A Review of Selected Digital Humanities Centers and Initiatives (March 2016)

busaMany believe that humanities computing, later called “digital humanities,” (DH) originated in 1949. It was the year when an Italian Jesuit, Father Roberto Busa, came to IBM, the only organization in the world that possessed the technology (punch card machines) and the expertise he needed to create a concordance of all the words in the works of St Thomas Aquinas—the Index Thomisticus.

Almost seven decades later, The Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations (ADHO) lists over 175 DH centers, initiatives, labs, collectives and networks, ranging from small labs and virtual support centers to large physical facilities packed with hardware, and even full-fledged, degree-granting academic departments. [See Appendix 1]

In recent years, a newer generation of “makerspaces” and 3D fabrication labs are complementing the older efforts, primarily focused on community building, lecture series and workshops. Denmark has a national DH lab and the EU has been pouring funds into a pan-European infrastructure for humanities scholars working with computational methods —the Digital Research Infrastructure for the Arts and Humanities (DARIAH). British universities have developed frameworks for measuring the impact of DH scholarship and, in 2014, Ithaka S&R wrote a comprehensive report, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, on best practices in sustaining DH initiatives on US campuses.

Every major American research library has created a DH Research Guide to meet scholars’ growing demand for advice, and the new generations of DH professionals come accredited with DH certificates (e.g. from the Princeton program), undergraduate degrees, or graduate degrees (including doctorates). The complex DH competency they bestow comprises the long list of skills required to deal with every aspect of digital knowledge creation, validation, transmission and preservation. [See Appendix 2]

The DH initiatives of the past decades have often taken the form of partnerships between academic departments, libraries and IT units, or joint ventures among a few academic departments, with the most common pairing being between humanities (e.g., English) and computer science or (computational) social sciences departments. Newer centers tend to join forces with media and communications, or design departments. In the case of the new Yale venture, the Arts and Humanities will be integrated within the STEM disciplines—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—as part of a comprehensive STEAM educational mission. In some instances, for example, at Stanford, University of Virginia, and Indiana/Bloomington, DH initiatives have been elevated to university-wide efforts under the Vice Provost or Dean of Research. The physical DH facilities are often placed in the libraries (Princeton, Brown, or Yale) or find home in the departments that created them (History department Fab Lab at Western University).

There is no one model of funding DH ventures, although a mix of soft and non-soft funding is typical, either concurrently or as consecutive phases of the centers’ development. [See Appendix 3]

SECTION II: Peer Institutions

In December 2014, Yale announced an educational initiative in science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics (STEAM), funded with three million dollars from The Goizueta Foundation. Today, the new Digital Humanities Laboratory (DHLab), located in the Sterling Memorial Library, is offering workshops, training scholarships, small grants for research projects, and several postdoctoral associate positions.

Seven million dollars from a donor funded the Price Lab at the University of Pennsylvania. Launched in 2015, the Lab aims to be a campus-wide collaboration, including the Penn Libraries; the Penn Museum; the Digital Media Design program in the School of Engineering and Applied Science; the Center for Visualization of Digital Information; the Penn Institute for Computational Science; Penn Medicine’s Cartographic Modeling Lab; and SAS’s Linguistic Data Consortium. The Lab, with an additional $2 million grant from the Mellon Foundation, has ambitious research and education agendas: training for faculty in applications of the latest digital tools (eight faculty fellowships has just been announced), creation of a new DH curriculum, and an establishment of an interdisciplinary minor in digital humanities by 2018.

Among Harvard’s peer institutions, in 2015 the University of Pennsylvania and Yale received seven million and three million dollars respectively to create dedicated DH labs. Stanford, and Oxford, who recognized the importance of DH years ago, have now turned their focus to bringing more coherence to the many labs and centers already in existence.

In 2014, Princeton created a physical Center for Digital Humanities to provide literacy, skills, and tools; to be a resource center for data, software and hardware; and to provide collaborative spaces for museums, libraries, computing centers, classrooms and faculty offices. Located in the University Library, and supported by the Council of the Humanities and the David A. Gardner ’69 Fund, it offers graduate fellowships and conducts research projects through an open-call/peer review process. In addition to a Director (from the English faculty) and an Assistant Director, it has three consultants in DH and humanities computing. It offers an undergraduate certificate in DH, and hosts reading groups, invited lecturers, conferences, and workshops. [See Appendix 4]

At Columbia, four units are already engaged in DH support services under the supervision of the University Library. The Center for Digital Humanities helps faculty and students use or create machine-readable textual, image or video materials; the Library Digital Program Division handles digitization of collections; the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning supports projects with pedagogical focus; and the Center for Digital Research and Scholarship manages the digital repository and the online-journal-publishing platform.

Not all of our peer universities have been successful in sustaining DH enterprises. Brown, an acknowledged leader in digital humanities since 1960, is losing the senior administration’s support, according to the 2014 Ithaka S&R study.  After the failure of Project Bamboo, a major humanities cyberinfrastructure initiative funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation (2008 and 2012), Cornell is cautiously reassessing its DH investments with a two-year pilot with the University of Toronto. Project Bamboo suffered from shifting scope and goals, and it failed to connect with scholars, to organize around a shared vision, and to secure the next phase of funding.

The history of DH and humanities computing at Oxford goes back to the 1970s, when the University created a dedicated DH post: the Teaching Officer for Computing in the Arts. Today, after hundreds of projects on its ledger, Oxford leads in convening international research programs and addressing the role of humanities in solving global societal challenges, alongside the sciences.

The DH initiative is a collaboration of the Oxford e-Research Centre, IT Services, the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH), the Oxford Internet Institute, and Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries. Its strategy, easily the most ambitious among research universities, holistically addresses all areas of DH activities, including data resource creation, supporting infrastructure and services, education in DH and with DH, and continued plans for leading national and international partnerships.

TORCH, the Oxford Centre in the Humanities, was established in 2013 to stimulate research that crosses the boundaries of the humanities. In the last year alone it sponsored twenty-one research networks and eight research programs, among them efforts in the humanities and the sciences, environmental humanities, media, visual research, dance (ancient and modern), celebrity research (!), unconscious memory, human rights, the history of medicine and many others. The Centre offers seminar rooms, start-up funding, administrative support and publicity, as well as a research space and support for early-career scholars. [See Appendix 5]

SECTION III: Other Notable DH Approaches

Texas A&M elevated DH, media and culture to one of its Landmark Research Areas that will receive major university funding through its Academic Master Plan. A university highly regarded for its scientific computing infrastructure, it began the initiative in 2011, with seed funding from alumni and donors, with the aim to create a new body of research about the understanding of the human impact of computing. In 2015, in collaboration with NC State University, Texas A&M DH scholars launched BigDIVA, Big Data Infrastructure Visualization Application, a visual interface for navigating scholarly, peer-reviewed humanities content, such as historical documents, images of art and artifacts.

The DXARTS Center for Digital Arts and Experimental Media at the University of Washington and Stanford CESTA Labs have fully embraced the experimental culture of DH and the project-based logic of its activities. The former, one of the most interdisciplinary clusters of labs in existence, combines studio-based research with pioneering advances in digital computing, information technologies, performance, science, and engineering. It counts among its labs, the Art and the Brain Lab, a Fab Lab, a Computing Lab, a Media Lab, a Sound Lab and a wood shop!

Independent from any departments and sponsored by the Dean of Research, the Stanford CESTA Labs are the triad of the Spatial History Project, Humanities+Design, and the Literary Lab, each one an active community of Principal Investigators (PIs), researchers, affiliates, developers, with an impressive range of projects. The degree of Stanford’s commitment to DH is also reflected in its CS+X  program where students can pursue a joint Master’s degree in computer science and over 14 humanities disciplines.

The well-known Scholars Lab at the University of Virginia incubates projects in a maker’s lab equipped with 3-D printers and wearable and tactile computing tools. In addition, it provides about ten annual fellowship for graduate students and Praxis program fellowships (at $8,000 each), funded by a donor, library funds, and the Mellon Foundation. The practice-based approach to educate the new generation of DH researchers and tinkerers is quite typical. At the Digital Innovation Lab at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, graduate and postdoctoral students can earn a Graduate Practicum in DH by completing collaborative projects with faculty and the Lab staff.

IBM’s technology gave rise to digital humanities seven decades ago. Today, IBM is bringing its technologies in cognitive computing, network analysis, visualization, text and social analytics, and search and data representation to answer anew perennial, humanistic questions about our language, culture and history. Among the goals of the newly envisioned Center for Humanities and Technology (CHAT), a partnership with The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW), University of Amsterdam (UvA), VU University Amsterdam (VU), and the Netherlands eScience Center (NLeSC), is one to make “cognitive computing systems collaborate with humans on human terms” so that humanities and computer science combined can address our current and future societal problems.

Additional Sources

In addition to the websites of digital humanities centers, programs, and their host universities, the following resources have informed this review:

DH Trends at https://storify.com/DHtrends or https://twitter.com/dhtrends, an excellent weekly digest of major news, topics, tools, grants, and more, curated by students in Prof. Chris Alen Sula’s LIS 657 Digital Humanities course at the Pratt’s School of Information.

Maron, N.L.; Pickle, S. (2014). Sustaining the Digital Humanities Host Institution Support beyond the Start-Up Phase. Ithaka S+R: New York, NY.http://www.sr.ithaka.org/sites/default/files/SR_Supporting_Digital_Humanities_20140618f.pdf

Moulin, C., Nythan, J., and Ciula, A. (2011). Research Infrastructures in the Humanities. Strasbourg: European Science Foundation. http://www.esf.org/fileadmin/Public_documents/Publications/spb42_RI_DigitalHumanities.pdf

Zorich, D. M. (2008). A survey of digital humanities centers in the United States. Washington, DC: Council on Library and Information Resources.  http://www.clir.org/pubs/reports/pub143/reports/pub143/pub143.pdf

Schaffner, J. and Erwa R. (2014). Does Every Research Library Need a Digital Humanities Center? Dublin, OH: OCLC. http://oclc.org/research/publications/library/2014/oclcresearch-digital-humanities-center-2014-overview.html

APPENDIX 1: Nature and type of DH initiatives or ventures

  • software and tool development/prototyping labs with the necessary equipment and in-house expertise (any size)
  • service-oriented library/university units
  • full-fledged academic research institutes (King’s College, London)
  • degree-granting institutes (BA, MA, PhD)
  • loose coalitions/networks of faculty and developers within a university, working on joint projects
  • interdisciplinary research collectives (Stanford Labs)
  • consulting services providers (from grant application to development and hosting)
  • new generation 3D/Fab labs and makerspaces
  • physical collaboration space
  • project-based expertise-matching/broker hubs (of programmers and researchers) (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign)
  • interest-based communities (Indiana, Dartmouth, Cornell)

APPENDIX 2: Examples of areas taught by DH degree programs and peer DH centers

  •         text mining
  •         natural language processing and topic modelling
  •         data analysis and modeling
  •         data visualization
  •         information design
  •         interaction design
  •         graphic design
  •         game design
  •         database building
  •         linguistic annotation
  •         geographic information systems
  •         digitization
  •         long-term preservation
  •         automatic document transcription
  •         grant development and project management
  •         software development
  •         image analysis
  •         network analysis
  •         3D modelling and fabrication

APPENDIX 3: Funding

  • soft seed money in the beginning (Digital Start-Up Grant from NEH, Mellon grant), followed by university/department funding
  • library/university funded, or department funded, or a mix
  • donor-funding for fellowships and internships, or for the entire enterprise (UPenn)
  • costs charged back to departments
  • national-level sponsorship by research/consortia funding (UK, Canada)
  • funding as part of partnerships with corporations (e.g., Apple, IBM’s CHAT)

APPENDIX 4: Princeton’s Spring 2015 workshop offerings

  • How to Pitch a DH Project: Step-by-Step through the CDH Project Application Process
  • Introduction to the Command Line (for Humanists)
  • Introduction to Data Wrangling with Open Refine
  • Network Analysis for Humanists
  • Introduction to the Text Encoding Initiative

APPENDIX 5: Oxford’s DH Strategy

Data Resources. We should maintain and strengthen the development and use of data resources for research in the humanities.

  • promote and support the creation and sustainability of high-quality data resources;
  • support the development and application of cutting-edge digital methods for humanities research;
  • support the digitization of Oxford’s humanities collections;
  • promote a workable agenda for Open Access to digital resources and the innovative re-use of data;
  • extend the use of Oxford’s digital resources for teaching and public engagement.

Infrastructure, Support and Services. We should ensure that a strong infrastructure enables the most effective support and coordination of DH activities and expertise across the different centres of activity.

  • Ensure provision of required hardware, and make best use of existing hardware provision.
  • Promote Oxford Digital Humanities nationally and internationally
  • Develop strategies for internal collaboration and sharing of infrastructure in order to minimise costs and enable sustainability of infrastructure and services.
  • provide post-doctoral researchers with more technical support and improved career progression.
  • create posts across the University either wholly in the DH or with a DH component in the title;
  • organize regular programmes of workshops and events to maximize outreach, dissemination and exchange of ideas and methods within the University;
  • establish clear, seamless and effective advisory paths for researchers and data creators, ensuring spread of best practices;
  • strengthen networking structures to ensure collaboration and exchange of expertise between different centres;
  • provide state-of-the-art repository services for data preservation and discovery;

Teaching and Training. We should provide high-quality teaching and training in the DH to meet the needs of Oxford students and staff.

  • develop systematic training provision for doctoral students with different pathways according to need, coordinating and supplementing existing provision where required;
  • develop optional modules for existing Master’s programmes;
  • maintain and develop provision of teaching and training for UK and international academics;
  • promote the use of digital resources for research-led undergraduate teaching;
  • involve digital specialists in co-supervision of humanities research degrees where appropriate.

Partnerships. Oxford should work in partnership with other national and international centres.

  • establish strategic institutional partnerships with selected UK and international centres of excellence;
  • encourage use of Oxford DH expertise in collaborative projects with external partners;.
  • develop Oxford repository facilities as a national and international resource;
  • help drive the national and international agenda for digital methods, standards and policy development. (Source: Oxford University Website)