DH down under (state of play; why you care)

For the past two weeks, I’ve had the great privilege of presenting ideas (ranging from the institutional and professional to the scholarly and creative) in a series of six public lectures in four cities across New Zealand and Australia. These were invited talks and keynotes at events as diverse as: a project-specific and infrastructure-oriented workshop at Victoria University, Wellington; a joint DH and library Information Futures forum at the University of Melbourne; two gatherings geared toward archivists, curators, and arts and design faculty at schools and cultural heritage institutions in Canberra; and a thought-provoking digital editing symposium at Sydney Uni. The visit was was break-neck, whirlwind, and a great deal of fun, mostly thanks to my splendid hosts Sydney Shep, Craig Bellamy, Tim Sherratt, and Mark Byron. It didn’t hurt that it was summertime and end-of-term in the southern hemisphere, with the journey framed by a sparkling harbor in Wellington (which, it’s true, you can’t beat on a good day) and another in Sydney.

Happily, the visit afforded me an opportunity to learn from and better understand the values and working conditions of the Antipodean digital humanities community, members of whom I had only met before as exotic and sometimes jetlagged creatures out of their natural habitat. I considered it excellent timing and came to care about these folks, because they show a great deal of energy just now, not only for enlivening humanities scholarship through digital tools and methods, but for organizing — creating stronger local networks and a broad, new Australasian professional society for scholars and practitioners of the digital humanities: the first in the hemisphere. This could be an initiative that partners with ACH, which I represent, and stands on par with SDH-SEMI as a vibrant regional DH organization and potential ADHO collaborator. You should care, too. Here’s why.

(And let it be said that these are just my own impressions, written on a plane after 24 hours of travel and based on lots of informal conversation. I invite people better informed to extend them or correct me where I have gone astray!)

First, and most obviously, the digital humanities in New Zealand and Australia exhibit strong cultural connections and collaborative ties with European and North American projects, initiatives, and interests. I’ll offer just a smattering of these, to indicate range. Some of this activity, across universities and cultural heritage organizations, is bolstered by policies (as have not yet commonly been extended to the humanities in the US) that ensure publicly-funded work be publicly-accessible.

A newish example is soon-to-launch NZ-RED, a branch of the venerable (in Internet time) UK “Reading Experience Database” project, which now spans several countries and is under extensive re-design. NZ-RED will come online at Victoria University in Wellington, which, besides housing the D. F. McKenzie-founded Wai-te-ata Press, is home to the longest-standing electronic text center in the southern hemisphere — modeled after the Etext Center at UVa Library, now the Scholars’ Lab. (As happened at UVa a few years ago, the Etext Centre at VUW is being re-conceived in terms of its mission and relationship to the library — and the process should be interesting to watch.) A solid tradition of textual scholarship and scholarly editing exists, too, at Sydney University, where text-based work is complemented by Ian Johnson’s Archaeological Computing Lab, which creates software and projects with impact far beyond the field of Archaeology. Dictionary and encyclopedia projects are a great regional strength (and there’s a possibility we’ll hear more about them at DH 2011). The GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives, and museums) sector in this region is thriving as well, with emphasis being placed at the national levels on shared and open repository services (like TROVE, from the National Library of Australia), and on the enhancement of museum-goers’ experience through digital media (viz Seb Chan at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum and Wellington’s brilliant Te Papa Tongarewa). Programs like the Digital Design + Media Arts cluster at the University of Canberra and digital lab at the National Museum of Australia offer lovely models for the visualization and serendipitous navigation of objects of our shared and diverse cultural heritage.

The cultural diversity of Australia and New Zealand itself would be a great asset to a regional professional society for the digital humanities. Given the rich and vexed history of contact and successive waves of migration in these countries, Australasian DH and the society that represents it must adopt a self-consciously multicultural and multidisciplinary stance. In NZ (Aotearoa), for example, where Māori culture is alive and well, celebrated and protected, scholars will always be thinking of multilingual interfaces to resources and projects. This will be immediately resonant in Canada and Europe, but important to us all as our shared DH community becomes increasingly global and transnational. I was struck, for North Americans and DHers in the UK, particularly, at how easy collaborations with New Zealand and Australian partners would be (given the lack of a language barrier and presence of close historical and cultural ties), and yet how enriching — in part due to the seriousness with which researchers in this part of the world address multicultural issues.

That said (and even though I’m coming home with a December tan), it’s not quite sunny in Australasian DH.

In every city I stopped, I heard frustration and worry on the part of scholars and developers that the interpretive focus of Australian DH is in danger of being subsumed in the building of (mostly scientific) e-research infrastructures. The most notable quality of these conversations for me, as an American DH scholar (lacking, as we do, many projects on the scale of European collaborative VRE initiatives), was a brand of fatalism about emphasis on nationwide e-research frameworks and massive “collaboratories.” These are widely accepted to be positive developments in general (like the establishment of ANDS, the very promising Australian National Data Service), but humanities scholars seem to feel voiceless — disconnected from many such initiatives and concerned that their necessarily smaller-scale research and development will be lost in the shuffle. I got the sense from faculty in New Zealand and (the much better-funded) Australia alike that there is little or no support for highly specialized and experimental work like that sparked by our NEH’s Digital Humanities Start-Up Grants, and that they are unsure if their funding agencies will soon surface a Brett Bobley.

I heard a great deal about funding problems for DH generally. There seems to be very limited funding for the humanities at all in NZ, and funding strictures in Oz against support for digitization of resources and creation of datasets are inhibiting fundamental work. (Some scholars and librarians remarked that the assumption has been made that Australia is ready for second-generation, born-digital scholarship, when in fact the objects of interest to them have yet to come online.) In both countries, there seem to be few opportunities for collaborative, internationally-funded projects (like NEH has instituted with JISC in the UK, with the DFG in Germany, and with Canada’s SSHRC) — or the scholars I spoke to were unaware of them.

While the Australians make much of their own “cultural cringe,” there is a strong and, frankly, well-founded sense among New Zealanders that DH in their country operates at a great remove, not only from the rest of the world, but their nearest neighbors — and that it presses on despite a sharp disparity in resources. There’s no denying, though, as I heard two Australian scholars say at different times, that New Zealand “punches far above its weight” in the digital humanities. It is a country hungry for connection — and universities, schools, and colleges across its two wild islands are becoming increasingly connected with each other and the outside world through a growing KAREN network. (The workshop I participated in was broadcast live and included speakers and participants from as far away as Canada.)

Academics in both NZ and Australia face rounds of quantitative research-productivity assessment similar to those vexing their colleagues in the UK. This is hugely problematic for DH, as it is typically much harder to articulate the value of a digital humanities project against a traditional book or article, and the system itself (which scores publications in certain classes of journal higher than others) strikes me as a great inhibitor of the creation and uptake of new modes of scholarly communication and new publication venues. Who would start an experimental and unconventional publishing project like Vectors or MediaCommons in such a climate? And who would contribute to it? As with funding issues, the relationship of interpretive (not to say boutique) humanities projects to massive e-research infrastructures, and multicultural and multi-lingual concerns, the development of best practices for assessment of digital humanities scholarship in Australasia is an opportunity for the international DH community to engage.

CenterNet is one avenue, and an increasing number of Pacific-area labs and centers have joined this international association, through which they have steering committee representation. But for the professional societies of ADHO to engage effectively and in open exchange with DH in the Australasian region, there must exist a partnering, regional professional society.

In support of the notion of a regional DH society, the Australian Academy for the Humanities has awarded seed money to Dr. Craig Bellamy of VeRSI in Melbourne, who is partnering with Dr. Paul Arthur of the Australian Dictionary of Biography at ANU. Craig and Paul plan to hold small exploratory and governance meetings in the new year as part of a larger, open process for the formation of the society. In addition, a joint meeting of CHCI with centerNet will be held in Canberra in 2012 — a splendid opportunity for a new professional society to reflect on its mission in relation to those two organizations, which have themselves recently entered into partnership around concepts of the public humanities and the digital inflection of discipline-formation.

So, what did I take away?

Besides a really delightful set of new and strengthened personal connections and ideas for our work in Scholars’ Lab R&D, I’m coming home with a desire for much more conversation with academics, administrators, and developers in Australia and New Zealand. Concepts I presented about #alt-ac, or alternate and hybrid career paths for computing humanists and about smarter policy-making around intellectual property, open source, and data management plans for the humanities resonated (though with subtly different inflections) in a variety of institutional settings — as did the model of a digital humanities group, like the SLab, administratively embedded in a university’s research library. DH Answers (as a grassroots approach to digital humanities community-building) seemed either well-known and admired or new and vastly energizing to the people I spoke with. I was reminded again that the ACH’s outreach committee, which I chair, should be consciously expanded to include people from more than one hemisphere, people who can help to inform our efforts in the global sphere and channel our energy more effectively. Mostly, I was struck (as I am after every DH conference or unconference) at how lucky I am to have the chance to work with collaborators from around the world who share a set of basic values: that hacking is a way of knowing, that we can engage with theory through method, that constraints-based approaches are paradoxically liberating, and that the best new scholarly work is the work of many hands.