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Report of a Workshop Cosponsored by the Council on Library and Information Resources and National Endowment for the Humanities

Working Together or Apart: Promoting the Next Generation of Digital Scholarship

March 2009

New media and technologies are providing opportunities to transform research, teaching, and learning in the humanities. As scholarship becomes increasingly digital and interdisciplinary, challenges emerge with respect to organizing, engineering, and deploying the technologies needed to operate at a very large scale. The search for solutions will require collaboration across disciplines-in the humanities, humanistic social sciences, and technology.

On September 15, 2008, CLIR, in cooperation with the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), held a symposium to explore research topics arising at the intersection of humanities, social sciences, and computer science. The meeting addressed two fundamental questions: (1) how do the new media advance and transform the interpretation and analysis of text, image, and other sources of interest to the humanities and social sciences and enable new expression and pedagogy?, and (2) how do those processes of inquiry pose questions and challenges for research in computer science as well as in the humanities and social sciences?

Working Together or Apart considers these two questions. The volume opens with an essay by CLIR Director of Programs Amy Friedlander, which contextualizes and synthesizes the day’s discussion. It is followed by six papers prepared for the meeting, and a summary of a report on digital humanities centers commissioned by CLIR and written by Diane Zorich.

Defining Cyberinfrastructure Needs

The evolving cyberinfrastructure must support collaboration across traditional boundaries and allocate resources efficiently, writes Friedlander, “to enable research at a scale that takes into account the wealth of heterogeneous digital source material as well as computational and analytical power.”

“Answering the big questions that provide high-level coherence and allow individual scholars to find common ground with others engaged in related research requires experimentation as well as consensus building,” she adds. The humanities encompass many disciplines, each with its own tradition. Nevertheless, there is enough common ground to articulate a shared infrastructure of tools, services, and collections that will, as Friedlander notes, “reduce unnecessary redundancy, allocate human and information resources efficiently, and . . . enable a different kind of scholarship.”

Papers Expose Common Ground

Writing as classicists and philologists, Gregory Crane and his coauthors observe that digital technology is giving scholars access to-and the means to analyze-vast bodies of material, while also expanding the audiences for their work, enabling research that was previously impossible. The authors describe the types of access that cyberinfrastructure must provide and outline strategies for making a growing core of information about the Greco-Roman world accessible to audiences in a range of languages and cultures.

Caroline Levander writes that the organization of collections is inherent in how research is framed, and that such organization of knowledge bounds the way that research is then undertaken. She argues that the deep significance of Our Americas Archive Project is its ability to restructure the categories of knowledge precisely by restructuring collections related to the Americas and hence access to the materials.

Douglas Oard explores the potential of automated language processing for helping us develop new ways of drawing insight from the world’s linguistic legacy. He outlines the structure of the relevant disciplines, briefly describes the process by which automated language processing systems are created, and offers suggestions for how systems might be built that better meet the needs of humanities and social science scholars.

Maureen Stone argues that information visualization is a new form of literacy that humanities scholars must possess. “Digital information visualization provides potentially tremendous power, but also risk,” she writes. “Its effective design and use, like that of all powerful tools, requires education, training, and iterative refinement.”

Stephen Murray focuses on the application of new media to art history, specifically to representation and the production of knowledge. Digital technology allows us to create spatial representations that are much closer to an original work than what is conveyed by a photograph. Such representation changes the nature of inquiry, he maintains, enabling more direct, less mediated encounters with a work and greater opportunity for students to construct their own intellectual contexts.

Bernardo Huberman writes about social attention in the age of the Web. He argues that “the precious entity is now attention, which is always finite and claimed by many sources at the same time.” Today, social attention and its swift allocation through vast social networks plays a central role in the dissemination of validation of ideas and results within the academic community.

In the volume’s final paper, Diane Zorich summarizes results of a survey she conducted for CLIR on digital humanities centers, which have been hubs of activity and experimentation for a vast array of digital humanities projects.

Transcending Disciplinary Boundaries

The papers and the day’s discussion highlighted four themes that transcend traditional disciplinary boundaries and resonate with major research topics in computer science:

Scale: Making sense of huge amounts of heterogeneous digital information will require authenticating sources through new, automated methods and combining them in new ways to answer new questions.

Language and communication: Researchers want to make sense of data, find patterns at many levels, detect anomalies, and derive meaning. Cross-language studies create an opportunity for language and text-intensive disciplines in the humanities to become partners in the research process.

Space and time: Space and time have been manifested in different ways in humanities scholarship. Extracting the relevant information from text, manuscripts, and drawings, and presenting it in new ways are challenging technical problems.

Social networking: The Web of information can be read to expose relationships that might not otherwise be evident and to illustrate how the specific technologies affect the allocation of human attention. Social networking algorithms represent a set of analytics that could be used to characterize text corpora, enabling researchers to identify patterns and detect anomalies more generally.

More About this Report

Working Together or Apart: Promoting the Next Generation of Digital Scholarship.
March 2009. ISBN 978-1-932326-33-8. 78 pages.

Published by the Council on Library and Information Resources. The text of the report is available free on CLIR’s Web site at Print copies can be ordered at this URL for $25 per copy plus shipping.

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