IAPH Professional Development Bursary winner report 2018; Dr Frances Nolan

Attendance at DHOxSS 2018 (http://www.dhoxss.net/)

Earlier this summer, I had the good fortune to attend the Digital Humanities @ Oxford Summer School (DHOxSS) 2018, with the help of the IAPH Professional Development Grant. Beginning as the Text Coding Initiative (TEI) Summer School in 1997, DHOxSS has grown and changed shape over the years, assuming its current name and format in 2012. Stretched over one week, the Summer School offers training to anyone who has an interest in the Digital Humanities and attendees this year included academics, postgraduate students, IT professionals, librarians, and archivists. Attendees are asked to preselect a workshop strand during the online enrolment process: as a neophyte, I was drawn to the Introduction to Digital Humanities strand, which promised a survey of the major developments in the discipline, as well an opportunity to ask questions of experts and to download and play with various kinds of software.

I am the kind of person for whom the installation of updates on a laptop causes a personal and professional crisis, so I felt like an impostor extraordinaire on my journey to Oxford at the beginning of July. Amid all of the nervous sweating, however, I was curious about DH and what it could offer me, as a historian. As a researcher, I appreciate the resources afforded by DH. I tread the well-trod path: I frequently enter keywords and search terms, apply date ranges and filter and filter and then filter again. I make frequent use of British History Online (BHO), State Papers Online (SPO), Early English Books Online (EEBO), Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO), Early Modern Letters Online (EMLO), and Who Were the Nuns? I have followed the RECIRC project with great interest, as it demonstrates the disruptive potential of DH by combining traditional empirical research methods and digital tools to explore the reception and circulation of early modern women’s writing. Most recently, I have been dazzled by the Beyond 2022 project, which promises to transform the Irish historical landscape by digitally reconstructing the building and collections of the Public Record Office of Ireland.

Despite using resources that are the product of DH projects and despite an appreciation for ongoing developments, I had little understanding of the discipline. I wasn’t familiar with DH jargon, I wasn’t confident in my own ability to identify necessary collaborators for any potential DH project or to ‘sell’ a DH-based project to a funding body, nor was I sure how best DH might be used to distil and communicate my own research findings. The Summer School went a long way toward answering my questions and in fact, it was one of the most professionally rewarding experiences I have had.

DHOxSS 2018 was based in the redbrick surrounds of Keble College and a sunny Monday began with an introduction from co-convenors, Pip Wilcox and Prof. David De Roure. From the outset, the atmosphere was relaxed, inclusive and encouraging, although there was no avoiding a painful icebreaker game! While the more specialist workshop strands provide a ‘hands on’ week of coding, the introductory strand focussed first on developing an understanding of DH, and what it can offer. In the opening plenary, Dr Victoria Van Hyning looked at crowdsourcing and touched on the success of the citizen science web portal, Zooniverse. Van Hyning’s background as a scholar of early modern nuns helped put me at ease – her journey into DH was organic, born of her need to manage digital images from conventual archives and to decipher and attribute apparently anonymous writings (plenary available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t9rVvdSz8wU&t=6s). This was a language I could easily understand!

Monday afternoon brought another absolute treat, as we were introduced to the Bodleian Student Editions Workshops. The Workshops were the brainchild of doctoral students, Helen Brown and Olivia Thompson, who, along with staff at the university, saw an opportunity to open up the Bodleian’s extensive manuscript collections to undergraduate and postgraduate students. Participants are familiarised with special collections handling, palaeography, transcription and editorial practice, as well as metadata and digital text at scale. Transcriptions and metadata produced in the Workshops are added to EMLO as citeable publications. The Workshops are evidence of the educational possibilities presented by DH. Of course, there are few archives or special collections libraries that can hope to match the resources of the Bodleian, but it was exciting to think about the ways in which this ‘hands on’ approach could be used elsewhere, in other universities or as part of special collections and archives’ outreach programmes.

Tuesday was a healthy mix of the practical and the cerebral, focussing largely on the visual elements of DH. This included an introduction to the standards and software of the International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF – or ‘triple I F’, if you want to sound like you know what you’re talking about), an introduction to visualisation in DH, and a session on some of the challenges that present in trying to visualise the past. That visualisation is key in making different kinds of data clear and comprehensible is not news, of course, but the software making that job easier should be. Part of my interest in DH is linked to my research on the mobility of Catholic Irish women in the long eighteenth century and I travelled to Oxford with a desire to learn more about mapping and network analysis. I was disappointed that greater attention was not given to software like Palladio, Carto and Gephi, but I walked away with a better understanding of what it offers researchers (I also intend to return to DHOxSS to complete the Quantitative Humanities strand).

I don’t want to give an hour-by-hour breakdown of my week in Keble College, but I will mention a couple of other highlights (SPOILER ALERT: there will be a line or three on food). Pip Willcox spoke about readable digital archives, particularly the remediation of special collections texts as structured, machine-readable data and human-usable collections. I don’t mind admitting that one of my ‘icks’ in life is coding. I don’t know why but I can liken it to my expensive disinterest in the mechanics of my car (I’m on my third head gasket). Pip made the topic accessible and interesting, however, and I left the session with a basic understanding of XML and the role of the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI), a consortium that provides specific guidelines on encoding methods for machine-readable texts. In another standout, Kathryn Eccles spoke about the Oxford-based Cabinet, an online platform for teaching with artefacts, using high-resolution 2D and 3D imaging (https://www.cabinet.ox.ac.uk/). Cabinet is proof positive that technology is expanding the ways in which we make and experience culture and that the digital dimension is becoming a ‘place’ in itself. The possibilities this presents for education and public outreach (museum outreach to hospitals being one example put forward) are genuinely exciting.

The optional evening events organised by the DHOxSS team provided another highlight. This included a guided tour of Oxford, taking in many of the colleges and the Bodleian, as well as a wine and poster reception. These events, along with a generous 90-minute lunchbreak and two half-hour tea breaks, were part of a larger and very successful effort to get people together and get them talking. I usually take a while to find my feet among a crowd, but I found it easy to mix and get to know other delegates. I left Oxford at the end of the week feeling like I had made some real friends. Before I move on, I want to take a moment to reminisce about the lunches that were provided beneath the vaulted ceiling of Keble College’s magnificent dining hall. Attendees were treated to a choice of hot dishes or salad plates. I opted for the salad plate, telling myself that I could eat healthily for the week and go home nourished in both mind and body. Some chance! The goats cheese stuffed tomatoes, the quiches, and the potato salad swiftly disabused me of that notion. So too did the daily dessert, beginning on Monday with profiteroles and continued through tiramisu, cheesecake, chocolate fudge cake, before closing with apple pie on Friday.

Back outside the dining hall, DHOxSS’s annual marquee event, the TORCH lecture, was given by Sarah Ellis, Director of Digital Development at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Ellis spoke about the RSC’s collaboration with Intel and Imiginarium Studios on a recent production of The Tempest, and the creation of the sprite Ariel as a digital avatar (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1GH1KNNvv4w). In doing so, Ellis underlined what I believe was the take home message: in DH, interdisciplinary collaboration is key and a big part of the thrill is that problems turn quickly to possibilities, as individuals with different expertise work toward a common goal.

On the whole, the Summer School is DH on a grand scale, as it demonstrates the potential for creative collaboration between institutions, historians (or academics from other disciplines), archivists, digital humanists and tech wizards. It must be said that the kinds of projects that are undertaken in Oxford and showcased at DHOxSS might not find financial support or the necessary resources at smaller universities. The Summer School organisers are not oblivious to this and while they don’t pretend to know how to change the world, they do work incredibly hard to give attendees the tools necessary to put together funding proposals, to seek out possible collaborators, and to bring DH projects to fruition.

My week in the city of dreaming spires was made possible by the award of an IAPH Professional Development Grant (see www.iaph.ie), and I want to conclude by thanking the Association for their generous support. As an ECR, the existence of such grants is a lifeline, allowing for attendance at events that might otherwise appear out of reach.

Thanks also to the DHOxSS team – I will be back!

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