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I am Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Glasgow and Theme Leader Fellow for the 'Digital Transformations' strategic theme of the Arts and Humanities Research Council. I tweet as @ajprescott.

This blog is a riff on digital humanities. A riff is a repeated phrase in music, used by analogy to describe a improvisation or commentary. In the 16th century, the word 'riff' meant a rift; Speed describes riffs in the earth shooting out flames. The poet Jeffrey Robinson points out that riff perhaps derives from riffle, to make rough.

Maybe we need to explore these other meanings of riff in thinking about digital humanities, and seek out rough and broken ground in the digital terrain.

25 January 2015

The Long, the Short and the Very Short

Whenever I look at newspapers from my youth - the 1960s and 1970s - I am struck by how much more reading there was in them - so many words and so much text, even in tabloid papers. It does seem to suggest that our attention span is getting smaller. Of course, it has been claimed that the internet is to blame for this, but I’m doubtful. And the contemporary taste for bite-size knowledge is actually more powerfully expressed in conventional academic print publication than in the digital sphere. The sad rise of handbooks, companions and encyclopaedias of every imaginable complexion and subject is one of the most unfortunate developments in academic publishing over the past twenty years. The editing of encyclopaedias seems to have become one of the great power-broking positions of modern scholarship. Although I have contributed to some of these companions and am contracted to edit a couple, I’m doubtful about their value. They fragment academic discourse, suggest wrongly that scholarship can be reduce to easily digested chunks, and give a distorted and sense of the scope and structure of particular subject areas. Yet the demand for them seems insatiable, presumably from time-pressed students who want to quickly master the subject without having to read more than the essentials. I wonder whether a great academic masterwork such as Thomas Tout’s Chapters in Medieval Administrative History, published in six volumes over seven years, and embodying a lifetime of archival scholarship, distilled into a powerful overarching thesis interpreting the whole history of later medieval England, would be feasible today - perhaps not. Would anyone read a work like Chapters in Medieval Administrative History if it appeared today, unless they had to do so for the REF?

One of the most striking manifestations of our current thirst for bite-sized and easily digested morsels of academic scholarship is Oxford University Press’s ‘Very Small Introduction’ series. The list of ‘Very Small Introductions’ currently available reads like the catalogue of a Wunderkammer - a random selection of knowledge ranging from American Politics to the Laws of Thermodynamics by way of Astrobiology, Medical Ethics and Spirituality. It’s an intellectual grab bag, a pick and mix of knowledge. But, having said that, the three ‘Very Short Introductions’ I have read (each one on a plane journey - are they intended as intellectual airport literature?) have been wonderfully written, beautifully crafted by their authors, who convey complex ideas in a stimulating and engaging fashion. Paul Strohm’s Very Short Introduction on ‘Conscience’ is a model of how to convey complex philosophical and cultural ideas in a way that is accessible to the widest audience and encourages you to find out more. In a completely different sphere, Nicholas Vincent’s Very Short Introduction to ‘Magna Carta’ clearly and concisely explains a complex historical phenomenon, while offering nuggets which are new even to experts in the field.

I have recently read with enthusiasm and admiration John H. Arnold’s Very Short Introduction to ‘History’, a massive and challenging undertaking accomplished with intellectual clarity, beautiful writing, engaging and wide-ranging scholarship, and presenting a liberal and nuanced view of what the writing of history entails and means. What particularly struck me about John’s Very Short Introduction was the way in which he placed primary sources - the letters, diaries, records and other materials which are our postcards from the past - at the heart of his discussion. Exploring, probing and debating the complexities, gaps and deceptions of these sources are the essence of history and the historian’s work, and John provides some inspired and memorable examples of this process. Many recent discussions on the nature of history have emphasised historiography, the debates among historians, as the chief focus of interest, but of course there is nothing more arid than reducing knowledge to the analysis of academic factions and disputes. John forcibly reminds us that history starts with the past and with the survivals we have from the past.    

It is very striking how the digital does not significantly figure in John’s overview. He uses the computerisation of tax records as an example of reading sources ‘against the grain’, but otherwise the digital does not appear. This might be taken as an illustration of the failure of historians to engage with contemporary changes in communication that Tim Hitchcock lamented in a provocative article in Culture and Social History on which Mark Knights, Ludmilla Jordanova and myself have discussed in a recent issue of the journal. But perhaps in a ‘Very Short Introduction’ it is reasonable not to give more attention to digital history - perhaps the digital has so far made little impact on the process of writing history.

However, historical sources are one area in which the digital is already having a profound impact on the way in which scholarship has to be conceived and conducted. Historans using the archives of the web being created by organisations like the Internet Archive or the British Library will inevitably have to approach these vast and volatile digital sources in a different way to Tudor state papers. An excellent example is one that Tobias Blanke gave me, and which I will have stop using as it is getting repetitive, is the e-mail archive of George W. Bush which contains 200 million e-mails. Historians of the Second Iraq War will not be able to explore this by reading it or doing keyword searches for Iraq. New methods will be required, which may increasingly be visual, haptic and quantitative.

Most of the examples of sources discussed by John Arnold are textual, but in a wonderful passage, he describes a source as ‘anything that has left us a trace of the past. It can be a charter, recording a land transfer; a court case, presenting the pleas of the witness; a sermon, given to an unknown audience; a list of books, shares, prices, goods, people, livestock, or beliefs; a painting or photograph of forgotten faces; letters or memoirs or autobiographies or graffiti; the buildings of the rich, displaying their power or wealth, or the building of the poor, displaying the opposite: stories, poems, songs, proverbs, dirty jokes, opaque marginal comments made by bored scribes or cunning glossators. A source can be a thousand things; it can be a discoloration of a page in an inquisitor’s manual, marked by the imprint of a thousand kisses made in ritual obeisance by those about to be examined. It is a trace of the past’ (pp. 60-1).

It seems to me that it is the ability of digital methods to support such a multi-faceted, pluralistic and liberal view of the range and nature of historical sources, and thus of historical inquiry, which is the reason why they are of such importance to historians. Using conventional techniques, it was enough for the historian to get to grips with the dusty written historical records so romantically described by Ranke, whose influence on our view of history John discusses very interestingly. Digital tools enable historians to break out of this tower of text, just as (according to John) they have broken out of the political tower in which Thucydides imprisoned them. Digital resources allow  historians to engage with an enormous range of sources from film through sound to material objects of all types, and offer the possibility of creating a more media rich history.

In my recent contribution to the Genres of Scholarly Knowledge Production collection edited by Patrik Svensson, I tried to give some illustrations of the way in which our engagement with archives is changing and sought to show how historians have greater access to film and sound material which poses complex, and sometimes troubling, issues of interpretation. If someone comes to write another Very Short Introduction to History in twenty years time, they will find it difficult to better John H. Arnold’s discussion, but their discussion will perhaps be of multi-media history which is not only read but also moves, speaks and can be felt.

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9 January 2015

Resurrecting a Lost Lecture

In July 2003, I was asked to give a lecture at the Institute of Historical Research in London to mark the launch of British History Online, which has since established itself as one of the most important digital resources in the humanities. My 2003 lecture was to be the usual crystal-ball gazing sort of thing, and I rashly decided to venture into the world of multi-media. The new services such as British History Online which were becoming available at the beginning of the last decade were very exciting, but they tended to be very text-oriented. This was understandable, as it was difficult enough at that time making large quantities of text available online, but I nevertheless felt it worth making the point that the world wide web offered other possibilities. I wanted to point out that the web offered access to maps and images on a much larger scale. The first online collections of historical films were just beginning to appear, and I wanted to illustrate their potential for historians. I imagined how Frederic William Maitland, the Victorian scholar of medieval law who when I was a young scholar was seen as a model of the professional historian, would have reacted to these possibilities. I felt sure he would have been enthusiastic about such resources as Getmapping or the British Pathé newsreel archive. I gave the lecture an epigram from Maitland, 'The Web Must be Rent'.
The 2003 lecture didn't go very well. In the course of preparing the lecture, I became doubly enthused by the range of multi-media possibilities for historians, and made the classic mistake of trying to cram too much in - always a problem when using sound and video in a lecture, as they eat up the allotted time. The biggest problem was that I didn't realise that the overhead projectors of 2003 didn't all reliably support video projection and that performances might vary depending on the laptop and video drivers used. In testing my beautiful slides before my lecture, I found there was a black space where the video was supposed to be. I spent the lunch break desperately trying to lash something up to show the videos, but the evident difficulty of showing the film and the poor quality of demonstration undermined my fundamental point that historians could now more easily incorporate film and sound in their work.
Some lectures and presentations are like children, and you want to see them do well in the world, and I wanted the points I made in 'The Web Is Rent' to be more widely accepted. However, it was puzzling to see how the lecture could be made more widely available in the form in which I envisaged it in my mind's eye. Blogging software wasn't as sophisticated then as it is now. I wanted to embed the sound, video and maps more fully into the presentation than a blog would then allow, and didn't want simply to present a series of links. Above all, most of the multimedia material I used was fiercely controlled by licence and was not generally accessible. I tried to identify some public domain videos that could replace the ones I tried to use in the original lecture, but didn't find anything completely satisfactory. I experimented with a number of packages which seemed might offer a low-tech solution to making my lecture more widely available, such as Microsoft Producer, but they would have mostly resulted in something which was itself like a video, which missed my point somehow.
It would of course have been possible in 2003 to create the digital artefact I had in my mind's eye, but it would have involved seeking substantial funding and setting up a project. I was at that time fully preoccupied with other projects, and there didn't seem to be strong enough intellectual justification to seek the research funding that would then have been necessary to take the idea behind my IHR lecture forward - it was after all simply a lecture which sought to make a simple point that new technologies were opening up fresh possibilities for historians.
Although I put the 2003 lecture in my large store of unfinished or half-finished projects, I retained a strong affection for it among my intellectual children. This was partly because it reflected a vision of a multi-faceted history that I remain strongly committed to. The 2003 lecture also marked my first involvement with what has now become almost a default mode of lecturing for me, a more performative activity in which I talk around images, sounds and video which fortunately nowadays (generally) work. I put the slides from these lectures on Slideshare so that my audience can afterwards look at the links for themselves, but otherwise I don't feel the need to create a permanent record of them.
Just before Christmas 2014, Patrik Svensson asked me whether I could contribute to a panel in an event he was organising at the remarkable HUMLab in Umeå in northern Sweden. The work of HUMLab is fascinating for many reasons, but one particularly interesting theme of HUMLab's work is the way it explores how digital technology can support new spatial configurations for scholarly activity, drawing on approaches from libraries, performance arts, and architecture in rethinking the scholarly space. In asking me to join the panel at Umeå, Patrik explained that there was one condition - the speakers would be making a 'stepped presentation' using the eleven large display screens in the meeting space at HUMLab. A variety of digital objects could be displayed in varying configurations in these screens, but use of Powerpoints or Prezzi was banned. Presentations were to be more like installations than lectures.
In contemplating my contribution to the Umeå event, my mind went back to my 2003 lecture at the Institute of Historical Research. I wondered what would happen if I took some of the materials from 2003 and showed them on the screens in HUMLab. If nothing else, I was intrigued to see what those videos would look like on the high quality displays in Sweden - there was one of President Brezhnev in Afghanistan which I felt was a poignant historical document and I was keen to share. Patrik was particularly helpful in suggesting how such a display could work in the HUMLab space - he had the inspired idea that we could show some of the videos simultaneously, which was for me a highlight. It was a fascinating experiment, and it was exciting to see how different scholars from various disciplines responded to the possibilities of this simple but innovative space. The image at the top of my post shows me in the midst of my talk in Umeå.
Patrik was not, however, content with merely organising a hugely complex and extremely innovative scholarly meeting. He wanted to convey to the wider world something of the presentations at Umeå. I am very grateful to Patrik for giving me the impetus to revisit my ten year old lecture, as I think it would otherwise have just languished on my hard drive. Of course, we are now at point where blogging and CMS packages can handle the sort of integrated presentation I was straining towards in 2003. Patrick suggested the use of Medium, which I hadn't encountered before. Patrik favoured the use of Medium because it offers very easy embedding of a variety of digital media, and its collection format enables various contributions to be easily pulled together into a single publication.
As soon as I started working with Medium, I realised that it offered a means by which I could easily share my 2003 lecture. To my surprise, I found that my fundamental message from 2003, that the availability of new digital resources offers the opportunity for historians to use a wider range of sources in different media, remains very relevant. Most of the resources I linked to in 2003 still worked. The most volatile were, inevitably, the multimedia resources - the lecture was given before Soundcloud, YouTube or Vimeo was launched. In particular, the collection from which the Brezhnev film was taken was no longer available online, although I was still allowed to retain my copy of it. In other cases, such as the videos from a National Library of Wales online exhibition, the outdated codecs could no longer be loaded. Nevertheless, I found to my surprise that I could reconstruct most of my old lecture in Medium and it generally holds up well and I think I haven't committed any major copyright breaches in the course of re-assembling these materials. I could readily have replaced those multimedia resources which are no longer current, but in general I have left them even when this compromises quality, as an indication of how far resources have remained available over the period since 2003. I have embedded the Medium collection, 'The Historian and Historical Sources in a Digital Age', at the bottom of this post.
But of course I could not simply use my 2003 lecture in the HUMLab session - it was too long for one thing, and in many ways my message from 2003 has gained in urgency. While the web has flooded our world with images, much scholarly communication has become more textual and humanities scholars seem increasingly to privilege verbal discourse. This problem requires a renewed assault and I tried to use my 2003 materials to address these in my contribution at Umeå, 'Digitising the Historical Record'. Again, I've embedded links to the whole collection from the HUMLab event at the bottom of this post.
Does this story of how my lecture was lost and then found offer any wider lessons about changing forms of scholarly communication? A few points of wider value do seem to me to emerge.
  • The imperatives of funding mean that we give priority in the digital humanities to the funded research project, and by their nature such projects often tend to be large-scale and focussed on the creation of primary resources. But humanities scholarship is much more varied in its character and form than this. Very valuable contributions are made through small-scale, reflective pieces - often expressed in conventional scholarship through the article. My lost lecture was just such a small-scale project - not big enough to seek the serious research funding it needed to see the light of day in 2003, but still making some useful points. In the digital humanities, we seem to be geared mainly towards the larger projects - almost as if we were only able to publish monographs. We need to think about mechanisms to support the article-scale digital activity, and these mechanisms need to go beyond simple reliance on social media.
  • If my 2003 lecture was a conventional piece of humanities research, twelve years to publication would be leisurely, but not unusual. There is an assumption that digital humanities research will be made available very quickly, but maybe the timescales for digital humanities research are not dissimilar to those of more conventional humanities scholarship. Many of the constraints which affect scholarly timescales in the humanities (lack of time, availability of research materials, need to debate and develop ideas) apply as much in the digital sphere as elsewhere. The kind of delay I had in waiting until a suitable technology was available to achieve the vision of how I wanted my lecture to appear could occur with conventional publication, if you have to wait for a sympathetic journal or article. In the humanities, conventional wisdom assumes that scholarly work takes fifteen or maybe even twenty years to be picked up. Might it be the same with digital humanities?
  • Although a delay of twelve years in completing a piece of humanities scholarship is not unusual, the kind of multi-facetted publication that resulted is more unusual. Here, I think there is a distinct difference - that rather than just producing one final piece of work whose roots stretch back over twelve years, I have published the 2003 lecture, the Umeå presentation based on it (which itself draws on material from my paper on 'Imaging Historical Documents' in the collection The Virtual Representation of the Past edited by Lorna Hughes and Mark Greengrass, Ashgate 2008, as well as some other presentations), as well as this reflective commentary on the two pieces. This enables me to explore and represent some issues about the stability of scholarly publications using multi-media which I would otherwise have been able to do. 
  • It seems that one way in which our understanding of scholarly communication is changing is that we lay bare the evolution of our scholarship - in my case, anyone who is interested can often trace it from powerpoint to blog text and finally to a more formal publication. This is something that is more difficult to do with the works of a pre-digital scholar like Frederic William Maitland.   

    Genres of Scholarly Knowledge Production The Historian and Historical Sources in a Digital Age

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