Is There Anybody Out There? Building a global Digital Humanities community

Aquí la versión que tengo (por el momento) de la ponencia magistral que estaré dando este viernes 19 de julio a las 3:30pm en el congreso internacional Digital Humanities (DH2013) acerca de una mayor representación lingüística y geográfica en la comunidad de DH con especial énfasis en el trabajo que hemos realizado en la Red de Humanidades Digitales (RedHD).  Estará disponible vía streamingLa ponencia está en inglés pero la ponga a su disposición para aquellos que les interese leerla en vez de o además de escucharla. Comentarios muy bienvenidos como siempre. (@igalina)

*Actualización noviembre 2013: Video disponible*

Is There Anybody Out There? Building a global Digital Humanities community

Good afternoon to you all. It is my great pleasure to be here.

I am deeply honoured to be addressing the plenary. First of all I would like to thank the organizing committee for inviting me and all of you for being here today. I guess it is fair to say that I am not only pleased but also very nervous to be here. I am relatively new to the Digital Humanities field and so many of you have much more experience and knowhow than I do. Over the past few months I have spent time researching initiatives and reading articles, blogs and online discussions about DH that I thought could be relevant to this talk. It is clear to me that there are many qualified people to talk about this subject.

I will however, do my best attempt to present an overview of the current situation of DH in terms of openness and inclusiveness drawing on the specific work and experiences that we have had establishing the Red de Humanidades Digitales (known as the RedHD) in Mexico.  It is critical to point out that this talk does not pretend in any way to be conclusive. This is not the result of a definite study but rather an account of the journey travelled so far and a reflection on where and how to go from here. We have been working on the RedHD for over two years but much of our work has been very practical in terms of community building. The next steps, as I will discuss in the talk, are the process of reflection of what we have created and how this fits in with the so-called global DH community.

There seems to be a general consensus that over the past few years there has been a boom in the field in general. William Pannapacker’s much cited comment after the 2010 MLA convention that “Digital Humanities is the Next Big Thing” is just a starting point for an array of articles, both within academia and in the general press about DH and its importance. This long standing conference has become larger every year with the number of submissions growing considerably. Having a paper or posted accepted is a feat in itself. National and local DH events abound. The National Endowment for the Humanities here in the States now has a Office of Digital Humanities (and which is a source of great envy of DHers around the world I am sure) that provides funding as well as the institutional recognition that DH exists. I understand that JISC in the UK has something similar. DH centers and departments are appearing all over the place together with not just summer courses but also Masters and even DH PhDs. I finished my PhD at UCL’s Information Studies department just months before the creation of UCL’s Centre for Digital Humanities but my thesis supervisor Claire Warwick once generously said to me that I was their first PhD graduate.

DH has come a long way towards establishing itself as a recognizable and dynamic field. And yet, as we are all aware, an unequivocal definition of DH continues to trouble and elude us. When setting up the RedHD in Mexico I searched in vain for a universally and for lack of a better word “certified” official definition that I could present to my superiors.  I contacted several people about this and in general what I found were excellent general working definitions but not one documented, “this is it” reference.  In the last few years this has led to more vocal disagreements as we struggle to decide on a definition of what DH is and what DH does. In 2010 Tom Scheinfeldt wrote in his blog “Why DH is “Nice” that “We’re the golden retrievers of the academy”. At least on the surface this seemed true enough. My experience as a PhD student at my first DH conference, which was actually University of Illinois 2007, was how amazingly nice everybody was.  At the risk of maybe remembering it all too naively I did feel that there was little or no hierarchy and there was a genuine interest in hearing what other people were doing. And I believe that this continues to be true. However, the community has grown considerably and the attention and focus on us has as well. There is more of a push towards defining what we do (which makes sense when you become more institutionalized) and what we are. And this has led to discussions. As Gold writes in the introduction to Debates in the DH that this is “a field in the midst of growing pains as its adherents expand from a small circle of like-minded scholars to a more heterogeneous set of practitioners who sometimes ask more disruptive questions”.

Behind this problem of defining Digital Humanities (what we are and what we do) there is an additional now ineludible problem “who is we?” One of the things that characterizes DH I think is that the community has worked very hard towards building the DH community. And most of this work has come from enthusiastic and generous scholars who have given much of their time to developing it. People volunteer, serve on committees, develop courses, organize meetings and presentations and many of them outside or on top of their daily workload. This community has traditionally viewed itself, as with the conference, as welcoming and open. Collaboration and cooperation are seen as specific traits of DH that differentiate it from the more “lone-scholar” traditional humanist. It seems to be that openness and a desire to work with others is fundamental to the way we think of ourselves. And yet, over the past few years this community has become aware that this isn’t so open, universal as it thought it was.

Several scholars have been pointing this out for many years now but it is only in the past few years (that appears to coincide with an increase in the debates on defining DH) that it has become more of a mainstream discussion. It has been pointed out that the DH community is predominantly made up of white male scholars from a handful of English speaking countries. Issues related to ethnicity, gender, race, language and class have begun to crop up more frequently in mainstream DH communication channels. These are complex and important issues that have to be addressed on many different levels. Additionally so many of these issues are applicable not just to Digital Humanities but to the academic setting in general.  This does not mean of course that the answer to this is “oh well that is the way the world works” and continue to accept the status quo because there is really nothing we can do about it. One of the things that I like the most about DH is the sheer energy of it. As I mentioned previously so much of DH success is thanks to the hours and enthusiasm of individuals who work together. If we can apply this same energy and enthusiasm to become more inclusive in all senses, I believe that DH can be another great example of how (at least some) things can be changed.

I am fully aware that many of these issues can and have been studied from a cultural, sociological and anthropological points of view. I believe that these disciplines have much to contribute towards understanding how and why we function in certain ways.  Authors like Domenico Fiormonte, Fréderic Claverte, Alan Liu, Todd Presener and Tara McPherson just to name a few have discussed diverse aspects of DH and culture. All of them argue to some degree that DH has concentrated primarily on building and making but rarely stopped to reflect from a cultural-theoretical perspective on the resources and tools that are being created. For example when writing about DH building Tanner Higgen writes: “These efforts are often performed under the guiding ethos of collaboration which often becomes an uncritical stand-in for an empty politics of access and equity.” He continues “DH does have its strong suits:  e.g. the ethics of copyright, privacy and open source, but as an intellectual community its positions on race, gender, class, and the environment are undertheorized and underimplemented even if many practitioners think otherwise.”

My background however, is in Library and Information Studies and so my focus has been much more on research productivity and how academic communities form, communicate and produce research output. The work we have done with the RedHD has looked at how DH resources are being produced, by whom and what for.  How do these individuals communicate and publish their work? Do they know each other? In what communities do they participate? Does anybody use these resources that they produce?  How are these DH projects funded? What happens to these resources afterwards?

There is quite a bit of work on these topics within the DH community but once again these have focused primarily on projects and resources developed in English and from scholars in two or three countries.  So even if I make no claims to utilizing deeper cultural and sociological theories certain questions inevitably arise.  For example, when answering the question “Is there a non Anglo-American DH and if so what are its characteristics?” Fiormonte, speaking in particular about Italy, argues that the Comunidad Informática Umanistica has existed for some time now but that this has been largely obscured and unknown by the official writing of DH history. What about other parts of the world? If DH wants to become more inclusive and global how do we go about finding these DH practitioners that have been excluded?  Moreover how do you find people that do not necessarily identify with DH or that even know that DH exists? “Is there anybody out there?” is the same title that I used  for a paper, co-authored with Ernesto Priani, that we presented at DH11 at Stanford University when we had just started working on RedHD.  The audience was much more reduced that time and so I think it is worth repeating some of what I said there as well as adding on what has happened over the two year period since then.

It is important to note that this is a local case study. Although I believe that some of these points are valid for other parts of the world I cannot speak for them. I hope that the methods that we used as well as some of the initial findings will be useful when we are designing strategies to try and be more inclusive and open.

A bit of context is necessary though. I work at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, known by its acronym the UNAM. The main campus is situated in Mexico City. The UNAM has over 300,000 students (undergrad and postgrad) and almost 40,000 academic staff. Around 40% of the country’s research is done at the UNAM. I currently work at the Instituto Investigaciones Bibliográficas (Institute for Bibliographic Studies) but for many years I worked at the Digital Publishing Department located in the Computer Services Centre. The department began in 1997 digitizing Mexico’s national newspapers. During my time there I worked on an array of projects. We worked on electronic journals (and from here my first experience with trying to use XML and accentuated characters. A nightmare and a short digression that I agree with those that argue that computing already has a linguistic bias), online biological collections.   We also worked on a variety of digitization projects partnering with faculty from the UNAM (for example, colonial archives kept by Franciscan monks, an online encyclopaedia of indigenous traditional medicine , XVII century manuscripts on astronomy, to name a few).  Many of these projects came from the Humanities.

It was in the UK doing my PhD that I discovered Digital Humanities and realized that much of the work that we had been doing was actually related to this field. Upon returning to Mexico three years ago I proposed a research project at the Institute for Bibliographic Studies where I now work for benchmarking and diagnosing the ‘creation, use and dissemination of primary digital resources for the Humanities’. Of course I wanted to use the term DH but I thought it might be a bit much for the evaluating committee to take in. Just the words digital and Humanities in the same sentence was making them nervous but enthusiastic as well and I will talk a bit more about this later.

*Nothing written for this part of the talk*. I used these slides:



During this talk I have not touched on the subject of computing power or infrastructure but of course especially with DH this is a particularly relevant issue. Infrastructure is not ubiquitous and certain parts of the world to varying degrees do not have the connectivity available in other countries. From simple things like trying to follow (and participate) in cutting edge discussions on Twitter with a less than reliable wifi connection (which is frustrating at best) to procuring hardware and software necessary to develop large-scale projects are of course important issues.

And yet the lack of technology can also help us think about DH from a different perspective. Instead of seeing what we can do with a lot of computing power and technology what happens if we turn this around and see what can we do with a little? It pushes the limits of our creativity and our capacity to solve problems and distances us from using the latest state of the art technology with which we are sometimes blinded. An example of this is “Minimal Computing” a project that is asking questions such as what are the best practices for application construction in order to maximize availability, decrease obsolescence and reduce e-waste? How and in what ways does experience in mid and low-income economies inform ongoing assumptions about how research and collaboration are conducted in high-economy countries?

A forefront issue is of course language and this one of the main barriers to inclusiveness. There are two approaches here: making more information available in other languages and making the English used as the lingua franca more accessible for non-native speakers.  For the DH conference we have seen how the CfP is now available and distributed in several languages. On GO:DH I have seen several invitations and calls for participation going out in more than one language.  The websites of ADHO and CenterNet are looking into ways of getting more content translated. In the cases of short pieces, such as call for participation, this seems to be doable. However, in general, let’s be honest being inclusive is hard work. Ernesto Priego, a proliferous blogger and twitter, tries to make a lot of his work available in both English and Spanish and has frequently pointed out the double amount of work involved. In the same way scholars whose first language is not English have mentioned how time consuming participating in a discussion list is as it takes them longer to write and explain their ideas, whilst a native speaker can “fire off” comments more quickly and in a more agile manner. The same applies for giving presentations and asking questions in front of a large group. We must think of ways in making this easier.  How? I have heard several ideas, but taking advantage of our online communication channels is a start and something relatively easy such as making your talk or even slides available before a presentation can help people who are not so familiar with the language. Think that slides with what you are saying spelled out is boring? Maybe, but during a presentation having key points, names and numbers spelled out helps non-native speakers understand what you are saying. On GO:DH we had an interesting discussion on developing a few rules that would make discussion on an international list, even if mainly in English, easier for all involved. This included such basic things as trying to avoid acronyms, jargon, colloquial expressions, being careful with sarcasm and irony as this can lead to misunderstandings and remembering to offer additional information that helps with context (not everybody necessarily knows that the University of Coventry is in the UK or what UCLA or JISC means, just like I do not expect you to know that what UNAM stands for).  It is awareness and a consideration for the people you are conversing with.

There are actually a lot of small big details that can actually be changed quite easily. Some things are done in a certain way just because that is the way they have always been done and it isn’t until somebody points out that this is racist or sexist or exclusive in some way or other that it is changed. Melissa Terras for example recently posted in her blog about noticing how TEI continued to use 1 to indicate male gender and 2 to indicate female. She took issue with this and wrote to the TEI forum and it was changed.  Some time ago the RedHD was added to the list of DH centres provided by the ALLC on their webpage. Mexico was listed under South America. I wrote to them and it got changed. We must not underestimate the power of speaking up!

But how do we address the bigger issues? On the one hand, we must be realistic and realize that DH works like other academic fields. If other areas such as Engineering or Biology were well-adjusted multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, gender balanced communities then we should be very worried. But by and large DH seems to reflect the way academia works in the world with English as the predominant language and with a few countries having a far larger representation and research output. I cannot speak for other fields but what I like about DH is that there seems to be a genuine concern to do something about it.

I also think that the strengths and talents of the DH community are particularly tuned to becoming more inclusive. We have a combination of scholars who can provide important insights to do this properly.  Cultural theory, postcolonial studies, feminist perspectives and other forms of critical theory can make us aware of the problem.  But DHers capacity and willingness to build things can allow us to create projects and tools that help us to be more inclusive. How about crowdsourcing translations? Can we create backend tools that will let others easily translate news and events from ADHO website, centerNet, Humanist or Twitter feeds? Or how about working on automatic translation to English of information from other sources that we are just discovering?

What about building an truly international database of DH projects? We know enough about standards and building crosswalks for metadata that there is no reason why an international database cannot harvest information from numerous databases around the world which are adapted to their own local needs but can still share information. Why do we want to build one singular database that will not fulfill such broad multilingual and multicultural requirements?  DH can handle and would greatly benefit from managing larger more complex data inputs that respond to more diverse needs. And if one of the advantages of DH is our capacity to manage Big Data then what greater challenge than trying to be as inclusive as possible and building tools that will allow this?

I also think we also need to incorporate cultural critique of DH into the way our projects work so that we are aware and do not unconsciously build in features or aspects that perpetuate exclusion instead of reducing it.  For this I think we have to find a balance between these two different approaches to DH. I think that now that we have established an interest in being more open and inclusive we have to think very carefully about how to go about doing this.

It is important that we understand that we sometimes unconsciously incorporate assumptions into our proposals and initiatives that do indeed affect inclusiveness or representation. We must be careful to avoid playing ‘catch up’ or initiatives that automatically assume that the objective is to “help” countries currently on the periphery to become just like the model DH centre.  We can all learn and benefit from each other and collaboration should work in both directions.  Methods that have worked effectively in one cultural setting may fail spectacularly in another (and vice versa) and certain reasoning of how things should work does not apply similarly to other frameworks.  Models, surveys, truisms should be placed in context. Periphery countries can contribute by framing and stating more explicitly how and in what ways true collaboration can be achieved. I think that attitude is the keyword here.

I also think that we should all share the extra work of being inclusive. If us scholars in non-English speaking working environments make the effort to making our work available in English then others could do likewise. Surveys and other initiatives that look to benchmarking the DH community could incorporate much more material if they thought about translating their data collecting tools. Organizing events in different countries is fantastic (and for example I think that THATCamp has worked well in this aspect) but it is also important that scholars don’t just move from the periphery to the centre (for meetings, conferences, research visits, etc) but that scholars move from the centre to the periphery as well.  When writing grant proposals for building DH projects we can think about other potential audiences. What about budgeting an extra one hundred dollars for translation or allocating more time for dissemination of our work in other forums or channels that are not necessarily the mainstream ones? The metaphor would be not just dragging the net in but also casting the network a lot wider by moving outwards.

I am well aware that all of us already have tight schedules and budgets and the degree to which we are able to be more inclusive will vary. What I hope is that this awareness will lead us to do things a little bit differently, either in the small or in the large details. I strongly believe that all areas of human endeavor can benefit from multiple points of view. The Humanities as the set of academic disciplines that study the human culture has even more reason and this is something that the Digital Humanities cannot ignore. If we only have studies on a few subjects and from only one or two perspectives then we are sadly shortening and restricting our field. DH will benefit as a whole if we include data and input from more countries and more languages.  The DH community has the building and making capacity to develop innovative and creative ways of using digital technologies to become more inclusive and open. The community also has the capacity to develop resources and tools to handle multiple and complex data entry points to aid in this endeavor. The DH community also has the academic know how to reflex critically on how and what we are building.

I am well aware that this is not an easy task. I hope that we will be able to use our particular combination of technical skills and humanities background plus our now famous good nature to works towards achieving a more inclusive and open field from which we shall all benefit considerably.  I want to thank you all very much for your attention.

References (Not completed)

Dacos, Marin. “La stratégie du Sauna finlandais” in Blogo Numericus, May 2013.

Fiormonte, Dominico. “Towards a Cultural Critique of Digital Humanities”, Historical Social Research – Historische Sozialforschung, Special Issue, no.141, HSR vol.37 (2012)2, p.59-76.

Galina, I. “Retos para la creación de recursos digitales en las Humanidades”, El Profesional de la Información, 21(2), pp185-189, 2012 (ISSN: 1386-6710)

Galina, I., Priani, E., “Is There Anybody Out There? Discovering New DH Practitioners in other Countries”, Digital Humanities 2011, Conference abstracts, Stanford, EUA. 19 al 22 junio 2011, ISBN 978-0-911221-47-3, 2011. pp. 135-138

Higgin, Tanner. “Cultural Politics, Critique and Digital Humanities” in Gaming the System, 25 May 2010.

Kirschenbaum, Matthew. “The (DH) Stars Come out in LA” in Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, 13 January 2011.

Liu, Alan. “What is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?” in Debates in the Digital Humanities, University of Minnesota Press, 2012.

McPherson, Tara. “Why are the Digital Humanities so White?” in Debates in the Digital Humanities, University of Minnesota Press, 2012.

Nowviskie, Bethany. “Eternal September of the Digital Humanities” in, 15 October 2010.

Pannapacker, William. “Pannapacker at MLA: Digital Humanities Triumphant?” in The Chronicle of Higher Education, 8 January 2011.

Presner, Tom. “Critical Theory and the Mangle of Digital Humanities”,, DRAFT VERSION

Ramsay, Stephen.  “On Building”, 1 November 2011,

Ramsay, Stephen. “Who’s In and Who’s Out”, 8 January 2011.

Scheinfeldt, Tom. “Why Digital Humanties is ‘Nice’?” in Found History, 26 May 2010.

Schrenbiman, Susan. “DH Centres and Peripheries”, Historical Social Research – Historische Sozialforschung, Special Issue, no.141, HSR vol.37 (2012)2.

Sinclair, Stéfan. “Digital Humanities and Stardom” in Stéfan Sinclair – Scribblings and musings of an incorrigible digital humanist, 1 January 2011.

Terras, Melissa. “On Changing the Rules of Digital Humanities from the Inside” in Melissa Terra’s Blog – Adventures in DH and digital cultural heritage. Plus some musings on academia, 27th May 2013.



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Is There Anybody Out There? Building a Global DH Community by Isabel Galina is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Acerca de Isabel Galina

Humanidades digitales, recursos digitales, publicaciones digitales. Investigadora en el Instituto de Investigaciones Bibliográficas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) Digital humanities, digital resources, electronic publishing. Researcher at the Institute for Bibliographic Studies, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México
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