DHOXSS 2013 Digital Humanities in a nutshell

During the last evening of this year’s Digital Humanities @ Oxford Summer School, when the last survivors had gathered on the compounds of at a lovely pub somewhere in the middle of nowhere in the fields of Oxford, someone completely not involved in the Summer School, but a researcher in the field of let me call it ‘computer related stuff’ and a philosopher from origin asked THE question: “So what are you doing as Digital Humanists? What makes you Digital Humanists?” Astonished silence followed the question for a while, then everybody stated his case…

What have we been doing during this week of Digital Humanities Summer School? I do not at all aim to solve in this little reflection the theoretical discussion of “What are Digital Humanities?”, I suggest to maybe check as a start the answers provided on the site http://whatisdigitalhumanities.com/, but rather aim to give some random impressions of what the Oxford Summer School was all about for me. First of all, I really appreciate that I had the ability to attend to the 2013 edition of the Digital Humanities @ Oxford Summer School, which provided to me a great opportunity to learn more about several aspects of what “the humanities can do with computational methods” and which specific concerns librarians and people working at museums and archives have in this area.

Maybe the most important lesson for me was how crucial it is to look beyond one’s own nose and communicate with each other. Another important lesson was that using a computer does not mean to do Digital Humanities…Digital Humanities is all about making “stuff” available digital and to perform tasks that were traditionally very work intensive, maybe not possible at all, ask new research questions and share and connect the results with fellow researchers and the public, as was stressed in the closing lecture on Friday by Lorna Hughes. A problem that was addressed again and again especially by librarians was the threat of data loss and the silent death of unlinked, difficult accessible data. Securing data from digital projects is seen as one of the important new tasks of libraries, but one should not forget that securing the data in a sustainable way for the future is very expensive. It would be good if researcher would consider these costs from the beginning and include them in their research grant proposals. Lorna also brought in in her lecture on the last day a slight apocalyptic touch when she began speculating about the Beast of Digitization and how it would look in a bestiary. In her opinion it would have two heads, 1) users who always want more data/content, and 2) the material which gets finished at a certain point and the problem of needing more funding for new projects, also to secure jobs.

My specific aim of participating in this Summer School was to learn more about TEI conformant XML, that is learning the specific language to describe documents digitally for several purposes, like digital editions and data mining. The specific very practical minded workshop An Introduction to XML and the Text Encoding Initiative was given by Sebastian Rahtz, James Cummings, and Ian Matzen and they really did their best to prepare us in a very short time to be able to work independently with Oxygen and the TEI-guidelines on our own projects. The next step would be to also learn how to influence the output of the transcribed text, but that will be for another time… One point that became clear to me during the discussions of the workshop sessions is that although TEI is really a great tool for digital editing, it is not a magic weapon. We are still struggling with the problem of trying to describe something in a linear way that is in many cases not linear, think of all over the place scribbled pages, and then the encoding gets a bit messy…

To sum up, I have spent a fantastic, very energetic week, learning many things, having some beliefs shaken, and meeting many amazing people! And last but not least, I slipped away one morning to examine some manuscripts in the Bodleian Library, such fantastic staff, such a great experience!

Hope to see you back next year!

Short glosses: The food at lunch at Wolfson college was marvelous, the teaching facilities generally o.k. (though tables missing at Wolfson College Lecture Theater, how to take notes, especially with a laptop…), but really cold due to the air-conditioning, the diner at Queens College was quite an experience…yes, it looked very nice and indeed almost like in Harry Potter, but the food was rather bad, the wine very quickly finished, and we all together forced to leave very soon. I know this kind of places under the name of tourist trap…

Most hilarious moments: missing the boat to go punting with Sebastian Rahtz and misunderstanding Irish English…I thought the guy was talking about kicking some poor dogs when he was actually saying: “Did you see me given the ducks a bit of a cake?”


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