What difference does digital make? The present (and future) of Digital Humanities in the UK

Recently we welcomed a distinguished guest speaker to the DH Lab, Professor Jane Winters of the School of Advanced Study, University of London, to give a seminar on the current landscape of Digital Humanities (DH) in the UK.  Prof. Winters discussed the results of a major new survey, commissioned by the School of Advanced Study, the British Academy, the British Library and the Arts and Humanities Research Council, into DH research, teaching and practice in universities, GLAM institutions (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums) and the creative industries. The aims of the report were to document the current landscape of DH research, teaching and practice; identify what kind of support this needs; and explore possible demand for a UK-based DH network or association and the nature of the role that such an organisation could play.

Interpreting the statistics of the report for a highly engaged audience, Winters drew out from the facts and figures a picture of a diverse DH landscape, in which respondents identified themselves as belonging to almost forty different research areas.  More than three quarters also had extensive involvement in teaching, either in their subject area or in DH.  Winters noted that not all digital research and digital scholarship is described by its practitioners as ‘Digital Humanities’, even when it is firmly rooted in the study of Humanities sources and their related areas of specialisation.  As researchers within universities, we therefore need to ensure that when we collaborate with creative partners or GLAM institutions, we try to use a common language to describe what we do: this will help not only in the project itself, but also in how we communicate what we do to those outside our particular areas of expertise.

Collaboration and its challenges were key themes: respondents reported wanting to collaborate more frequently, but running up against resourcing issues that prevented them from fulfilling their aims.  The report also found that interactions between institutions are sometimes regarded more as transactional than as genuinely collaborative, leading to wariness of working together again in future.  This was particularly an issue for collaborators in the GLAM sector and in creative industries, who often felt that universities did not treat them as genuine partners but rather as services.  Winters recommended that researchers working within universities could address this by maintaining regular conversations with partner institutions throughout the project and by ensuring that our project partners always gain meaningful, tangible benefits from the collaboration.  The best results tended to be found where researchers had built relationships with partner organisations over a longer time frame, rather than approaching them when a funding application was already in progress.

In thinking about the role a UK-based DH organisation could play, digital literacy was seen as an important goal, with a wide range of skills that were considered useful to develop, including programming skills, competencies in using specific software, manipulating data and researching online. Both formal training and self-teaching was considered helpful, but there was a clear preference for specific skills training. Winters noted that these skills varied depending on the sector, with the GLAM sector in particular requiring some essential digital skills for many roles. Sharing of best practice was also considered to be of key importance, particularly in understanding what has worked for others and what has not, in order to save both time and money.

Winters concluded with a thought-provoking question, asking us to think not only about why the humanities needs the digital, but also about why the digital needs the humanities. We already have digital data stretching back several decades, and ‘born digital’ sources will become ever more prevalent. Most of us will at some point need to work with archived web, emails, personal digital archives, social media, or government file systems in order to do our research, and, crucially, we need to ensure that we can apply our skills as humanities researchers in analysing this vast body of digital data.

Charlotte Tupman

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