It’s been a couple of weeks since returning from the 3rd annual Digital Humanities in the Nordic Countries conference in Helsinki, Finland, and I’ve finally been able to write up some of my (informal) reflections on it. I attended and gave a short presentation on my Icelandic Scribes project and this website. As I mentioned in an earlier post leading up to the event, this was my first time at a DH conference and I wasn’t sure what to expect. In fact, all kinds of apprehensions filled my mind as I arrived. Would I understand the papers I attended? What about the plenaries? How would my own presentation be received? Surely I’ll get lots of hard questions from the “real” DH scholars…
Happily, I soon realised I had nothing to worry about, and that my contribution to the DH conversation was a valid and welcome one. Despite being a large gathering of about 300 participants, with four plenaries, multiple slots of four parallel sessions, and about 30 poster presentations, the conference had a friendly and relaxed feeling to it, and I met lots of great people.
My presentation was scheduled for the third day of the conference in a session with the title Manuscripts, Collections and Geography. The other three papers preceding my own were all very interesting – “Big Data and the Afterlives of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts” (presented by Toby Burrows), “The World According to the Popes: A Geographical Study of the Papal Documents, 2005–2017” (presented by Fredrik Norén), and “Ownership and Geography of Books in Mid-19th Century Iceland” (presented by Örn Hrafnkelsson) – and I think the session was a success overall.
In addition to my own session, I attended sessions on Historical Texts, Our Digital World, Authorship, Database Design, and Computational Linguistics, as well as the poster displays, which were introduced with a 1-minute pitch in a whirlwind Poster Slam. The presentations and posters featured lots of interesting material that showcased a range of different projects and experiments, theoretical approaches, and technical tools and systems.
The four plenaries were also really interesting and engaging, and I felt that they helped to start each day off on an exciting foot. The first, on the Wednesday, was Open and Reproducible Workflows for the Digital Humanities – A 10,000 Meter Elevation View by Alan Liu (University of California, Santa Barbara). Liu considered, from different perspectives zooming ever further out, questions about applying the principles of open science to humanities projects, in order to make such projects’ data and interpretations more transparent for others to build upon in turn. While acknowledging that the humanities and the sciences are different, with different types of research questions and methods, Liu challenged us to consider how we as (digital) humanists can work more openly and reproducibly in our projects.
Thursday’s plenary, Finding the Human in Data: What Can Digital Humanities Learn from Digital Transformations in Cultural Heritage?, by Kathryn Eccles (University of Oxford), was particularly interesting to me. She began her talk with the statement, “I’m not a DH scholar but…”, and asked how often we’ve heard this, or even might say it about ourselves. I could certianly relate to this sentiment. The point Eccles made in posing this question was well taken – that we and our colleagues all use digital methods and tools, and perhaps more often and more thoroughly than some of us realise. Her focus on the interplay between the digital humanities and cultural heritage more broadly was also thought-provoking. I was especially interested in her examples of the use of online crowd-sourcing to tag and annotate artworks, and the potential for using a modified form of this in teaching, to get students to interact with material culture in different ways.
On Friday, the third and final day, there were two plenaries. The first was by Caroline Basset (University of Sussex, but speaking in a personal capacity due to the then ongoing strike action within UK higher education). In her talk, ‘In that we travel there’ – but is that enough?: DH and Technological Utopianism, she considered, from the perspective of media studies, how the digital, still often thought of as “new” media, already has its own history. Basset discussed imagined and reimagined utopic futures, their disappointing realities in light of the commodification of technology and the future, and argued that hope – or hoping against hope – allows us to break from this by imagining and innovating, causing trouble, and working towards something new.
The last plenary, by Frans Mäyrä (University of Tampere), was on Game Culture Studies as Multidisciplinary (Digital) Cultural Studies. Mäyrä introduced us to current trends in multidisciplinary game studies, including both challenges and successes within this growing field. As someone without any knowledge of game studies, I found it an informative and accessible talk. Some of the issues raised had solutions in common with digital projects in other fields, such as the use of crowdsourcing and cooperation between museums and universities in order to access and study older games that require otherwise obsolete technology.
At the end of the conference a number of awards were given out. There were three awards each for Best Poster and Best Paper, as well as three Open Science Awards; I was surprised and humbled to receive one of these for my paper! The criteria taken into consideration for the Open Science Award were the project’s availability of data and source code, the potential for reuse by the wider community, and the overall quality of the work. I feel so very honoured to have the digital aspects of my research project acknowledged in this way!
I’ll end this report on the conference with a photo I took of the Lutheran cathedral in the centre of Helsinki. It also lies in the midst of several university buildings. We were lucky enough to have this great view each day, on our way between venues.
Thank you once again to all of the organizers, and I look forward to both attending and (probably) helping behind the scenes at next year’s DHN Conference, which will take place in Copenhagen.