A Day in the Life of Digital Humanities

  1. 1. Geoffrey Rockwell

    Humanities Computing - University of Alberta, Philosophy - University of Alberta

  2. 2. Stan Ruecker

    Department of English - University of Alberta, Humanities Computing - University of Alberta

  3. 3. Peter Organisciak

    Humanities Computing - University of Alberta

  4. 4. Ranaweeram Kamal

    Arts Resource Centre - University of Alberta

  5. 5. Stéfan Sinclair

    McMaster University

  6. 6. Megan Meredith-Lobay

    Arts Resource Centre - University of Alberta

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On March 18th, 2009 over 90 people
participated in a collaborative documentation
project called
A Day in the Life of Digital
. The participants blogged what they
did that day in the spirit of digital humanities
as a form of autoethnography that could help
answer the question, "just what do we do?"
In this paper we will:
Discuss the conception, design and delivery of
the project,
Discuss the intellectual property paradigm
that we adopted to make this project one
that produces open documentation for use by
other projects,
Reflect on the lessons learned about such
social research projects and theorize the
exercise, and
Discuss the second Day of DH project that,
building on the strengths of the first, will be
run March 18th, 2010.
1. From Conception to Delivery
The original idea for the project was to develop a
communal response to questions asking exactly
what it is that we do in the digital humanities.
In 2006, "The State of Science & Technology
in Canada" from the Council of Canadian
Academies reported humanities computing as
an emerging field of strength in Canada. Since
then, there have been requests in various
forms for an explanation of what the previously
unnoticed field was.
The form of the response was inspired by a
lecture by Edward L. Ayers (currently now
President of the University of Richmond) that
we had heard about, titled "What Does a
Professor Do All Day, Anyway?" Ayers was an
early computing historian whose "The Valley of
the Shadow" project was one of the two founding
IATH projects. In that lecture, he reflected on
how people, including his own young son, know
little about what a professor does. As he put it,
"In the eyes of most folks, a professor either
portentously and pompously lectures people
from his narrow shaft of specialized knowledge,
or is a bookworm – nose stuck in a dusty volume,
oblivious to the world."
The situation is even worse in the digital
humanities, where not only do people not
know what we do as academics, they also
don't know what "humanities computing" or
the "digital humanities" are. It's not even
clear if practitioners agree with each other
on these basic matters. Ayers's approach to
answering this question was the simplest and
most cohesive: simply to describe each part
of his day, task by task. A Day in the Life of
Digital Humanities scales this approach up to a
participatory project. We hoped to address the
questions about the nature of digital humanities
academic work by reflecting as a community.
The Day of DH (as we call it) was thus
conceived to provide one form of response to the
definition of the field: not through speculation,
but through observation. In this context we
will also briefly demonstrate the WordPress

setup and the wiki that was used to coordinate
2. Intellectual Property Paradigm:
Collaborative Publishing
As for all projects with human participants in
Canadian academia, we first had to apply for
ethics review. We presented the project not
simply as a study of what the participants are
doing, but as a collaborative publication. The
paradigm therefore was that we were organizing
a collective documentation project where the
results would be a form of publication that
would be returned to the community for further
study. Some participants went so far as to run
visualization tools on the RSS feed of all the
entries as they were being posted, thus returning
a feed of the posts live to participants, which
allowed study to happen as the day proceeded.
One of the problems we encountered was
cleaning up the data after the day. The cleaning
up of the data involved four broad steps:
To comply with ethics, we had to go through
and edit (with the participants) the images
posted to make sure the images conformed to
the ethics regimen we agreed to.
We read and indexed the posts with a uniform
set of terms, helping draw out semantic
relevance in the data.
We converted the XML output from the native
WordPress format to a more tractable form.
Irrelevant fields were removed and content
was unescaped, requiring additional editing
toward well-formedness. The final cleaned
dataset is being review by project participants
with notable experience with markup.
Finally, we proofed the entire dataset also
deleted empty comments. However, in order
to preserve the authenticity of the posts, we
did not change the prose of the participants.
3. Crowdsourcing in the Digital
The Day in the Life of Digital Humanities
is a modest example of a collaborative
"crowdsourcing" project. It is not the first such
project in the humanities. For instance, Suda On
Line is an excellent example of how a "crowd"
can participate in a larger project.
Reflecting on
the level of participation in the Day of DH, we
believe that some of the strategies we adopted to
encourage participation were successful:
A participant's required contribution was
limited to only one day of posting. We
hypothesize that if small, flexible tasks
contribute to broad participation.
We did not assume people would participate.
Instead we invited people personally, creating
a personal connection before issuing an
open call for participation. We believe that
the personal human contact makes a real
difference in explaining to people why they
would want to participate.
The project was structured as a collaborative
publication so that participants could get
credit for their work and use the results in
their own experiments. We tried to make the
idea simple to grasp, which is why we chose
the "Day in the Life of" title. The title gives the
prospective participant an idea of the level of
participation and the results.
A steady but light feed of updates was
maintained through a discussion list. We sent
about an e-mail a week to keep in touch as the
day approached.
Human contact and communication are
essential at all levels - participants are, after
all, volunteering their effort to make the
project work. For that reason we had a
number of people assigned to answer different
types of questions quickly, and we spent
some time developing online materials to help
explain the project and connect people.
The technology used by participants was
reasonably familiar and worked.
4. Reflections and Theory
What then have we learned about the digital
humanities from the project? To some extent
the project speaks for itself. The project doesn't
provide a short answer to questions about what
we do. Instead it provides a wealth of detail
and reflections. Nonetheless we do have some
conclusions based on readings of the entries:
Many who do computing in the humanities
feel isolated and welcome venues for
participating in larger concerns. This project

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2010
"Cultural expression, old and new"

Hosted at King's College London

London, England, United Kingdom

July 7, 2010 - July 10, 2010

142 works by 295 authors indexed

XML available from https://github.com/elliewix/DHAnalysis (still needs to be added)

Conference website: http://dh2010.cch.kcl.ac.uk/

Series: ADHO (5)

Organizers: ADHO

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None