Digital Humanities at 30: A Roundtable
With the click of a mouse, fans of William Faulkner can listen to the author carefully explain the pronunciation of “Yoknapatawpha,” the fictional Mississippi county where many of his novels are set, his reedy voice seeming to time travel into the 21st century. University of Virginia students in disciplines ranging from architectural history to civil engineering are digitizing the past by taking 3D scans of local historic buildings to preserve cultural heritage data for future generations. And earlier this fall, the work of an eighth-grade civics class in North Andover, Massachusetts, led to the exoneration of the last remaining convicted “witch” in the Salem Witch Trials using documents from a UVA archive.
These are just a few examples of digital humanities (DH) projects supported by the University of Virginia Library. Through the Scholars’ Lab and the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities (IATH), Library specialists help scholars and students use digital tools to conduct humanities-based research, offering fellowships to graduate students and faculty members. The Library also offers an extensive guide for those interested in digital humanities research.
On Saturday, Nov. 12, the University of Virginia will celebrate 30 years of digital humanities with a day-long conference in the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library. The conference will feature scholars from across the country as well as representatives from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The conference is open to the public; in-person and virtual seats are still available (registration is required).
We reached out to UVA Library staff members who are deeply involved with digital humanities work to learn more about the discipline. An edited version of our conversation is below:
Q. How do you define “digital humanities,” exactly?
A. Sarah Wells, Scholarly and Technical Communications Officer, IATH: In general, digital humanities involves using digital tools to carry out humanities-based research, which seems like a fairly simple task. But for much of what is done at IATH and other DH groups at UVA, there is a transformative aspect: it allows you to approach and think about materials in new ways, possibly in ways that were previously impossible. You can bring together fragments of information and disparate sets of data and collaborate much more effectively and deeply with people outside your discipline, institution, and country.
Brandon Walsh, Head of Student Programs, Scholars’ Lab: I’m a big fan of a definition that I’ve heard articulated by [scholars] Roopika Risam, Liz Grumbach, and others. It’s a prepositional one. Digital humanities consists of asking humanities questions with technology as well as asking humanities questions of technology. There’s also a strong activist element that serves to surface the humans behind the work that we do, critiquing labor structures especially.
Sherri Brown, Research Librarian for English and Digital Humanities: Defining digital humanities has long been bemoaned in the DH community. The understanding I gravitate toward comes from the goals of DH discussed in the introduction to the 2004 book “A Companion to Digital Humanities” by Susan Schriebman, Ray Siemens, and our own Dean of Libraries John Unsworth: “Using information technology to illuminate the human record, and bringing an understanding of the human record to bear on the development and use of information technology.”
Q. Why do digital humanities matter?
A. Amanda Visconti, Managing Director of the UVA Scholars’ Lab: DH is a field that not only connects folks with the necessary ethical, technical, and disciplinary skills to address urgent questions around data and social justice — it’s also a home for many folks who uniquely have both technical and research skills.
DH is also an active international scholarly community that values collaboration, credit, openness about failure, open access, and sharing research progress publicly (success and failure) in real time rather than just when a study is concluded. This includes lots of blogging and tweeting and attention toward improving social justice.
Alison Booth, Professor of English and Academic Director of the Scholars’ Lab: Scholarly communication and more democratic access to resources for learning will foreseeably depend on digitized resources and new media in the coming century. Most areas of humanities research are transformed by digital means of accessing archives and collections. And digital humanities students gain skills useful for many kinds of careers; they are not only learning STEM subjects but the full range of liberal arts.
Walsh: Digital humanities can help us make sense of the vast cultural record we possess, critique the digital landscape as it unfolds around us, and project a better, more equitable future for higher education.
Worthy Martin, Director of IATH: Computationally mediated scholarship matters across almost all disciplines because it can allow for research questions that have long been of interest but not previously practical to undertake. For example, The Chaco Research Archive makes possible comparative analysis of archaeological sites in Chaco Canyon that were excavated decades apart and for which the documentary records of those excavations are held in multiple archives and repositories.
Q. What are some of the most important projects that have come out of the Scholars’ Lab?
A. Visconti: I’m going to make a numbered list to respond.
- The Scholars’ Lab itself has been a significant model to other institutions; we usually have one to three requests per month to advise external leaders and organizations on digital scholarship initiatives and research. We have an active social media presence — more than 6,000 followers on Twitter, and an active research blog. Our staff are leaders in their fields, with frequent elected and appointed service in international scholarly organizations and research publications.
- Our Neatline software for telling stories in time and place.
- Our Praxis Program, now over a decade old, proved you could bring a cohort of graduate students from knowing nothing about DH/tech to releasing a collaborative DH project over the course of a year — many current DH graduate training programs are informed by this work.
- We started one of the early humanities-focused makerspaces.
- We regularly provide cutting-edge spatial technologies fieldwork, training, and research, partnering with UVA faculty and students and regional community members to tell stories about, discover, and preserve our past history.
Walsh: Bar none our most important projects are the people we’ve worked with, especially the students and early career scholars. Our fellowship programs are in their second decade and represent our best efforts to help prepare future generations of scholar-practitioners. The Praxis Fellowship, our soup-to-nuts introduction to digital humanities by way of project-based pedagogy, is especially well known as a teaching intervention. More than any individual research project, our efforts to support others and pay forward our own training will be how we are remembered.
Q. What are some of the most important projects that have come out of the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities?
A. Martin: The “importance” of IATH projects comes in several varieties:
- Important for being very early DH projects: The Rossetti Archive and The Valley of the Shadow (the first two IATH Fellows’ projects that started in 1992).
- Important for resulting in a major resource for a very broad community: Digital Yoknapatawpha, Social Networks in Archival Context, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
- Important for making accessible very complex materials and critical analysis of those materials: Collective Biographies of Women, Piers Plowman, and Leonardo’s Treatise on Painting.
- Important for investigating innovative interpretive modalities, for example, “multi-works” in the Rossetti Archive and “place-based concepts” in Mapping Imagined Geographies of Revolutionary Russia.
Q. What does the future of digital humanities look like?
A. Brown: Although we’re celebrating 30 years of DH at UVA, I still think digital humanities is in its infancy in terms of how much can be done with it. I am always amazed by the creativity I see in DH projects, methods, and tools. We have centuries of human cultural production to view through a DH lens and hopefully to share more widely. Take any one novel, and you could use DH methods and tools to look at it critically hundreds of different ways, depending on your interest. And that’s just one novel.
Booth: I foresee ways to get beyond data visualizations indebted to medicine or sociology. I hope for even more innovative use of virtual reality, sound, and even smell to enhance historical representations, performances, and creative expressions of all kinds.
Visconti: The future of DH relies on it not being just about its mixture of tech and cultural research, but in its attention as a community to building better systems that support more people having the material means to participate in its learning and research.
Walsh: Given the multiple, ongoing crises in and out of academia in the present, the future of digital humanities is one that further engages in the pursuit of equity and justice in higher education. The future belongs to the students we equip to help shape it, and we have a responsibility to help ensure it is a livable one.
Click here to see a full schedule for this Saturday’s “Thirty Years of Digital Humanities” conference and register to join in person or online.
Seven books (and a TV show) to celebrate Native American Heritage Month
Guest post from Haley Gillilan (Undergraduate Student Success Librarian) and Keith Weimer (Librarian for History and Religious Studies).
November is Native American Heritage Month! It’s a wonderful opportunity to honor Indigenous traditions, cultures, and histories. At the University of Virginia Library, we’re highlighting work created by and about Native Americans; take a look at staff book and television recommendations below.
Recommended by Leigh Rockey, Video Collections Librarian
“The Removed” by Brandon Hobson (Ecco, 2021)
Right from the start in “The Removed,” we know that Ray-Ray, the eldest son of the Echota family, will be killed unjustly by the police. Just a few pages later, we feel like we know him and already mourn the loss of such an endearing character. We work through the grief and anger along with the rest of the family as they each tell their story 15 years after Ray-Ray’s brutal death. Sometimes an ancestor, Tsala, who perished on the Trail of Tears, breaks into the narrative and expands our range of view to encompass Cherokee legends. While the narrative of “The Removed” isn’t bright and sunny, there is a penetrating warmth that leaves the reader full of hope.
Recommended by Meg Kennedy, Curator of Material Culture
“Lewis and Clark Through Indian Eyes: Nine Indian Writers on the Legacy of the Expedition” edited by Alvin M. Josephy Jr. (Knopf, 2006)
Inspired by the bicentennial events of the Corps of Discovery, this edited volume of nine essays gives voice to the largely overlooked experiences of the many and distinct Native American sovereign nations affected by the 1803-1806 cross-continent journeys of Lewis and Clark. Readers will be familiar with the colonial stories of exploration: first points of contact, experiences of discovery, the naming of waterways and vast lands, and the emergence of democratic society in a lawless land. The varied essays, though, reframe the narrative, bringing to life long-standing and long-distance trade networks that crossed the continent, long-inhabited lands, long-ago named rivers and places, long-established democratic systems. The authors —leaders and scholars representing diverse tribal communities — use different techniques to address the impacts of the Corps of Discovery, challenging accepted historiographies through their inclusion of oral and shared community records, reconsidered political and economic histories and literary examinations of Manifest Destiny. As author Mark H. Trahant notes, “Eventually other stories surface, too. These alternative histories serve as reminders that the journey continues.”
Recommended by Erin Pappas, Librarian for the Humanities
“There There” by Tommy Orange (Knopf, 2018)
Publisher’s summary: A wondrous and shattering novel that follows 12 characters from Native communities, all traveling to the Big Oakland Powwow, all connected to one another in ways they may not yet realize.
Among them are Jacquie Red Feather, newly sober and trying to make it back to the family she left behind; Dene Oxendene, pulling his life together after his uncle’s death and working at the powwow to honor his memory; and 14-year-old Orvil, traveling to perform traditional dance for the very first time. Together, this chorus of voices tells of the plight of the urban Native American — grappling with a complex and painful history, with an inheritance of beauty and spirituality, and with communion and sacrifice and heroism.
Hailed as an instant classic, “There There” is at once poignant and unflinching, utterly contemporary and truly unforgettable.
Recommended by Keith Weimer, Librarian for History and Religious Studies
“Path Lit By Lightning” by David Maraniss (Simon & Schuster, 2022) and “Mixed Bloods and Tribal Dissolution” by William Unrau (University Press of Kansas, 1989)
For this year’s Native American Heritage month readings, I chose books about two of the most “successful” Native Americans of the 20th century — “Path Lit By Lightning,” David Maraniss’ 2022 biography of Jim Thorpe (a member of the Sac and Fox tribe), often hailed as the greatest athlete of all time; and “Mixed Bloods and Tribal Dissolution: Charles Curtis and the Quest for Indian Identity,” William Unrau’s 1989 biography of Herbert Hoover’s vice president, who was a member of the Kaw Nation. (Despite its cringeworthy title, Unrau’s book remains the only biography of Curtis available.)
Although both men were biracial, Curtis was much more grounded in the world of his white relatives and had a base of capital in the tribal land inherited from his mother’s family, which he used to launch and sustain his political career. He was a strong proponent of assimilation, sponsoring the Curtis Act of 1898, which abolished the authority of tribal courts and tribal law, and strengthened the privatization of tribal land, much of which became prey for white land developers.
Thorpe, a descendant of the iconic warrior Black Hawk, who had led some of the last resistance to white settlement east of the Mississippi, grew up among the Sac and Fox tribe in Oklahoma and attended boarding schools based on a concept of forced assimilation into white culture — most famously Carlisle Academy, where he excelled at football, baseball, and track and field. He won gold at the 1912 Olympics, then had his medals taken away after revelations that he had played two summers of minor league baseball (a humiliation during which he received no support from either Carlisle or his mentor, Coach “Pop” Warner). His remaining life seemed like a decline from early promise, although it still included some remarkable triumphs, as well as activism on behalf of Native Americans. While some of Thorpe’s difficulties stemmed from his personality, they also resulted from a lack of the kind of starting capital and firm connections possessed by Curtis.
Recommended by Cecelia Parks, Undergraduate Student Success Librarian
“Peace Came in the Form of a Woman: Indians and Spaniards in the Texas Borderlands” by Juliana Barr (University of North Carolina Press, 2007)
Publisher’s summary: Revising the standard narrative of European-Native American relations in America, Juliana Barr reconstructs a world in which Native Americans were the dominant power and Europeans were the ones forced to accommodate, resist, and persevere. She demonstrates that between the 1690s and 1780s, Indigenous peoples, including Caddos, Apaches, Payayas, Karankawas, Wichitas, and Comanches, formed relationships with Spaniards in Texas that refuted European claims of imperial control.
Barr argues that Native Americans not only retained control over their territories but also imposed control over Spaniards. Instead of being defined in racial terms, as was often the case with European constructions of power, diplomatic relations between Native Americans and Spaniards in the region were dictated by Native American expressions of power, grounded in gendered terms of kinship. By examining six realms of encounter — first contact, settlement and intermarriage, mission life, warfare, diplomacy, and captivity — Barr shows that Native American categories of gender provided the political structure of Native American-Spanish relations by defining people’s identity, status, and obligations vis-à-vis others. Because Native systems of kin-based social and political order predominated, argues Barr, Native American concepts of gender cut across European perceptions of racial difference.
Recommended by Haley Gillilan, Undergraduate Student Success Librarian
“Reservation Dogs” on FX Hulu
“Reservation Dogs” is a slice-of-life comedy about four Native American teenagers living on a reservation in Oklahoma. In its short, two-season run, it’s broken barriers for Indigenous filmmaking and representation, with an almost entirely Indigenous cast and crew. While at first it seems that the show is simply about four teens hanging out and having normal high school problems, the plot slowly reveals deep interpersonal and internal conflicts. Bear, Elora, Willie Jack, and Cheese are trying to make their way to California, but will their different values and ways of dealing with grief tear them apart before they get there? “Reservation Dogs” is filled with slow, spiritual, and meaningful moments while also doling out huge laughs and brilliant comedic performances. It’s been renewed for a Season Three, so I highly recommend catching up on the first two seasons and diving into this beautiful TV show!
“Firekeeper’s Daughter” by Angeline Boulley (Henry Holt, 2021)
Angeline Boulley has described the main character of her book as an Indigenous Nancy Drew, and the comparison feels apt! Eighteen-year-old Daunis Fontaine is trying to find her way in her Ojibwe community, but for several reasons is struggling to fit in. When tragedy strikes, she is thrust into a police investigation dealing with some corruption in her town. But as she gets deeper into the mystery, it gets harder and harder to know whom to trust. The stakes for Daunis and her family are high, and she’s going to have to rely on her instincts more than ever. This YA novel is perfect for those seeking a thriller with a true crime vibe, featuring a smart protagonist and a community that’s often underrepresented. Some of subject matter can be heavy and hard to read, but Boulley handles these moments with care and nuance.
Is your favorite piece of Native American literature or media missing from this list? Find us on Twitter @UVALibrary and let us know!
Does the UVA Library not have something you think we should have? Submit a purchase recommendation!
Want to make your work open access? The Library can help.
In his 1973 book, “The Sociology of Science,” the influential American sociologist Robert K. Merton declared: “All scientists should have common ownership of scientific goods (intellectual property) to promote collective collaboration.” This “Mertonian norm,” as it came to be known, long predated the internet (Merton first theorized it in 1942), but some scholars see it as a founding principle of the open access movement, which argues that knowledge should be free, online, and legal to reuse and share.
Merton died in 2003, but aspects of his ideas about collective scientific collaboration live on in policy recently announced by the federal government. In late August, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy released new guidance to make the results of federally funded research immediately available to the American public at no cost. The policy memo was a boon to many U.S. academics, researchers, and librarians, who for years have been advocating with a wider international community for open access and open scholarship. The White House directed all federal departments and agencies to implement the new policy by the end of 2025, meaning that paywalls and embargos on taxpayer-supported research will soon be a thing of the past.
The University of Virginia Library has long supported the open access movement and provides multiple services to assist faculty, scholars, and researchers with making their work open and freely available to the public. In honor of International Open Access Week, we spoke with Brandon Butler, the Library’s Director of Information Policy, about the new policy and what it means for the University. Butler, a copyright lawyer, serves on a UVA-wide open scholarship working group, which will be holding an Open Scholarship Town Hall for UVA faculty on Oct. 24. “I’m a big advocate for open access,” Butler said. “I want to help anybody in the University community who has questions or concerns or is interested in sharing their research in a new way.”
An edited version of our conversation is below:
Q. When would you say the open access movement started? Was it during the dawn of the internet, or does it go back before that?
A. Open access was essentially a movement that was created in scholarship as a reaction to the feeling that it doesn’t make sense to put scholarly work behind a paywall when the internet makes it simple to make things free. The timeline for the movement, can go pretty far back, all the way to the wonderful sociologist Robert Merton, who argued that the ethic of scholarship and research is that what you make should be shared with the world. If you’re making things and withholding them and hoping to charge fees, then that’s not entirely consistent with the values of science. So, the values go way back.
But open access, as we know it today, is strongly connected with the internet. If you wanted to find the perfect inception point, you might look to the Budapest Open Access Initiative. This was a declaration authored in early 2002 by some of the leading thinkers about the ethics and economics of science. They wrote: “An old tradition and a new technology have converged to make possible an unprecedented public good. The old tradition is the willingness of scientists and scholars to publish the fruits of their research in scholarly journals without payment, for the sake of inquiry and knowledge. The new technology is the internet. The public good they make possible is the world-wide electronic distribution of the peer-reviewed journal literature and completely free and unrestricted access to it by all scientists, scholars, teachers, students, and other curious minds.” Ever since then, we’ve been trying to figure out how to change the way we do scholarship to meet that simple opportunity.
Q. How has the UVA Library worked to support this movement? And what are some of the main resources it offers in terms of open access?
A. I would say it’s a four-part answer.
- We support repositories, which are robust, preservation-quality places where scholars who want to make their work open can put their work, and it will be accessible and findable by any scholar in the world because our systems are library-quality. The work will be preservable forever. These repositories are free for any UVA-affiliated author to deposit their work into. They include Libra for articles and other scholarly output, and we also have Libra Data, which is for datasets. The repositories are primarily self-serviced; you make your own deposits, but we’ve got the tools there for you and we’ve got people who can answer your questions.
- The second open access pillar here is our Library publishing operation, which is called Aperio. It’s a press, and it lives in the Library. The goal of Aperio is to help make it easy for faculty and students at UVA who want to create a new open access journal, or who want to publish a new open access scholarly book. We have four journals now that are using Aperio. And it’s free, both to the reader and the author. Some of the open access publishing models out there require authors to pay a fee to cover the cost. Generally, these fees are way too high and they create a real barrier for authors. Our goal all along has been to eliminate that fee — recently, we were able to do that. Every Aperio journal and book is peer-reviewed; these are publications that are up to the same standards of quality as any other scholarly journal or book in the fields where they operate.
- The third pillar here is our Research Data Services + Sciences team. The original Budapest Open Access declaration talked only about journal articles, but over the last 15 years we’ve seen an evolution to recognizing that some of the most valuable scholarly products are data sets — the raw data, that’s the real stuff. So, our Research Data Services team does a lot of powerful work in support of open access. They help people get their data into good shape and develop the kind of data management plans that funders are asking for. That way the data that ends up in an open repository or published somewhere freely available for reuse is in a form that people can actually use.
- I’m saving the least for last, but that’s me. There are, of course, legal questions and policy questions that come up. I can help individual authors figure out what their contracts really If they choose to publish with a particular journal publisher, how can they make their work more open? I also help folks who are embarking on a research project and want the results to be open, but they don’t know how to do that. They may wonder, “How do I put a license on data? What license should I use?” I can’t be everybody’s lawyer, but I can educate them, and help them understand what the choices are and what they mean.
Q. What are your thoughts on the new White House policy?
A. The new White House policy is fantastic. It is a dream come true. It is the kind of change that open access activists have been trying to achieve for literally two decades, since the beginning of the movement. We’ve been going to funders, including the federal government, and saying, “Don’t you think that when you pay for research, the results should be available to everyone?” That’s been the fundamental case we’ve been making all along. COVID and then monkeypox changed things. In the COVID pandemic, publishers made a lot of research freely available temporarily. And then when the monkeypox outbreak came around, federal health agencies asked publishers to make monkeypox-related research freely available, but many publishers balked. I think it just really drove home to the federal research funders that this is absurd — we should not be begging for our own research. That’s where this memo comes from. It pushes the idea that an embargo is just not a tolerable compromise anymore; everything needs to be free and immediately available in order to really accelerate science.
They also expanded the policy to every federal agency that funds research. So that means National Endowment for the Humanities, National Endowment for the Arts, federal social science funding — all that is going to be covered by this policy. And it’s not just about the articles, it’s about the data; the data that is behind every published article that comes from federal funding will also have to be free and open. And that’s huge.
The other thing that’s meaningful about this memo is that it is really beginning to harmonize with the broader conversation in the global open access community that it’s not just about articles; it’s about data. It’s also about things that are a little less sexy, like persistent identifiers [a long-lasting reference to a document, file, web page, or other object]. This is real librarian stuff — metadata.
Everyone around the world is now moving in this direction. Even private funders, like the Gates Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, all these people are now starting to sing from the same hymnal. And that’s really important.
Q. What can you tell me about the UVA open scholarship working group?
A. It’s a great group, and it predates the memo. It originated with the National Academies of Science, and supported by open research funders like the Gates Foundation, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the National Heart Association, and the American Cancer Society. Upwards of 50 universities are working with this larger group to help scholars create a smoother path toward open practice. The UVA group is working to identify University policies that will help promote open scholarship here on Grounds.
Our open meeting on October 24 is an event for faculty, especially faculty members who are ambivalent about open scholarship work. This first meeting is meant to explain the global trend in favor of open scholarship, what the Library does to support it, and what our working group is thinking about the federal policy. The ultimate goal is to hear the faculty out, to allow them to ask all the questions so we can make sure that whatever we do is responsive to the concerns and interests that the faculty raise. The provost’s office will present, along with Phil Bourne, dean of the School of Data Science; Brian Nosek from the Center for Open Science; Dean of Libraries John Unsworth; and me.
Q. Anything else you’d like to add?
A. I’ve hinted all around this, but the thing that I think has to be said as explicitly as possible is that the No. 1 barrier to open practice is outdated promotion and tenure standards. And until the scholarly disciplines can evaluate research in a way that is not reliant on journal brands and journal metrics, we’re not going to make progress on this problem. It’s a big barrier that we’re going to have to get through, so I feel like it’s important to bring that up. Our goal at the Library is to help academic departments understand the value of open practice and help them see that it would be good to reward that practice.