Digital Humanities: a Department, a Field and an Idea

Introduction: what is DH, and does anyone care?

There is a whole genre of writing out there on the subject of “What is Digital Humanities?”. For some, this is an existential question, fundamental to the basis of research, teaching and the environment of those parts of the academy which exist between computing and the humanities. For others, it is a semantic curiosity, part of an evolution of terminology from “computing in the humanities” to “humanities computing”, finally arriving at “digital humanities” when the instrumentalist implications of the first two no longer encompassed the field of activities described. For others still, it is a relic of 1990s angst over terminology as computing began to permeate the academic environment. Whichever camp one is in, it behoves people, like me, with Digital Humanities in their job title to revisit the question from time to time. This post is an attempt at this, with a particular emphasis on the Department of Digital Humanities (DDH) at King’s College London. The strap-line of the present-day DDH is “critical inquiry with and about the digital”. In what follows, I hope to unpack what I think this means for the field, and for DDH, which has been my institutional home since 2006. Those fourteen years have seen immense changes, both in the Department and in the field of Digital Humanities (hereafter DH) more broadly. Furthermore, tomorrow (1st February) marks six months since I took over as Head of Department of DDH. Therefore, this seems as good a moment as any for a moment of autobiographically driven reflection. I state, of course, the usual disclaimers. Like any healthy academic environment, (D)DH is marked by a diversity of views, a diversity we pride ourselves on embracing and celebrating; and despite being Head of Department, I speak only for myself, in a very personal capacity. Also, any errors of fact or interpretation in what follows are mine and mine alone.

Before I arrived at King’s, I worked for the AHRC’s ICT in Arts and Humanities Initiative at the University of Reading (to the great credit of Reading’s web support services, the AHRC ICT programme’s web pages, complete with the quintessentially 1990s banner I designed, are still available). At the time, I was no doubt suffering a colossal intellectual hangover from my efforts to apply GIS to Bronze Age Aegean volcanic tephrachronology and its archaeological/cultural contexts, and this may have coloured my view of things; but the purpose of this programme was to scope how computing might change the landscape of the humanities, and to funnel public money accordingly. This is the kind of thing that the National Endowment for the Humanities in the US has done, to great acclaim, with its Office for Digital Humanities.

What I was not, at this point, was any kind of Digital Humanist. Working outside the Digital Humanities/Humanities Computing (both appellations have been used over time, but this is another story still), I recall some push-back to the application of digital methods and “e-infrastructure” from some less engaged with technology in their work, who were concerned about reductivism, and the suborning of discursive curiosity to the tyranny of calculation. I particularly recall the debates about GIS in archaeology: GIS, we were told, encouraged over-quantification and processualism, thus stifling discursive, human-centred interpretation of the past. That, at least, is how I remember the landscape when I came to work for the AHRC programme.

Keeping this in mind, let us return to the “what is DH” question. This has become more nuanced and more complex as the “Information Age” has spread and developed over the last thirty years or so. It is well worth remembering that in that in the last 20 years (at least), “the Digital” has impacted on “the Humanities” far beyond the circle of those who self-identify as Digital Humanists in myriad ways (even recognizing that it is a highly permeable circle in the first place). For many “the Digital” was once a convenient method of sending messages supported by university communication networks, which eventually gave way to suites of tools, and associated methods, which provoked new questions about the approach, methodology and even purpose of what we were doing.  Historically, many of these questions were (and are) reflected in the preoccupations of wider society as “the Digital” seeped into the praxes of everyday life. Much of the debate in the bits of academia I inhabited in the early 2000s was couched in terms of if, or how, digital technology would enable research to be done faster, more efficiently and over ever larger distances. There were even questions of computers taking over human roles and functions: perish that thought now. Taking an historical view provides a bigger and contingent picture for this: my own generation was raised in the 1980s on movies such as Terminator, Tron, Lawnmower Man and War Games, scenarios, sometimes dystopian ones, where semi-sentient machines take over the world. I have long argued to my students that it is no coincidence that the rise of “Internetworking”, and the communication protocols that enabled it, including Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of the WWW in 1989,  coincided with a genre of Hollywood movies about computers becoming better at intelligence than humans.

Enter DDH

The series of intellectual processes which led to the field of DH as we know it today thus unfolded against a backdrop of great change in society and culture, driven by computing technology. I come to the shape this gave more specifically to precursors of DH, such as “humanities computing” a little later. But these were, and are, certainly factors which have shaped the development of DH at King’s. Traversing several and various incarnations, “Humanities Computing” at King’s goes back to the early 1970s. There are traces of these times in the fabric of the environment today. If one walks from the present-day Department’s main premises on the 3rd floor of KCL’s Strand Building, down the main second floor corridor of the King’s Building  towards the refectory, in the bookshelves on the left hand side – amid Sir Lawrence Freedman’s library on the history of war and small display of Sir Charles Wheatstone’s scientific instruments, is a collection of volumes and conference proceedings that originate from CCH/DDH’s early activities (picture below).

DDH came in to being, by that name, in 2010. Prior to that, it was known as the “Centre for Computing in the Humanities”. It was established as an academic department in its own right in 2002. Harold Short, formerly director of CCH and the first Head of Department of DDH, wrote that:

The Centre for Computing in the Humanities (CCH) at King’s College London is a teaching department and a research centre in the College’s School of Humanities. Its current status was reached during the course of the 2001-2002 academic year, and may be seen as the natural outcome of a process that began in the 1970s.  ‘Humanities computing’ began at King’s in the early 1970s, with Computing Centre staff assisting humanities academics to generate concordances and create thesaurus listings. The arrival of Roy Wisbey as Professor of German gave the activity a particular boost. Wisbey had started the Centre for Literary and Linguistic Computing while at Cambridge (a Centre which is still in existence, with John Dawson as its Director). In 1973 the inaugural meeting of the Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing (ALLC) was held at King’s, and Wisbey was elected as its first Secretary. Although Wisbey did not feel it necessary to create a specific humanities computing center, he was Vice-Principal of the College in the late 1980s when a series of institutional mergers gave him the chance to propose the formation of a ‘Humanities and Information Management’ group in the restructured Computing Centre.

[Harold Short, July 2002 – reproduced with his permission]

 My central argument is that DDH’s story is one of evolution, development, and even – perhaps contrary to some appearances – continuity. This is an impression driven by the kind of question that we have always asked at King’s. As when I joined the Department fourteen years ago, two far more interesting questions than “what is Digital Humanities” were what is “the digital” for in the humanities; and how has “the digital” changed through time? For the last fifteen years have been a key period for “humanities done with the Digital”. Digital tools allow humanists to interrogate data more deeply, more thoroughly, with greater attention to the nuance between qualitative and quantitative data (which is far less grounded in the humanities than in the social sciences). Those questions are as interesting now as they were then; and they have only become more acute as the wider landscapes of technology, the humanities, and connective research have changed.

To text or not to text

When I joined King’s, perhaps even before, one of the first things I learned about the heritage (with a small “h”) of Humanities computing/Computing in the Humanities/Digital Humanities is that, particularly in the US, it had a long history of engagement with the world of text, and its natural home there, where it had one, lay in University English Departments. Text was certainly a low hanging fruit for the kind of qualitative and quantitative research that computing enabled. Many DH scholars trace the origins of the field to the life and work of Roberto Busa (1913 – 2011), the Jesuit priest whose scholarship in the 1950s on lemmatizing the writings of Thomas Aquinas resulted the Index Thomisticus using punch-card programming, which is widely regarded as the first major application of “Computing in the Humanities”. In the context of 1950s computing, the project was enabled by the epistemological inclination of text to lend itself to calculation: text, as a formal system of recording “data”, which is convertible in to information by the process of sentences and paragraphs, and thence in to knowledge by the process of reading, can be (fairly) unproblematically transferred to punch cards, then the principle form of storing data (this was a vast human undertaking, utilizing the skills of many skilled and unskilled operatives, many of them women, whose stories are now being re-told by the work of Melissa Terras and Julianne Nyhan. Matthew Kirschenbaum takes up this argument:

First, after numeric input, text has been by far the most tractable data type for computers to manipulate. Unlike images, audio, video, and so on, there is a long tradition of text based data processing that was within the capabilities of even some of the earliest computer systems and that has for decades fed research in fields like stylistics, linguistics, and author attribution studies, all heavily associated with English departments.

[Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. “What is digital humanities and what’s it doing in English departments?”, in M. terras, J. Nyhan and E. Vanhoutte (eds.) 2016: Defining Digital Humanities. Routledge: 213.]

CCH did a lot of work on text, but it did many other things besides. Even before I joined, I remember seeing CCH as a dynamic crucible of new thinking, a forum in which classicists, archaeologists, textual scholars, literary researchers, visualization experts, theatre academics, and more, could come together and speak some kind of common language about what they did, and especially how they developed, critiqued and used digital tools. This was a view shared by much of the rest of the world. Most visibly to me, it was recognized by the AHRC’s award of the grant that enabled me to come to King’s, the AHRC ICT Methods Network, at that time the biggest single award the AHRC (and its predecessor, the Arts and Humanities Research Board) had ever made. It was a revelation to me that such a place could even exist. It was certainly nothing like the environment I had known as a lonely GIS/Archaeology PhD researcher, working in a Department full of experts on Plato. It was therefore with great excitement that I joined CCH in January 2006, as a research associate in the Arts and Humanities E-Science Support Centre, which was attached to the Methods Network (what AHeSSC was and what it did is another long story, which is partly told in a much earlier post on this blog). It was just as exciting as an environment to work in as it had looked as an outsider.

Connective research

A delve into the Centre’s public communications at this time show how this collaborative spirit bought it to re-think what the humanities might mean in the Information Age. The Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine [a venerable resource now, having been launched back in 2001, but which is now an indispensable tool for much research on the history of the Web] took an imprint of CCH’s website on Saturday 14th January 2006, two days before my first day at work there. It has this to say about the Centre’s role. This seems to confirm the recollection above, that CCH was primarily an agent of collaborative research:

The Centre for Computing in the Humanities (CCH) is in the School of Humanities at King’s College London. The primary objective of the CCH is to foster awareness, understanding and skill in the scholarly applications of computing. It operates in three main areas: as a department with responsibility for its own academic programme; as a research centre promoting the appropriate application of computing in humanities research; and as a unit providing collegial support to its sister departments in the School of Humanities. As a research centre, CCH is a member of the Humanities Research Centres, the School’s umbrella grouping of its research activities with a specifically inter-disciplinary focus.

Despite the emphasis on collaborative research, one can see from this that CCH was also a place that did, very much, its own original thinking, grounded in the methods and thinking that were driving humanities computing at the time (see above). We can get a flavour of this by looking at the titles of the seminars it ran, which are still there for all to see in Wayback: “Choice in the digital domain – will copyright extend or stifle choice?”; “Adventures in Space and Time: Spatial and Temporal Information in the Digital Humanities”, “From hypermedia Georgian Cities to VR Jazz Age Montmartre: hyperlinks or seamlessness?”, and “The historian as aesthete: One scenario for the future of history and computing”. Some of these titles would not feel at all out of place in the seminar series of the DDH of today. Therefore, while the field, and the Department, have both (of course) changed significantly over the years, this suggests that there are some threads of continuity, as well as evolution, running through: innovation, responses to the challenges and opportunities of the digital, thinking through new approaches to the human record; and indeed what the “human record” is in the digital age. This, certainly, accounts for the first of the areas indicated above, in which CCH emerged as a department responsible for its own academic programme. What, I think, has changed most, is how the department collaborates.

The late 1990/early 2000s were a time of great change and innovation in DH, both technologically and institutionally. A 2011 Ithaka research report noted at the time that

In 2009 the Department of Digital Humanities (DDH), formerly known as the Centre for Computing in the Humanities (CCH), presented the model of a successful cross-disciplinary collective of digital practitioners engaged in teaching and research, with knowledge transfer activities and a significant number of research grants contributing to its ongoing revenue plan.

This highlights the fact that much of the Centre’s activity depended on income from externally funded research projects.  Ground-breaking collaborations with which CCH were involved, and in many cases led, still resonate: Henry III Fine Rolls, in musicology, and the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England all produced world-class original research, which contributed to a variety of areas, some directly in the associated humanities domains, some in CCH itself. Interdisciplinary collaboration was the lifeblood of the centre at this time.

It’s all about the method

One thread of continuity is what I would call “methodological emplacement”. That is to say, CCH/DDH has always had an emphasis on what it means to do Digital Humanities, the practice of method as well as the implementation of theory (whose theory is a key question). This, in itself, challenges “conventional” views of the humanities, inherently rooted in the theory and epistemology of particular ways of looking at the world. Among other things, it results in a willingness to deconstruct the significance of the research output – the monograph, the journal article, the chapter in the august collection. Providing a space to think beyond this, to consider the process, the method, and other kinds of output, in itself, lends itself interdisciplinary digital work. Arguably, the three strands to the CCH of the mid-2000s outlined above must, surely, constitute such a space, and is surely still a concern at the core of the present-day DH.

In a forthcoming handbook volume on research methods for the Digital Humanities that we are co-editing myself and my DDH colleague Dr Kristen Schuster develop the idea of methodology drawing from multiple theories:

The fact that each concept illustrates a matter of process rather than output from different perspectives is, we argue, telling of how badly we need to discuss research methods at large instead of research outputs. Considering research as a process, rather than an amorphous mass of activity behind a scholarly output, makes room for identifying crosscurrents in theories, platforms, infrastructures and media used by academics and practitioners – both in and beyond the humanities.

One can hardly expect a field which is concerned with an academic research programme in digital methods and their “appropriate application” in the humanities” not to change, and to expand the theoretical basis that underpins it, as the Information Age galloped on. My personal “year zero”, 2006, was only two years after Facebook was founded (February 2004), and two months before the launch of Twitter (March 2006), a year after Google branched in to mapping, and two years after the first widely-used adoption of the term “Web 2.0”. In our 2017 book, Academic Crowdsourcing in the Humanities: Crowds, Communities and Co-production, my colleague Mark Hedges and I argue that the mid-2000s were a transformative period in networked interactivity online, the time when movements like internet-enabled crowdsourcing have their origins (the word “crowdsourcing” itself was coined in 2006 in Wired magazine): DH was transformed, just like everything else.

Change in DH here, and everywhere else, continued apace. A key moment of the Department’s more recent history was 2015, when the King’s Digital Lab was established, providing an environment for much of the developer and analyst expertise that had previously resided in DDH, and before that CCH. Today the two centres have a closely symbiotic relationship, with KDL establishing a ground-breaking new agenda in the emerging field of Research Software Engineering for the humanities. This is far more than simply a new way of doing software engineering: rather, KDL’s work is providing new critical insights into the social and collaborative processes that underpin excellent DH research and teaching, establishing new ways of building both technology and method. The creation of KDL also underlines the fact that “DH at King’s” is no longer the preserve of a single Department or centre; rather DH is now a field which is receiving investment of time, energy, ideas and, yes, money across the institution.

With and About the Digital: from Busa to Facebook

Just as Busa’s work in the 1950s opened up text to new forms of interrogation by transferring it to the medium of punch cards where it could be automatically concordanced, so these developments open up the human cultural record, including its more recent manifestations,  to new kinds of interrogation and analysis. I do not think this should be a particularly controversial view. After all, my former employer, the AHRC, fully embraced this post-millennial epistemological shift in the humanities very explicitly with its “Beyond Text” strategic initiative, which ran from 2007 to 2012.  This was described as a “a strategic programme to generate new understandings of, and research into, the impact and significance of the way we communicate”, a response to the “increased movement and cross-fertilization between countries and cultures, and the acceleration of global communications”. The reality that the humanities themselves were changing in the face of a newly technological society is writ large.

This truth is not changing. In the eight years since the Beyond Text initiative finished, global communications, and the kinds of digital culture and society they enable have grown more complex, more pervasive and less subject to the control of any individual human authority or agency (with the possible exception of the Silicon Valley multinational giants) and, with the emergence of phenomena such as Fake News, ever more problematic. The digitalization (as opposed to digitization) of culture, and heritage, and politics, and communications – all the things it means to be human – has opened up new arrays of research questions and subjects, just as the digitalization of text did in the twentieth century. To put it another way, the expansion of “the Digital” has given DH the space to evolve. I believe it must embrace this change, while at the same time retaining and enriching the humanities-driven critical groundwork upon which it has always rested. 

Alan Turing himself said that “being digital should be of more interest than being electronic”. And so it has always been at DDH. Digital Humanists have always known this. The present strapline of the Department of Digital Humanities is “critical inquiry with and about the digital”. The prepositions “with” and “about” provide space for a multivocal approach, which includes both the work DDH(/CCH) has excelled at in the past, and that which it does now. Crucially in my view this enables them to learn from one another. Critical research with the digital” is, I would argue, exactly what Busa did, it is exactly what the English Laws, Prosopography and Fine Rolls project are.  At the same time, “critical research about the digital” recognises the reality that “the digital” itself has become a subject of research – the elements of society and culture (increasingly all of these, at least in the West) which is mediated by digital technology and environment.  As I finish my first six months as Head and look to the next, I want to see the Department continue to be a space which enables the co-equality of “with” and “about”.

A History of Place in the Digital Age

There’s an interesting tension between writing a book with a title like A History of Place in the Digital Age, while in the process engaging in a massacre of trees to produce a paper book. Anyway, it’s now out, and available from my wonderful publishers at Routledge.

I’m going to try to blog here a little more in (the rest of) 2019, especially offering some ideas on the spatiality of scholarly communication. A central premise of the book is that communication through different media has always both fractured and shaped our ideas of place, and that we can trace this back in to the distant prehistories of the Internet, to the origins of print media, and perhaps even further. This surely applies to the communication and consumption of scholarly ideas, where digital media are rethinking what it even means to have scholarly ideas. One thinks of the work of scholars such as the Classicist Sarah E. Bond, whose ground-breaking work on scholarly outreach and public communication puts Classical ideas into contemporary social, cultural and political contexts, thus (surely) inviting audiences, both inside and outside the academy, to revisit the substance as well as the communication of those ideas. Linking to my own more recent work in digital art history, one can begin to see parallels with recent arguments which suggest that it is not so much the distinction between “digitized” versus “digital” art history (i.e. the use of digital imagery and resources versus the use of computational analysis to understand individual works of art) which is important, as much as what the role of art becomes in a society in which the Internet is ubiquitously and fundamentally integrated.

Here, anyway, is the table of contents:

1 Spatial humanities in the digital age: the key debates

2 The longue durée of the spatial humanities: Part I: Communicating place

3 The longue durée of the spatial humanities: Part II: The case of archaeology

4 Text and place

5 Spatial humanities and neogeography

6 Spatial narrative

7 The structure of geodata

8 Motion in place

9 Conclusion

And there is still some room at the launch on 9th May.

Last day in Indiana

It’s my last day in Indianapolis. It’s been hard work and I’ve met some great people. I’ve experienced Indianapolis’s hottest day since 1954, and *really* learned to appreciate good air conditioning. Have we, in the last two weeks, defined what a deep map actually is? In a sense we did, but more importantly than the semantic definition, I reckon we managed to form a set of shared understandings, some fairly intuitive, which articulate (for me at least) how deep mapping differs from other kinds of mapping. It must integrate, and at least some of this integration must involve the linear concepts of what, when and where (but see below). It must reflect experience at the local level as well as data at the macro level, and it must provide a means of scaling between them. It must allow the reader (I hereby renounce the word ‘user’ in relation to deep maps) to navigate the data and derive their own conclusions. Unlike a GIS – ‘so far so Arc’ is a phrase I have co-coined this week – it cannot, and should not attempt to, actualize every possible connection in the data, either implicitly or explicitly. Above all, a deep map must have a topology that enables all these things, and if, in the next six months, the Polis Center can move us towards  a schema underlying that topology, then I think our efforts, and theirs, will have been well rewarded.

The bigger questions for me are what does this really mean for the ‘spatial humanities’; and what the devil are the spatial humanities anyway. They have no Wikipedia entry (so how can they possibly exist?). I have never particularly liked the term ‘spatial turn’, as it implies a setting apart, which I do not think the spatial humanities should be about. The spatial humanities mean nothing if they do not communicate with the rest of the humanities, and beyond. Perhaps – and this is the landscape historian in me talking – it is about the kind of topology that you can extract from objects in the landscape itself. Our group in Week 2 spent a great deal of time thinking about the local and the experiential, and how the latter can be mapped on to the former, in the context of a particular Unitarian ministry in Indianapolis. What are the stories you can get from the landscape, not just tell about it.

Allow me to illustrate the point with war memorials. The city’s primary visitor information site,, states that Indianapolis has more war memorials than any city apart from Washington D.C.. Last Saturday, a crew of us hired a car and visited Columbus IN, an hour and a half’s drive away. In Columbus there is a memorial to most of America’s wars: eight by six Indiana limestone columns, arranged in a close grid formation with free public access from the outside. Engraved on all sides of the columns around the outside, except the outer facing edges, are names of the fallen, their dates, and the war in which they served. On the inner columns– further in, where you have to explore to find them, giving them the mystique of the inner sanctum – are inscribed the full texts of letters written home by fallen servicemen. In most cases, they seem to have been written just days before the dates of death.  The deeply personal natures of these letters provide an emotional connection, and combined with the spatiality of the columns, this connection forms a very specific, and very deliberately told, spatial narrative. It was also a deeply moving experience.

Today, in Indianapolis itself, I was exploring the very lovely canal area, and came across the memorial to the USS Indianapolis. The Indianapolis was a cruiser of the US Navy sunk by Japanese torpedoes in 1945, with heavy loss of life. Particular poignancy is given to the memorial by a narrative of the ship’s history, and the unfolding events leading up to the sinking, inscribed in prose on the monument’s pedestal. I stood there and read it, totally engrossed and as moved by the story as I was by the Columbus memorial.

USS Indianapolis memorial

The point for deep maps: American war memorials tell stories in a very deliberate, designed and methodical way, to deeply powerful effect in the two examples I saw. British war memorials tend not to do this. You get a monument, lists of names of the fallen and the war in question, and perhaps a motto of some sort. An explicit story is not told. This does not make the experience any less moving, but it is based on a shared and implicit communal memory, whose origins are not made explicit in the fabric of the monument. It reflects a subtle difference in how servicemen and women are memorialized, in the formation of the inherently spatial stories that are told in order to remember them.

This is merely one example of subtle differences which run through any built environment of any period in any place, and they become less subtle as you scale in more and more cultures with progressively weaker ties. Britain and America. Europe, Britain and America. Europe, America and Africa, and so on. We scale out and out, and then we get to the point where the approaches to ‘what’ ‘when’ and ‘where’ – the approaches that we worked on in our group – must be recognised not as universal ways of looking at the world, but as products of our British/American/Australian backgrounds, educations and cultural memories. Thus it will be with any deep map.

How do we explain to the shade of Edward Said that by mapping these narratives we are not automatically claiming ownership of them, however much we might want or try not to? How deep will these deep maps need to go…?

Deep maps in Indy

I am here in a very hot and sunny Indianapolis trying to figure out what is meant by deep mapping, with an NEH Summer Institute at UIPUI hosted by the Polis Center here. There follows a very high-level attempt to synthesize some thoughts from the first week.

Deep mapping – we think, although we’ll all probably have changed our minds by next Friday, if not well before  – is about representing (or, as I am increasingly preferring to think, remediating) the things that Ordnance Survey would, quite rightly, run a perfectly projected and triangulated mile from mapping at all. Fuzziness. Experience. Emotion. What it means to move through a landscape at a particular time in a particular way. Or, as Ingold might say, to negotiate a taskscape. Communicating these things meaningfully as stories or arguments. There has been lots of fascinating back and forth about this all week, although – and this is the idea at least – next week we move a beyond the purely abstract and grapple with what it means to actually design one.

If we’re to define the meaning we’re hoping to build here, it’s clear that we need to rethink some pretty basic terms. E.g. we talk instinctively about ‘reading’ maps, but I have always wondered how well that noun and that verb really go together. We assume that ‘deep mapping’ for the humanities – a concept which we assume will be at least partly online – has to stem from GIS, and that a ‘deep map, whatever we might end up calling that, will be some kind of paradigm shift beyond ‘conventional’ computer mapping. But the ’depth’ of a map is surely a function of how much knowledge – knowledge rather than information – is added to the base layer, where that information comes from, and how it is structured. The amazing HGIS projects we’ve seen this week give us the framework we need to think in, but the concept of ‘information’ therein should surely be seen as a starting point. The lack of very basic kinds of such information in popular mapping applications has been highlighted, and perhaps serves to illustrate this point. In 2008, Mary Spence, President of the British Cartographic Society, argued in a lecture:

Corporate cartographers are demolishing thousands of years of history, not to mention Britain’s remarkable geography, at a stroke by not including them on [GPS] maps which millions of us now use every day. We’re in danger of losing what makes maps so unique, giving us a feel for a place even if we’ve never been there.

To put it another way, are ‘thin maps’ really all that ‘thin’, when they are produced and curated properly according to accepted technical and scholarly standards? Maps are objects of emotion, in a way that texts are not (which is not to deny the emotional power of text, it is simply to recognize that it is a different kind of power). Read Mike Parker’s 2009 Map Addict for an affectionate and quirky tour of the emotional power of OS maps (although anyone with archaeological tendencies will have to grit their teeth when he burbles about the mystic power of ley lines and the cosmic significance of the layout of Milton Keynes). According to Spence, a map of somewhere we have never been ties together our own experiences of place, whether absolute (i.e. georeferenced) or abstract, along with our expectations and our needs. If this is true for the lay audiences of, say the Ordnance Survey, isn’t the vision of a deep map articulated this past week some sort of scholarly equivalent? We can use an OS map to make a guess, an inference or an interpretation (much discussion this week has, directly or indirectly, focused on these three things and their role in scholarly approaches). What we cannot do with an OS map is annotate or embed it with any of these. The defining function of a deep map, for me, is an ability to do this, as well as the ability to structure the outputs in a formal way (RDF is looking really quite promising, I think – if you treat different mapped objects in the object-subject-predicate framework, that overcomes a lot of the problems of linearity and scale that we’ve battled with this week). The different levels of ephemerality that this would mean categorising (or, heaven help us, quantifying) is probably a story for another post, but a deep map should be able to convey experience of moving through the landscape being described.

There are other questions which bringing such a map into the unforgiving world of scholarly publication would undoubtedly entail. Must a map be replicable? Must someone else be able to come along and map the same thing in the same way, or at least according to their own subjective experience(s)?  In a live link up the UCLA team behind the Roman Forum project demonstrated their stuff, and argued that the visual is replicable and –relatively easily – publishable, but of course other sensory experiences are not.  We saw, for example, a visualisation of how far an orator’s voice could carry. The visualisation looks wonderful, and the quantitative methodology even more so, but to be meaningful as an instrument in the history of Roman oratory, one would have to consider so many subjective variables – the volume of the orator’s voice (of course), the ambient noise and local weather conditions (especially wind). There are even less knowable functions, such as how well individuals in the crowd could hear, whether they had any hearing impairments etc. This is not to carp –after all, we made (or tried to make) a virtue of addressing and constraining such evidential parameters in the MiPP project, and our outputs certainly looked nothing like as spectacular as UCLA’s virtual Rome – but a deep map must be able to cope with those constraints.

To stand any chance of mapping them, we need to treat such ephemera as objects, and object-orientation seemed to be where our – or at least my – thinking was going last week. And then roll out the RDF…

CAA1 – The Digital Humanities and Archaeology Venn Diagram

The question  ‘what is the digital humanities’ is hardly new; nor is discussion of the various epistemologies of which the digital humanities are made. However, the relationship which archaeology has with the digital humanities – whatever the epistemology of either – has been curiously lacking. Perhaps this is because archaeology has such strong and independent digital traditions, and such a set of well-understood quantitative methods, that the close analysis of of those traditions – familiar to readers of Humanist, say –  seem redundant. However, at the excellent CAA International conference in Southampton last week, there was a dedicated round-table session on the ‘Digital Humanities/Archaeology Venn Diagram’, in which I was a participant. This session highlighted that the situation is far more nuanced and complex that it first seems. As is so often the case with digital humanities.

A Venn Diagram, of course, assumes two or more discrete groups of objects, where some objects contain the attributes of only one group, and others share attributes of multiple groups. So – assuming that one can draw a Venn loop big enough to contain the digital humanities – what objects do they share with archaeology? As I have not been the first to point out, digital humanities is mainly concerned with methods. This, indeed, was the basis of Short and McCarty’s famous diagram. The full title of CAA – Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology – suggests that a methodological focus is one such object shared by both groups. However unlike the digital humanities, archaeology is concerned with a well defined set of questions. Most if not all, of these questions derive from ‘what happened in the past?’. Invariably the answers lie, in turn, in a certain class of material; and indeed we refer to collectively to this class as ‘material culture’.  And digital methods are a means that we use to the end of getting at the knowledge that comes from interpretation of material culture.

The digital humanities have much broader shared heritage which, as well as being methodological, is also primarily textual. This fact is illustrated by the main print publication in the field being called Literary and Linguistic Computing. It is not, I think, insignificant as an indication of how things have moved on that that a much more recently (2007)  founded journal has the less content-specific title Digital Humanities Quarterly. This, I suspect, is related to the reason why digitisation so often falls between the cracks in the priorities of funding agencies: there is a perception that the world of printed text is so vast that trying to add to the corpus incrementally would be like painting the Forth Bridge with a toothbrush (although this doesn’t affect my general view that the biggest enemy of mass digitisation today is not FEC or public spending cuts, but the Mauer im Kopf that form notions of data ownership and IPR). The digital humanities are facing a tension, as they always have, between variable availability of digital material, and the broad access to content that any porting over to the ‘digital’ that the word ‘humanities’ implies. As Stuart Jeffrey’s talk in the session made clear, the questions facing archaeology are more about what data archaeologists throw away: the emergence of Twitter, for example, gives an illusion of ephemerality, but every tweet adds to the increasing cloud of noise on the internet; and those charged with preserving the archaeological record in digital form must decide where where the noise ends and the record begins.

There is also the question of what digital methods *do* to our data. Most scholars who call themselves ‘digital humanists’ would reject the notion that textual analysis, which begins with semantic and/or stylometric mark-up is a purely quantitative exercise; and that qualitative aspects of reading and analysis arise from, and challenge, the additional knowledge which is imparted to a text in the course of encoding by an expert. However, as a baseline, it is exactly the kind of quantitative  reading of primary material which archaeology – going back to the early 1990s – characterized as reductionist and positivist. Outside the shared zone of the Venn diagram, then, must be considered the notions of positivism and reductionism: they present fundamentally different challenges to archaeological material than they do to other kinds of primary resource, certainly including text, but also, I suspect, to other kinds of ‘humanist’ material as well.

A final point which emerged from the session is the disciplinary nature(s) of archaeology and the digital humanities themselves. I would like to pose the question as to why the former is often expressed as a singular noun whereas the latter is a plural. Plurality in ‘the humanities’ is taken implicitly. It conjures up notions of a holistic liberal arts education in the human condition, taking in the fruits of all the arts and sciences in which humankind has excelled over the centuries. But some humanities are surely more digital than others. Some branches of learning, such as corpus linguistics, lend themselves to quantitative analysis of their material. Others tend towards the qualitative, and need to be prefixed by correspondingly different kinds of ‘digital’. Others are still more interpretive, with their practitioners actively resisting ‘number crunching’. Therefore, instead of being satisfied with ‘The Digital Humanities’ as an awkward collective noun, maybe we could look to free ourselves of the restrictions of nomenclature by recognizing that can’t impose homogeneity, and nor should we try to. Maybe we could even extend this logic, and start thinking in terms of ‘digital archaeologies’; of branches of archaeology which require (e.g.) archiving, communication, semantic web, UGC and so on; and some which don’t require any.  I can’t doubt that the richness and variety of the conference last week is the strongest argument possible for this.