incentive for faculty to devote their time to non-traditional (i.e. open access, DH) research. He proposed that academic digital libraries/repositories would not reach their full potential until they are designed to operate within current sociotechnical contexts or the sociotechnical environment changes to support them. In her paper, “Scholarly Social Media Adoption: Locating Medieval Studies Scholars Online,” Kristen Mapes discussed a collection of unique author data, which she collected from three major Medieval Studies journals between 2008-2014: Speculum, Comitatus, Digital Medievalist. Using this data, she was able to examine which of the following platforms: Twitter,, Linkedin, and Research Gate, were adopted by the authors in those journals and how they were using the social media platforms to locate and engage in scholarly conversation. This was an interesting sampling that demonstrated how scholars in a specific discipline are using social media platforms to engage in scholarly conversation, share their work, and find other scholars with similar interests.

In the panel on Digital Humanities in Music, I gave a talk on “Open Access Publishing and Geo-Spatial Tools for (Music) Research,” in which I compared several platforms for open access publishing before discussing my use of Omeka for Documenting Teresa Carreño, an open-access project. Maristella Feustle discussed her research process and data collection from public domain sources used to write a biographical entry about composer and vaudeville performer Charles B. Ward (1864-1917). She also discussed her use of Google Fusion Tables to geocode locations where he performed. Andrew Justice presented the developments in audio quality over the last 150 years or so, before providing side-by-side comparisons of different sound formats, which began to appear in the early 2000s and the move towards high definition formats (i.e. Pono).

In paper session 3: New Frontiers in Digital Humanities and the Sciences, Clarke Iakovakis and Rafia Mirza presented on “Developing Library Services for Digital Humanities & E-Science Support Using Qualitative Research.” As part of their research, they conducted a series of E-Science Institute interviews and analyzed their findings using a SWOT analysis. The strengths they identified are similar to what others have found at other institutions, including the view that librarians are perceived by faculty as information specialists on an interdisciplinary level, navigators of resources, and build relationships with faculty. They also discovered that faculty recognized the lack in money and resources to support computing, including issues with bandwidth and transfer speeds, server space, and software or technical support. Additionally, Iakovakis and Mirza discussed the threats perceived by faculty about sharing their data, including when to share [pre/post publication] their data, what to do with sensitive data, and ensuring proper attribution. To address these findings, their library will be focusing on better integrating scholarly communication into the work of their liaisons.

The Perspectives on Work and Workflow in Digital Spaces panel featured an excellent overview of collaborative work between faculty, staff, graduate, and undergraduate students at the Digital Humanities Lab in the English department at Texas Tech University. Dr. Ann Hawkins discussed the evolution of the Digital Humanities Lab, the realities of low funding, collaborative work, working with stakeholders, and training students, so they learn transferable skills. Luke Iantorno focused on training students to be collaborators and the way in which collaboration shapes the environment you work in, as well as enhances group cohesion among staff. Graduate students, Joya Mannan, Erin Bistline, and undergraduate, Sewasew Haileselassie had the opportunity to present during this session. Mannan and Bistline provided perspectives about undergraduate and graduate student collaboration, as well as issues that arose during work on correspondence transcription projects such as incorrect tags or metadata, based on misread handwriting. Haileselassie reflected on the experience she has gained as part of working in the Digital Humanities Lab and the impact, such a unique opportunity has made in her educational career.

Dorothea Salo gave an excellent keynote, entitled “Don’t Make Me Think!,” in which she purposefully challenged us to think about the way in which we judge each other in academia and wear our degrees almost like badges in order to trump those who may not hold the same degree or be officially part of our group/discipline/community. Other people have also written about this similar phenomenon, recently Roxanne Shirazi presented “Reproducing the Academy” at ALA sponsored by the Women and Gender Studies Section of ACRL, in which she discusses “shadow labor” of librarians and the issues around credentialism. Rather than building exclusive communities that continue to marginalize those who are on the outside, we need to work on creating a safe and open environment for those who are in and outside of academia. This is not an easy task, because this culture is so prevalent across academia. Salo’s keynote is a call for all of us to stop making excuses why we can’t [fill in the blank: publish open access, do a DH project, learn how to use a new program, etc.]. She provided a number of examples in which librarians and faculty basically say “don’t make me think” because it’s easier than actually doing or learning something new or difficult. Stop making excuses and do something. Salo suggests that we stop allowing others make excuses, but rather sympathize with them and then provide a suggestion—show them that we can teach each other, learn from each other, make each other think.

In paper session 4: Libraries, Museums, and the Digital Humanities, Francesca Giannetti discussed her research process in “Digital Libraries of Sound: An Impact Assessment.” Giannetti was curious whether impact in use or citation of digital sound libraries (including: Library of Congress’ National JukeboxAudio Archive of the Internet Archive, Europeana Sounds, PennSound, and others) could be discovered by analyzing Twitter. She used the Twitter Archiving Google Spreadsheet (TAGS) to collect data and analyze how many people were discussing these digital sound libraries, what type of references were being made, and frequency of citation (tweets). In “Are You Close Enough? Libraries and Embedded Digital Humanities,” Sara Outhier and Michelle Hahn discussed their work on a meta-exhibition, Post Chiaroscuro: Prints in Color after the Renaissance, which captured the process of creating a physical exhibit about printing techniques. The process involved collaboration between Outhier, Hahn, Dr. Lisa Pon and her students in ARHS 3364, who created description content for the exhibit using library resources. They shadowed Samantha Robinson, a graduate student curator, during the preparation of the exhibit, documented all phases of the installation, and used digital enhancements, including mobile technology (QR codes, augmented reality, videos, images, and digital collections).

Throughout the conference, I heard presenters and attendees talking about the concerns around doing DH without adequate resources, working conditions, proper validation or compensation. This is a real problem that no one person has yet solved. Posner and Salo offered a few suggestions in their keynotes, but it really is up to all of us to make changes. As librarians, faculty, students, and colleagues, we need to come together, as a community, in our institutions and beyond, and show that we value the diverse skill sets and knowledge everyone brings to the table, whether it is collaborative or support work.

These two days were filled with interesting conversations, learning about projects, tools, and sharing ideas. You’ll find more comments and conversations about Digital Frontiers 2014 on Twitter: @DigiFront | #DF14TWU. 


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