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Issues in the Digital Humanities: A Key Skills Package for Postgraduate Researchers

2013 July 14

Jen Morgan (University of Salford)

It is surprising, given the increase in both the production and use of digitised materials by people who wouldn’t necessarily describe themselves as ‘digital humanists’, that it is so difficult to find a general, introductory course on what is involved in producing such resources. That was the position that Elinor Taylor (@ElinorMTaylor) and I found ourselves in when, having bid successfully for funding to run a course for post-graduate students and early career researchers on how to plan and run a digitisation project, we struggled to find a trainer who could deliver the training. We were lucky enough, in the end, that Ed Pinsent of the Digital Preservation Coalition designed the course, which took us through the entire process from the selection of materials and technical standards, to the delivery of the end product, via copyright and licensing, project management, metadata, and other key aspects of digitisation. What we wanted to achieve in this part of the course was to put participants in a stronger position to bid for funding and then to carry out a digitisation project with the greatest chance of success, if they had ambitions to do so. If the course made them realise that they were not, in fact, in a position to start and complete a digitisation project then we thought that would also have value. Something I took from the training was the importance of thinking strategically about resources already available to you, as Ed stressed repeatedly the importance of not reinventing the wheel and of making full use of existing resources in University archives, for example.

The second day of the event was designed to lead on from the first, with presentations from academics and producers of digital resources. We were pleased to have Dr Jim Mussell (@jimmussell) of the University of Birmingham give the first keynote lecture, since his book The Nineteenth-Century Press in the Digital Age inspired the overall premise of the training event — his argument that we, as users of digital resources, should understand their production if we are to use them critically. Thanks to Ed’s training, participants were guaranteed to have at least basic knowledge of OCR, metadata, and (unexpectedly) a phenomenon known as Bit rot. Jim’s talk challenged well-worn preconceptions about the forms of old and new media, encouraging us to see digitisation of old media as not as ‘loss’ but as ‘difference’. The remediation of text and other objects allows us to think anew old, more familiar forms, to recognise that the archive as we receive it is selective, ‘always already deficient’. Two presentations from post-graduate students — Jess Evans (University of Salford) and Nick Treuherz (University of Manchester) — addressed key problems for researchers in their use of digitised resources. Jess discussed the pros and cons of research using digitised newspapers, showing us how use of the Working Class Movement Library’s physical holdings yielded data in the form of marginalia that the same periodical in an online form does not provide. Nick’s work on the publication history of Baron d’Holbach’s texts in Britain between 1765 and 1800 showed how digital resources like the Eighteenth Century Collections Online, Google Books, and Google’s Ngram Viewer can help the researcher to reconstruct the influence of writers, while potentially misleading them if used uncritically.

A joint paper by Vanessa Bartlett and Dr Eleanor Paremain introduced us to the digital archive Unfinished Histories, which is an ongoing project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. The archive recovers materials in a range of media related to the alternative theatre movement in Camden and Lambeth between 1968 and 1988, from publicity materials and reviews to interviews and audio-visual excerpts. They spoke about the benefits and challenges of working collaboratively, as the project brings together a range of people: practitioners, academics, and volunteers of all backgrounds. We were lucky enough to hold the training event in the Working Class Movement Library, and this presentation made those of us who know the library think about the potential of this unique resource for digitisation projects. The training of the day before also made us aware of potential obstacles for such endeavours, not the least of which are financial and institutional.

The final presentation of the day was by Dr Helen Rogers (@helenrogers19c) of Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU), and two of her undergraduate students, Melissa Fletcher and Maria Stebbing. They talked about their online resource Writing Lives: A Collaborative Research Project on Working-Class Autobiography, a blog Helen set up with her students in a final-year module at LJMU. The students were asked to select a writer from the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, and write blog posts about aspects of their lives. This, for us, was a good example of clever use of time and resources, the importance of which was brought home to us on the first day. It also had clear pedagogical benefits, as anyone who had the pleasure of listening to Maria and Melissa’s contributions could testify. They spoke about the pride they had in their work, made public on the blog, and the responsibility they felt towards their chosen writers: Margaret Perry and Kathleen Hilton-Foord. They sounded like any other researcher within Higher Education, at least, they sounded like researchers when it’s still going well, when they are still enthusiastic and hopeful. I asked them to reflect on how the experience of undertaking the module affected their attitudes towards their own education, and they made it clear that they felt more empowered by this kind of learning and that they would have liked more modules in this vein. The possibilities in this kind of activity for teaching, research, and the creation of a community of scholarship in a university department are exciting and have stayed with me.

We received good feedback for the event, and it is clear that there is more demand for training in digitisation than is currently available. This specially commissioned course was funded by the AHRC via their Collaborative Skills Development call, and the deadline for the current year’s round is 4pm on Thursday 19 September 2013. I would encourage Ph.D. students to apply, and there is an Early Career Researcher (ECR) led strand this year, too. We found the application process and administering the event training in itself as it can be challenging, but it was ultimately worthwhile. There is a clear need for innovative training events and, as Jim suggested in his presentation, it is our job as academics and practitioners to be proactive in encouraging digital literacy.

Jen Morgan will submit her PhD thesis on Shelley in the Owenite and Chartist press by the end of 2013. She is co-convenor of the Radical Studies Network, with Elinor Taylor and Ben Harker.

Email j.a.morgan@edu.salford.ac.uk @J_e_n_M

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