UCL Celebrates 5th Anniversary Digital Humanities Inaugural with Susan Hockney Lecture
On the Wednesday 27 May, the University College London Digital Humanities (UCL DH) department celebrated its fifth anniversary with its first Susan Hockney Lecture, presented by Susan Hockney. Professor Melissa Terras began the lecture by discussing all the projects that UCL DH has carried out in the past five years, for example the Slade Archive project and the improvement of handwriting technology. The focus of the event in question, and of the DH department, has been to bring together different groups of people, to find digital solutions to issues within the humanities.
Scrolling through our e-mails and Facebook messages, we often do not think back to the times when these technologies were not available to us. When computers started slowly to become more common in universities, researchers wanted to begin to make use of them as part of their research. Early Digital Humanities projects under the direction of Thomas Corwin Mendenhall (1842-1924) consisted of 2 ladies counting 400,000 words and recording their length, in order to get a computation of style. Now, it is incredibly easy to use a dictionary on the Internet, download a computer programme, or use Google Translate to translate text. This was only a vision back in the 1950s, as the founding father of DH, Father Roberto Busa (1913-2011) wrote: “Imagine the future and aim for it”.
Hockey, who co-authored History of Humanities Computing, has had experience in the digital landscape since the 1970s, when she went to a conference, which later became the Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing/Association for Computers and the Humanities (ALLC/ACH). This team, led by Roy Wispey and Michael Farringdon, formed an important cornerstone for Digital Humanities. This was a fundamental experience for Susan Hockey, as it brought forward questions on significant technological difficulties: how do you encode complex texts? How do you represent and process material written in non-Roman alphabets?
When we code websites today, we use HTML or HTML 5. However this was not the case in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Text Encoding initiative, or TEI, was created to bring together librarians and create a way to use electronic texts with meta-data. TEI was replaced by XML and HTML, as it was supported by big business, meaning TEI was no longer the only option. TEI still exists today, but it has been overshadowed by HTML.
Another bigger DH question is the viability of electronic archives in libraries and the archival of big data. The Internet is incredibly vast, and there have been some efforts to maintain copies of websites to use them for research. Senior management also want to see visible results from, when data projects or methodological research is taking place, but as Hockey raised, sometimes it is difficult to communicate outcomes, especially for those who have not grown up with computers. Also, one of the major challenges is catering for the needs of so many different users; schoolchildren, parents, grandparents, early researchers, academics and all those in between. Hockey also also spoke of the new curriculums related to the digital humanities or corpus development forming a Masters Programme. At the end of the lecture, Hockney discussed the future of digital humanities in teaching, including the design of the curriculum at masters level as well as group projects. The speaker posed several questions for us to reflect upon that and illustrated the path in the future following Father Busa.
For us at HTTP, this lecture brought lots of points of discussion for us. Susan Hockey finished highlighting the need not only to build resources but reflect on the process as a whole, reflecting and evaluating on the shortcomings as well as advantages. As for our website, we hope that it will be archived in the future. We further want to help create ways to support the digitisation of research and wider collaboration within the humanities discipline. As a team, we want to be a part of the discussion of how the humanities may benefit from using different pieces of software. We hope to facilitate a collaborative environment where individuals across the disciplines can learn from practices, approaches and technologies to benefit all different areas of research, working in a multi-disciplinary way.