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Recently I gratefully received a student assistant bursary to attend the Digital Humanities 2010 conference. My main involvement was to assist in filming presentations for arts-humanities.net fortunately this meant that I was present at many of the parallel sessions over the course of the four day conference.  Many topics at the conference were new to me, despite initial reservations about whether or not I could follow panel discussions and parallel sessions looking at text analysis, born digital archives and GIS technology I learnt that most importantly of all I am now aware of work in theses areas. A simple awareness has allowed me on occasion to note subject areas or theories to research in the future and at the very least help begin to imagine the scale to which digital humanities is working on. Also, as I am relatively new to digital humanities I could be forgiven for asking, what exactly do digital humanists do?

One paper I enjoyed in particular was  A day in the life of digital humanities presented on the day by Peter Organisciak and Geoffrey Rockwell from University of Alberta. This half hour presentation went someway to answering my question. Thoughts first turned to how the digital humanist is often ‘…that computer person’ as their area of knowledge and expertise, notably all too often to mend the printer. They also work well with others, including teachers, researchers and readers. However, their speciality is the role of accomplished technologists who utilise and make available materials that are in their field. A day in the life of a digital humanist is first and foremost a busy one. I got the feeling from DH2010 that they would not have it any other way.

The paper began by considering Edward L. Ayers who in 1993 set about answering the question “What does a professor do all day, anyway?” Ayers’s solution was simple, that was to take note and describe each part of his day task by task. A day in the Life of Digital Humanities sort to replicate this method with a communal response to ‘what do we do?’

Consequently, we heard that on 18th March 2009 over 90 people participated in ‘collaborative documentation’ project whereby each participant ‘…blogged what they did that day in the spirit of digital humanities as a form of autoethnography…’ so therefore initiating a tried and tested method to produce collective documentation, in the form of one blog, that will be returned to the community. Before analysis could begin it was interesting to hear the steps required to clean up the data that had been collected; to comply with ethics agreements all photos had to be seen, all entries proof read and tagged, delete empty blogs, prepare tagged TEI dataset and prepare information for publication.

A day in the life of DH is an excellent crowdsourcing example, by motivating and supporting volunteers. (Many of which were in the audience for this paper!) The requirement to participate was a simple one posting of one day. Invitations to participate were at first personal, thereby not assuming that people would participate, after this there was a successful open call for participation.  There was a very useful wiki set up to provide support. Interestingly, the plan was to make it clear to participants that they would also be attributed to the work, it is also there to use in their own experiments. The success of the project is measured by an impressive 84 participants, 605 posts with an average of 7.11 posts as an author average.

Having set the scene for the life of a digital humanist, discovering a cohesive method to analyse this and an introduction to the successful crowdsourcing of participants I could sense the audience were keen to find out the creators conclusions from the dataset, what have the community learnt that can educate me about the day in the life of digital humanities. From the popular tags we learnt that many digital humanists noted their daily tasks to be a broad base of; research, teaching, reading, writing and programming.  If I were a digital humanist it would appear that my mornings would be planned, many entries using ‘In the morning I…’ however the afternoon would be likely to be more open ended with people moving away from answering emails for more practical events. The most popular time to get a rest from work and blog was 4pm. I remember vividly from the analysis of the text that many worked in the evenings, suggested on the day to much laughter from the audience that this was to finish up replies to emails. Also a result that got an interesting response from the audience was one participant who noted that ‘people go to way too many meetings’ I say ‘interesting’ response because I could not grasp whether or not people agreed!

Here I have focused on what I thought were the interesting processes used by this project and only touched on a minute selection of conclusions about what it is a digital humanist is involved with day by day. I found A day in the life of digital humanities to be a refreshing way of analysing the individuals within a particular discipline whilst also helping those who felt ‘isolated’ in the area feel more part of a community. I am not surprised that it is also thought that the results are deep and broad reflective of humanities research. There is also a thought that this process can be used elsewhere, evaluating that this paper has not delivered an ‘objective representation’ of what a digital humanist may do but rather a piece on what digital humanists think about what they do.

This was one of many papers that I could have written about here, I am grateful to the organisers for allowing me to be part of DH2010 as a student assistant it was a enjoyable experience and provided me with areas of interest for the future and presented me with opportunities to view papers that will undoubtedly positively affect my approach to the dissertation that I am preparing as part completion of an MA Library and Information Studies course at UCL.

Finally, one brief mention that I was inspired to attend the conference after having undertaken the Digital Resources in the Humanities Course at UCL taught by Melissa Terras, who delivered a fantastic closing plenary at DH2010 ‘Present, Not Voting: Digital Humanities in the Panopticon’ A great reflection of past successes within Digital Humanities and some thoughts on taking the discipline forward in the future. I have not heard applause in a lecture theatre like that of which this plenary received, a testament to its relevance for the future of the Digital Humanities.

Abstract – A day in the life of digital humanities

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