Determining Value for Digital Humanities Tools

  1. 1. Susan Schreibman

    University of Maryland, College Park

  2. 2. Ann Hanlon

    University of Maryland, College Park

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Tool development in the Digital Humanities has been the
subject of numerous articles and conference presentations
(Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), 2006; Bradley,
2003; McCarty, 2005; McGann, 2005; Ramsay, 2003, 2005;
Schreibman, Hanlon, Daugherty, Ross, 2007; Schreibman, Kumar,
McDonald, 2003; Summit on Digital Tools for the Humanities,
2005; Unsworth, 2003). While the purpose and direction of
tools and tool development for the Digital Humanities has
been discussed and debated in those forums, the value of tool
development itself has seen little discussion. This is in part
because tools are developed to aid and abet scholarship – they
are not necessarily considered scholarship themselves. That
perception may be changing, though. The clearest example of
such a shift in thinking came from the recent recommendations
of the ACLS Commission on Cyberinfrastructure for the Humanities
and Social Sciences, which called not only for “policies for
tenure and promotion that recognize and reward digital
scholarship and scholarly communication” but likewise stated
that “recognition should be given not only to scholarship that
uses the humanities and social science cyberinfrastructure but
also to scholarship that contributes to its design, construction
and growth.” On the other hand, the MLA Report on Evaluating
Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion found that a majority of
departments have little to no experience evaluating refereed
articles and monographs in electronic format. The prospects
for evaluating tool development as scholarship in those
departments would appear dim. However, coupled with the
more optimistic recommendations of the ACLS report, as well
the MLA Report’s fi ndings that evaluation of work in digital
form is gaining ground in some departments, the notion of tool
development as a scholarly activity may not be far behind.
In 2005, scholars from the humanities as well as the social
sciences and computer science met in Charlottesville, Virginia
for a Summit on Digital Tools for the Humanities. While the summit
itself focused primarily on the use of digital resources and digital
tools for scholarship, the Report on Summit Accomplishments
that followed touched on development, concluding that “the
development of tools for the interpretation of digital evidence
is itself research in the arts and humanities.”
The goal of this paper is to demonstrate how the process of
software or tool development itself can be considered the
scholarly activity, and not solely a means to an end, i.e. a feature
or interface for a content-based digital archive or repository.
This paper will also deal with notions of value: both within the
development community and as developers perceive how their
home institutions and the community for which the software
was developed value their work.
The data for this paper will be drawn from two sources. The
fi rst source is a survey carried out by the authors in 2007 on
The Versioning Machine, the results of which were shared at
a poster session at the 2007 Digital Humanities Conference.
The results of this survey were intriguing, particularly in the
area of the value of The Versioning Machine as a tool in which
the vast majority of respondents found it valuable as a means
to advance scholarship in spite of the fact that they themselves
did not use it. As a result of feedback by the community to
that poster session, the authors decided to conduct a focused
survey on tool development as a scholarly activity.
After taking advice from several prominent Digital Humanities
tool developers, the survey has been completed and will be
issued in December to gather information on how faculty,
programmers, web developers, and others working in the
Digital Humanities perceive the value and purpose of their
software and digital tool development activities. This paper will
report the fi ndings of a web-based survey that investigates
how tools have been conceived, executed, received and used
by the community. Additionally, the survey will investigate
developers’ perceptions of how tool development is valued in
the academic community, both as a contribution to scholarship
in their particular fi elds, and in relation to requirements for
tenure and promotion.
The authors will use these surveys to take up John Unsworth’s
challenge, made at the 2007 Digital Humanities Centers Summit
“to make our diffi culties, the shortcomings of our tools,
the challenges we haven’t yet overcome, something that we
actually talk about, analyze, and explicitly learn from.” By
examining not only how developers perceive their work, but
how practitioners in the fi eld use and value their tools, we
intend to illuminate the role of tool development in the Digital
Humanities and in the larger world of academia.
American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), Our Cultural
Commonwealth: The Final Report of the American Council of
Learned Societies Commission on Cyberinfrastructure for the
Humanities & Social Sciences, 2006, <
Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), AHRC ICT
Methods Network Workgroup on Digital Tools Development for
the Arts and Humanities, 2006, <
Bradley, John. “Finding a Middle Ground between
‘Determinism’ and ‘Aesthetic Indeterminacy’: a Model for
Text Analysis Tools.” Literary & Linguistic Computing 18.2
(2003): 185-207. Kenny, Anthony. “Keynote Address: Technology and
Humanities Research.” In Scholarship and Technology in the
Humanities: Proceedings of a Conference held at Elvetham Hall,
Hampshire, UK, 9th-12th May 1990, ed. May Katzen (London:
Bowker Saur, 1991), 1-10.
McCarty, Willard. Humanities Computing. New York: Palgrave
Macmillan, 2005.
McGann, Jerome. “Culture and Technology: The Way We Live
Now, What Is to Be Done?” New Literary History 36.1 (2005):
Modern Language Association of America, Report of the MLA
Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion,
December 2006, <
Ramsay, Stephen. “In Praise of Pattern.” TEXT Technology 14.2
(2005): 177-190.
Ramsay, Stephen.“Reconceiving Text Analysis: Toward an
Algorithmic Criticism.” Literary and Linguistic Computing 18.2
(2003): 167-174.
Schreibman, Susan and Ann Hanlon, Sean Daugherty, Tony
Ross. “The Versioning Machine 3.1: Lessons in Open Source
[Re]Development”. Poster session at Digital Humanities
(Urbana Champaign, June 2007)
Schreibman, Susan, Amit Kumar and Jarom McDonald. “The
Versioning Machine”. Proceedings of the 2002 ACH/ALLC
Conference. Literary and Linguistic Computing 18.1 (2003) 101-
Summit on Digital Tools for the Humanities (September
28-30, 2005), Report on Summit Accomplishments, May 2006.
Unsworth, John. “Tool-Time, or ‘Haven’t We Been Here
Already?’: Ten Years in Humanities Computing”, Delivered
as part of Transforming Disciplines: The Humanities and
Computer Science, Saturday, January 18, 2003, Washington,
D.C. <
Unsworth, John. “Digital Humanities Centers as
Cyberinfrastructure”, Digital Humanities Centers Summit,
National Endowment for the Humanities, Washington,
DC, Thursday, April 12, 2007 <

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2008

Hosted at University of Oulu

Oulu, Finland

June 25, 2008 - June 29, 2008

135 works by 231 authors indexed

Conference website:

Series: ADHO (3)

Organizers: ADHO

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