who’s doing the small pieces of work?

I don’t want the blog to be purely for soliciting work, but inevitably finding some is my main preoccupation at the moment. I’ve been in touch with a number of digital humanists around the place, sent off a few CVs and received assurances that ‘things come up from time to time’. I have a couple of tentative leads, but nothing definite.

I know that that is DH-related work that I can do, because I did some in my last job. I’m sure there are pieces of work sitting around waiting to be done, and little pots of money to pay for them, but there isn’t anywhere really to advertise my services. I suspect a lot of these tasks get farmed out to local computing support – but wouldn’t it be good to have someone with a specialist knowledge of the humanities involved?

which language for pattern matching?

As the Day of Digital Humanities draws to a close, our sun has set some hours ago, but it is not yet midnight and a long way further west it is still within office hours.

I’ve been watching which programming languages are being used on DH projects. Of the ones I have experience with, it seems that PHP and Python are the front runners. Java has apparently not caught on in the DH community, unless I’ve been looking in the wrong places. I can’t say that I’m very surprised or regretful.

As someone with a special interest in literature I like to know how different programming languages deal with handling text, and with that in mind I regret the passing of Perl, the first one I learnt in any detail. While Perl doesn’t have the structured development platforms that its successors do, and attempts to make it look object-oriented are really a veneer, Perl’s flexibility in pattern matching and in manipulating text don’t seem to have been replicated in the languages that are popular today. So something potentially valuable to DH has been lost. (Something else I’ve often regretted is the paucity of pattern matching options in SQL.) Could this possibly be remedied?

The boundaries of DH

I’m rather thinking aloud here. I was asked to define Digital Humanities when I registered and yet I realise that I don’t know whether some of the work I’ve done in the past would qualify as Digital Humanities or not.

To begin with a hypothetical example based on a real project. I developed and maintained for some years a site on behalf of the Children’s Society Hidden Lives Revealed. It documented with case studies and other materials the work that the Society did in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in particular the homes which the Society ran. There is a Web page for each home with information about it. An interesting exercise would be to take some of the larger, long-running homes and map them and where the children who lived in them came from. Did this change over the lifetime of the homes? How far on average were children moved from their previous home? Were some parts of the country over- or under-supplied with homes? And so on.

Another example is the research I did at the Cambridge Group for the History of Population, using data from the 1891-1921 Censuses. This was quantitative analysis of such matters as occupational data and household structure, using SAS.

Both of these projects are historical, but the research I’ve described seems to me to be sliding into social science. When I later supported research on recent Censuses, the kind of questions we asked at the Cambridge Group (had one been allowed to look at contemporary data in the same amount of detail) would definitely have come under the banner of social science.

Actually DH of this kind has been quietly going on at places such as the Cambridge Group for a long time. Perhaps I could rephrase my initial question as where exactly are the boundaries of the humanities? And one development in recent years is taking large-scale quantitative methods and using them in places they haven’t been found in the past.

What I’m doing for the Day of DH

I have quite a busy day today, but I’ll do my best to participate ‘on the day’.

Firstly, I’ve added a new entry to the Digital Classicist wiki, as mentioned in my last post. It’s a small and rather old but possibly useful tool – an online English-Latin and Latin-English dictionary, with an associated spreadsheet. A slightly tricky resource to catalogue as what remains online are various by-products of some downloadable software that seems to be no longer available. Here’s a screenshot of my entry:

Secondly, I’m applying for a job back at the University where I used to work, and writing the statement about my suitability for it. The job is not in DH, but uses relevant skills and will put me back in the academic sphere with easier access to DH. I’d better not say too much about it, but there has been a recent change in management which may work in my favour.

Thirdly, I’ll catch up on my backlog of messages from Humanist (see another earlier post).

Fourthy, I’ve got a couple of DH-related posts brewing in my mind which I’ll try to write during the day.

The Digital Classicist Wiki

I have taken a practical step towards involvement in digital humanities by becoming an editor on the Digital Classicist Wiki. My participation takes two forms: bobbing up on the monthly sprint and chat room on the first Tuesday of the month, and editing the content of the site at other times.

I’m always a bit late to the party for the sprints because of not being free on the first Tuesday for much of the time when they happen. But I’ve been made welcome in the discussions in the chat room.

I’ve learnt the ropes about creating and editing pages on the site, by inspecting it and by having my contributions corrected by other editors. I’ve fixed or deleted some broken URLs and added some helpful navigation links. Possibly more usefully, I’ve delved into my back catalogue of classics resources, beginning with TOCS-IN, to which I used to contribute, and the VTS tutorial in Classics, which I worked on. I have details of dozens of resources, either in old messages from Humanist or other lists, or in my Diigo social bookmarking records. Some are out of date, duplicated by better resources or not perhaps of sufficient scholarly value for the wiki, but I’ve found quite a few to be worth adding and am gradually working my way through them.

Humanist and me

I’m a long-term reader of the Humanist email list, going back to about Volume 4! I wonder how many others go back that far? Probably quite a few.

Curiously, I was introduced to Humanist by a mathematician friend. He’d spotted that (like him) I was interested in using computers to play around with text, and thought some of the content might interest me. At that time, Humanist was also used for a forum for scholarly queries, especially interdisciplinary ones, that did not especially relate to computing, such as unidentified quotations.

Actually, at the time I joined, Humanist was falling into a rather fallow phase (someone described it around then as ‘once terrific, now mostly announcements’). It subsequently revived, and now has a mix of discussion among all the calls for papers, job adverts and conference announcements.

Relatively few people contribute to the discussions and as I am not usually among them and don’t have a job to advertise or a conference to promote, I’m one of the ‘lurkers’ on the list. But over the years I have posted to it occasionally. Mostly just to report a relevant fact (7.387, 8.128, 17.347, 24.35, 26.198), but also to draw attention to the work of my then colleagues (17.336, 25.70), or sites I’ve contributed to (23.574, 26.750) Or drawing on my background in Classics to make a relevant point (6.521, 6.717, 7.562, 17.038). Occasionally they are purely my own opinions (25.381(+25.411), 25.837). My factoids contributed to Humanist have been on subjects as varied as Scots dialect, the omnipotence of God, the Viennese Skandalkonzert of 1913 (off-list, to the poster of 14.0139), machine translation of Ozymandias (off list, but quoted at 11.586) and the belief that an image seen at conception can affect the appearance of the resulting child. Perhaps my favourite post is in 22.472, on the subject of anti-spam software detecting rude words where none exist, with examples.

Why do I still read Humanist? (I estimate that I spend 5-10 minutes a day doing so most days). Interesting discussions (or links to them), a desire to keep abreast of what’s going on in digital humanities, and possible work openings. I’d just put in a plea; it’s taken me quite a while to write this article because results of an archive search are a mess; the issues are returned in a variety of formats with titles that are often unhelpful (‘Folder Contents – Humanist Discussion Group’) and posts for the last few years are threaded so that the issue number at the top of the page returned isn’t the issue in which my contribution appears. It would be easier if the archive were one page per issue throughout; a thread could be followed by searching on the issue number in which it started, which is quoted in replies, or on the subject header. The Humanist archives are potentially such a knowledge base, as well as a record of how thinking about digital humanities (the term wasn’t in use when I started reading it!) has developed over the years. They deserve to be easily citable.

My life as a blogger

I have written a number of blogs over the years.  The one most similar to this one is Volley, in which I put miscellaneous observations on computing technology and culture.  It’s been a bit quiet recently, but I still write for it occasionally.  There are a few entries relating specifically to digital humanities, such as a write-up of the first Digital Humanities Congress.  I may cross-post one or two other articles from it here.

I have from time to time contributed to blogs at work, such as Coffee with ILRT.  Probably I should have done more of this than I did, because one comment others make about all my blogs is that they are well written.  Part of the reason for blogging outside work is to keep my skills as a writer fresh and in use.

I maintain two blogs relating to my life outside work.  One, which I have written on average weekly since 2003, covers classical music performances I have given or heard.  It’s a kind of diary, so I have a record of what I’ve done (though I keep a spreadsheet of works I’ve performed as well), but it also gives an outlet for me to write about music and its associated culture.  The blog used to get comments regularly, though in recent years it’s become a lot quieter – there are so many more similar blogs now than there once were.  I know people read it though because sometimes they come up to me in choir and tell me!

Another blog, which I’ve kept on and off since 2005, contains book reviews.  These aren’t of best sellers, but are mostly of books (not all good ones) for which there are few other reviews online.  I’m writing quite a lot there this year, as I’ve resolved to read or at least look at one unread book in our house each week.


DH in my last job

I worked for a long time at Bristol University in what was for a long time ILRT (Institute for Learning and Research Technology), now Research IT.  I was one of several people who were made redundant in late 2014.  By a rather sad coincidence, this was precisely the time at which digital humanities at Bristol began to get going.  One example: I’d been following developments in TEI for years, and a workshop on TEI was organised the month after I left!  Around the same time two lecturers specifically with a DH interest were appointed.

I have reflected on why DH was slower to get going at Bristol than elsewhere.  One contributory factor was that there was little interdisciplinary contact, especially in IT-related matters.  ILRT was not as well known as it should have been within the University (at one time we were even discouraged from developing contacts in the University Computer Centre!) and work we could have done went elsewhere. Latterly, IT support became more centralised and more University-wide systems began to emerge.  I was involved in one: the data.bris research data management system, which revealed pockets of humanities research data scattered around.  Many of these projects were of the straightforward sort where humanities material is digitised and sometimes put online ‘as is’, but the research on it is not otherwise facilitated by computing power.

I worked on one such project, the migration to a local host of the thousands of photographs and associated metadata in Visualising China.  It was decided to set up a customised instance of Omeka, which I did (correcting some dozens of errors in the metadata along the way), but the priorities of the project changed and it was decided to use another CMS.  At the time of writing the new site isn’t public, so the site looks as it did in early 2014 when I started work on it.

Apart from this, I detected a cultural reluctance in the University’s humanities departments to be involved with computing at all.  I used to receive notices on paper of seminars and special lectures in the discipline I originally studied; when this stopped happening no electronic equivalent was set up.  When I asked why there was no email list, I was told there were ‘technical reasons’ for its not being possible.  Really?  When it’s been possible for decades to set up and run email lists?  (Cynically, I wonder whether it was just that no-one could be bothered to do anything about it.)  But if even an email list is too much work, how quickly will there be any further progress with digital humanities?