Diving into the Digital Humanities at WGBH

By Kenny Whitebloom

In case you happened to miss the news: through a generous grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, we’ll be publishing our full catalog of the Media Library and Archive’s holdings online later this summer.

We’re seeking students, scholars, and filmmakers to enhance our records with valuable metadata on a variety of levels. From filling out a short survey describing item(s) used, to mining the catalog and curating an entire online collection, scholars will play a crucial role in helping to make the WGBH Digital Library a resource suitable for research purposes.

This goal — to validate the legitimacy of audiovisual materials for scholarly research — is really part and parcel of a broader movement in academia towards open access and the use of non-traditional mediums, a disciplinary movement known commonly as the ‘digital humanities’.

A brief and by no means complete definition of this burgeoning field can be understood as something like: the use of information technologies to analyze and interpret the humanities and other interdisciplinary subjects. Brett Bobley, the Director of the NEH’s relatively new Office of Digital Humanities (ODH), wrote in 2008 that the digital humanities embraces such topics as:

…open access to materials, intellectual property rights, tool development, digital libraries, data mining, born-digital preservation, multimedia publication, visualization, GIS [Geographic Information System], digital reconstruction, study of the impact of technology on numerous fields, technology for teaching and learning, sustainability models, and many others.

In many ways, the purpose of these new tools and methodological approaches is to make sense of the past decade’s digitized deluge; to organize, annotate, and interpret the masses upon masses of digital material now available to scholars online.

As a result of these new modes of investigation and new areas of support, many tools have been emerging for the individual scholar to utilize. Omeka, developed by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History & New Media at George Mason University, allows users to publish and arrange unique cultural heritage objects like photographs, maps, and text into digital collections. The Library of Congress’ Recollection tool, which essentially does the same thing, places its emphasis more on interactive timelines and maps. The Institute for the Future of the Book and the University of Southern California produced a tool called Sophie which lets users create shareable multimedia documents or, as the website suggests, books.

These are merely three tools amidst an expanding litany of others, many of which are currently in the works, but the common thread here is that the process by which original research is collected, interpreted, and published, once a solitary activity between author and text, has now become a collaborative, interactive experience.

But still: what do the digital humanities and other digital publishing communities actually produce? In many cases, projects considered to be within the digital humanities rubric are multimedia compendiums of text, audiovisual material, and sometimes user input on a specific topic or work. The Princeton Dante Project, for instance, is an annotated electronic text of the famous 14th century epic poem complete with images, audio, philology, commentary, and a variety of lectures. Others, like Columbia University and Vassar College’s ‘Mapping Gothic France,’ fuse images, texts, charts, and historical maps to create a spatial representation of historical trends and events. Crowd-sourced projects such as University College London’s ‘Transcribe Bentham’ and the New York Public Library’s ‘What’s on The Menu?’ invite users to transcribe digitized primary source documents so as to make them digitally searchable, and therefore accessible.

At the WGBH Media Library & Archives, our “Participatory Cataloging” digital library project aims to accomplish a mixture of the crowd-sourced and self-published works, as scholars and students contribute metadata to our catalog while curating collections of their own along the way.

For information on more tools and projects related to the digital humanities, head over to the ODH’s website and take a look at the July 2011 batch of grant recipients, or their library of previously funded projects. There you’ll find projects in which institutions are working on tools for computational analysis of film and other audiovideo materials, mobile apps that let users view musical theater multimedia, social network-like environments that allow scholars and students to share bibliographic information, and many, many more.

Along with the materials currently available for citation and sharing on this web site, we hope that researchers will soon take advantage of our full catalog, creating new and interesting scholarly products and helping us to increase the access points into our collection.

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