Digital humanities as a series of opportunities for collaboration with digital platforms, innovative tools, and local archives

By Lisa Blee

Lisa Blee

The reading over the semester has focused on the development of and emerging issues in the field of Digital Humanities. The tone of much of the readings was equal parts excitement and defensiveness, revealing some of the challenges practitioners have faced in defining and justifying their work as a new field of study. The reading on digital humanities in many ways reminded me of earlier defenses and questions of public history: is it an approach or separate field of study? Does it belong in the academy or will it lose its dynamic and democratic character if institutionalized? Is there and should there be a divide between academic, public/state, and commercial practitioners? It seems that these discussions are necessary and inevitable when university resources start to pull toward new fields and practices. But just as with public history, the more interesting aspect of digital humanities is the kind of creative inquiry and presentation it makes possible. If there is a value to the practitioners’ efforts to define and explain the field of digital humanities, it is primarily in their work of bringing together and show-casing the variety of creative pedagogical approaches and research tools. My interest in the field grows from learning more about the numerous applications for digital tools. Digital humanities, in my estimation, is not – or not just – about building new digital platforms, but rather about posing new questions for the opportunities opened up through digital tools. What new questions and pedagogical approaches can I bring, as a humanities scholar, to digital systems and tools that are already available?

From my perspective as a curious newcomer to digital humanities, Wake Forest faculty could benefit from more developed networking and collaboration in the field. My impression is that plenty of digital platforms and innovative tools exist, even relatively easy and user-friendly ones, but few people in the institution know how to access and apply them. For example, Archivists Toolkit promises an efficient archive management system with a Web 2.0 version that could re-orient and change how I teach community-based research and collaboration in the Public History course. Yet I am far from equipped, at this point, to teach myself how to use the system with enough confidence to incorporate it into my course next year. For a liberal arts college like Wake Forest, it is crucial to build relationships with practitioners in other departments and at other colleges and universities who have more experience with DH tools. Such professional relationships could help to break down some of the mystery behind DH that has prevented faculty (like me) from exploring some of the possibilities in digital technologies. Even more importantly, such relationships can help Wake Forest faculty who are new to the field write effective grant applications for new collaborative projects.

Wake Forest could facilitate networking in numerous ways: offer course releases for outreach and relationship-building, planning, grant writing, and sustained collaboration (all of which must be accomplished well in advance of the actual course to be offered); support for the creation of experimental team-taught courses; training sessions in DH tools; and regular and accessible faculty information sessions at Wake Forest and the triad to explore possible collaborations.

Some of the most interesting digital humanities projects I have seen involve numerous collaborators from different universities, libraries, archives, and/or state commissions. Such collaborations could make effective use of linked open data ( – connecting metadata in existing digital collections and linking them around a particular theme or series of questions). For example, the University of North Carolina’s Main Street, Carolina, in cooperation with a growing number of partner organizations and institutions, facilitates the development of digital mapping projects in North Carolina towns and cities using historic insurance maps. A viewer may manipulate a digital map of the city of Raleigh, for example, to see spatial change in the built environment over time, and can visually explore linked data (scanned posters, ticket stubs, newspaper articles, photographs) on a particular theme such as theater.

Winston-Salem is home to several institutions with valuable archives (Old Salem, Reynolda, MESDA) that have developed their own digitized collections but there is currently no system that can link these collections around particular questions. Wake Forest professors in the humanities already teach students how to ask questions and appreciate the value of humanistic inquiry. Main Street, Carolina offers a model system that professors from numerous departments could use in the classroom, both as a resource for lower-division research on local issues, and as a way for upper-division students to get hands-on experience building a database (digitizing materials, archiving, and annotating to make connections more discoverable to other researchers) and presenting work in a public forum. The themes are endless – tobacco, food systems, rivers and the environment, art, theater, religion, racial segregation, city planning/urban renewal – and student projects within these themes could be creative and useful – smartphone apps for walking tours, oral histories with searchable text, digitizing archival materials, etc. Such Web 2.0 digital tools provide a useful public service by making local information available to local audiences – essentially returning or giving back knowledge – and contribute to the university’s goal for meaningful public engagement by allowing users to contribute to and interact with local sources.

At the very least, I see numerous advantages to developing and/or utilizing digital history in most of my American history courses. I could assign local research papers based on web research if there was a platform with linked open data. The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill has an excellent collection of digitized slave narratives. What if those text-searchable narratives could be linked to some of the collections at Old Salem and MESDA, and some of the research findings in the archaeological field school? I could build the institutional relationships, my Public History students could develop questions, make connections and digitize materials, and my lower-division students could use the platform to conduct research using archival sources on the lived experiences of enslaved people in the piedmont. The project could be self-sustaining with only basic upkeep, and student research could be added to the platform each year to enhance future researchers’ knowledge.


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