A survey, a volume, a talk

Although the pleasure will be brief, I will savor it as I should: I will be at the Historical Institute in Paris next week to talk about epistemology of the Digital Humanities. Not only will I be in Paris, and what is more at the Historical Institute, and what is more to talk about DH: I will also exchange views with old friends (and presumably new ones as well). I will seize the opportunity to talk about my latest research.

During the past month, I worked on a volume called “Berlin Contributions to the Digital Humanities” that is close to being printed now. For this volume, I translated some papers, copy-edited, read and re-read many others, helped conceive one, prepared the questions of a double interview (for yet another article), contributed to the conception of a survey and an expert interview, and finally wrote the general introduction. In Paris, I will talk about some issues I raise in the introduction and about the one article I contributed to more directly and for which we developed an online-survey (which you can find here, it is in German).

This paper, whose main author is Claudia Müller-Birn, presents a first analysis of the online-survey that we conceived this summer and conducted this autumn. In its initial conception, the survey was aimed at getting to know more precisely what kind of software Berlin humanists are using. The geographical focus was due to the fact that the whole book project (and the survey and interviews we conducted in order to realize it) were funded by the Einstein Foundation in the context of the Einstein-Zirkel Digital Humanities in Berlin. It turned out that the survey would also tell us a few things about humanists outside the capital city as well, but that is the next chapter of this story (you can count on a follow-up this month). In Paris, I will more particularly talk about the following aspects of the Berlin-related part of the analysis (these are presented with greater detail in the Einstein volume and relate solely to the data coming from participants from Berlin and Brandenburg).

The first aspect is that we wanted to ask all humanists without any distinction of their methodological background about their use of software, but the format of the survey (its being online as well as, presumably, the vocabulary and the diffusion channels we used) lead us to humanists with a digital inclination – primarily digital humanists. The picture we are able to draw in the end tells us something about software use, but also about forms of communication, which are in fact two different dimensions of DH practice. For me at least, it was an interesting way of addressing the question of the definition of the DH community in a place like Berlin. The survey was conducted after two years of a project, the Einstein-Zirkel Digital Humanities, in which networking the DH community was a major component. And yet, in the end, in our survey, there is a majority of literary scholars, and the suspicion of a bias because of me being a literature scholar. And there has to be a bias, considering the overall extremely limited contribution of literature scholars to anything digital in Berlin. So, yes, this left me somewhat puzzled regarding the definition of the “DH community”, be it only in Berlin. (and, by the way, thanks a lot for filling out the survey!)

The second interesting aspect is that – in spite of this bias issue and the yet unanswered question of the definition of the community – we were able to cluster different types of software users, e.g. humanists with different software needs, some more bibliographic, some more database-related, etc. What you will learn when you read the paper (or, alternatively, come here the presentation at the DHd 2016 conference in Leipzig), is that the identification of these user types allows an in-depth analysis of the understanding humanists have of text editors and other office software, but also of the difficulty there is to separate research activities (in the survey, we associated activities with software along the TaDiRAH taxonomy) in a way that makes equally sense for all humanities disciplines. So, what is it again that makes humanities research digital again? Hmmm…

This leads me to the aspects of my introduction that I will present in the second part of my paper in Paris. We associate different things with digital humanities: methods, questions, means of communication, which makes it sometimes difficult to find a common ground even among digital humanists. One major challenge is to be able to make sense of Digital Humanities within the European structure of humanities disciplines, especially by acknowledging the DH’s contribution to methodological changes within the humanities disciplines. But the beauty of the thing is: Because there is something like DH, we are able to compare our methods, our research processes, our results with that of disciplines we had never really had contact with before. And that is an enrichment we should be grateful for and leave room for in the way we reflect our research practice.


Anne Baillot

I am a Professor of German Studies at Le Mans Université. My areas of research include German literature, Digital Humanities, textual scholarship and intellectual history.

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