Why we need to teach Data Architecture, Metadata and Annotation Tools in the Humanities. Seriously. Now.

An esteemed colleague and friend handed me over a short text last week, saying he was curious to know what I think of it. To be true, now that I have read it, I am mostly tempted to hop on my bike on this Sunday evening, ride to his place and explain to him what data architecture is and what annotation tools allow to do. I probably will be given an opportunity to do so at some later point, so it will not have to be tonight after all. But I don’t want to let the gap between the intellectual intensity of the thought behind the text and the lack of knowledge of the structure of the object it deals with undiscussed, because I think it shows a real problem.

A first section of the text comments on the way we are confronted with a completely new mass of information arriving to us from the internet in general and the many appliances that give access to part of it in particular. It then draws conclusions as to our reading habits: they become more selective and induce a lack of thinking – thinking being replaced by lose connections. I am synthesizing the many interesting detours of the text through the history of human thought and human evolution regarding writing (I learned a lot in that regard reading this text); maybe I will be able to convince him to publish his text (online?) and can then add the link here.

There were a few ideas I was surprised to find there. First, the idea that on the internet, all information is equivalent. Second, the idea that on the internet, all text sorts are equivalent. Third, the idea that all you can do with internet information is to surf on it in a random way. Fourth, the idea that this will lead to the doom of libraries.

It is such an obvious misunderstanding, or rather overseeing, of all scholarly digital endeavors of the last decades that it makes me feel as if there was, after all, no such thing as digital scholarship, because in the eyes of “real” scholars, those that read manuscripts and write books, digital scholarship amounts to about as much as, say, google.

How, where should we start when it comes to teaching data architecture? To explaining that a scholar uses the internet as he uses a book: not like the person who buys a random romantic novel in a train station, but by learning to filter, select and recognize relevant information. How should we explain that, just as there are tables of contents in books, you have to learn how to use metadata cleverly on the web? That the libraries, at least those that matter to scholars, have long understood what was going on and taken the curve much faster than many scholars or their home institutions? That books are still made to be taken in your hands and enjoy the pleasure of turning the pages – but when it comes to finding scholarly relevant information, you can be much more efficient and creative with a good digital edition, that will, indeed, lead you to associations and new research ideas – provided that you know what you are dealing with, that you are an intelligent user. And finally, how can we explain that annotation tools make it possible to think along a text?

Finding a way to explain all of this to our 25 year-old, html-fluent students is one thing. Taking this to those who are today’s thinkers and who consider that old and new media are in an inevitable confrontation, a war that will soon be lost for a better world that cannot but disappear, is another thing. It is those people too that need to be taught what digital scholarship is. But what should the white flag look like?


Anne Baillot

I studied German Studies and Philosophy in Paris where I got my PhD in 2002. I then moved to Berlin, where I have been living & doing research ever since. My areas of specialty include German literature, Digital Humanities, textual scholarship and intellectual history. I am currently working at the Centre Marc Bloch in Berlin as an expert in digital technologies for the humanities.

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1 Response

  1. Hi Anne, thanks for sharing this, very timely! There will be a panel discussion on the “Digital Humanities Curriculum” at the DH Conference in Passau – maybe I’ll be able to mention some of your points there. Although me feeling is that your post is as much about basic digital literacy as it is about more specifically research-oriented digital skills like data modeling, information architecture and annotation strategies.

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