I wake in yet another extraordinarily overpriced (but architecturally impressive) hotel, this time in London, to find that the sun is already shining brightly and I have
ample time to look for a real breakfast — my first for many days — which I enjoy alfresco, in the much to be recommended cafe in Russell Square. For today really is the last stop on this little tour of duty, and I am down to give a closing address at University College London where Juliette Nyhan and Anne Welsh have jointly organised a symposium on “the Hidden Histories of Digital Humanities”. Sitting in the leaf-dappered sunshine, I mentally resolve to try to take seriously the notion of Digital Humanities as something having an identifiable history, and (with slightly less difficulty) the notion that I myself have contributed to it. I also resolve not to get too much ego on my tie, and not to use that joke to open my talk, since I am scheduled to appear at the end of a long day. My talk is a revamped version of one I have now given twice, both times in French, so doing it in English will be entertaining (for me, at any rate)
I arrive at UCL in good time to pay my respects to Jeremy Bentham still sitting in his glass case, and to be issued with my little folder of publicity for UCL’s new Centre for Digital Humanities, a free pen, a completely empty USB key, and some fairly nasty coffee. Ah yes, English coffee. And sugary English biccies in plastic bags. Never mind, we pile into the massive auditorium, and listen to Professor Willard McCarty, for it is he, reading wise words, and dropping names in an appropriately professorial manner. His title was something about how to write a history of Digital Humanities. Amongst topics mentioned I seem to have noted only the following: a wurlitzer book vending machine; Margaret Masterman; I A Richards; N Mccullock; Jasia Reichardt’s cybernetic serendipity and of course Homer’s Odyssey, xix, lines 149-50. Willard somehow manages to appear both encyclopaedic and parochial. While I share his desire that the usual suspects when pontificating on the “discipline” should meet the highest of academic standards, it also seems to me that writing history is largely about taking revenge. But before it all gets too personal, the charming Claudine Moulin from Trier’s DH Zentrum takes to the floor and delivers a lengthy meditation on the concept of “knowledge spaces”, in particular (I think) the way that such spaces can be regarded as “the spatial concretion of knowledge stocks” (I understood that when I wrote it down, but now I am not so sure).
After a pause for more brown liquid and sugary snacks, during which I traded scurrilous gossip with Lorna Hughes, Edward Vanhoutte, attended by not one but two tall and glamorous Flemish ladies, gave what was probably the best researched presentation of the day, concerning how humanities computing mutated into digital humanities, and what the difference between them might be. Like Fred Gibbs and Patrick Svenson’s (whose definitional forays he cites), Vanhoutte seems to think that these terms label ontologically distinct fields of activity, or “disciplines” which can be located independently of any social, historical, or political context, and that there is an inherent circularity in defining either of these terms by means of lists or surveys or (one might say) communities of practice. But then he also seems to think that terms exist independently of their application, so he is at least consistent. I learn with interest that the currently foundational text in the field (Schreibman et al) was titled a Digital Humanities Reader, at the suggestion of John Unsworth because the marketing department of their publisher did not like the originally proposed “Humanities Computing” label ; I immediately tweet the proposition that said publisher (Blackwell) was keen to put deep blue water between this product and the immediately preceding foundational text of the domain, OUP’s “Humanities Computing Yearbook” and “Research in Humanities Computing” series. That’s how historical truth is created, Edward. Next up is the totally charismatic Melissa Terras, back from maternity leave and showing her dedication to the cause by making this seminar her first return gig, and on a Sunday to boot. She does us the compliment of actually addressing the ostensible topic of the seminar by talking (ostensibly) about the implications of “Crowd sourcing: beyond the traditional boundaries of academic history”. I think the idea was to make connexions between the role of the internet beyond the academy, the need to pay attention to ephemera when constructing history, and how crowd sourcing might help us explicate them. She used as real life example an amusing document from the TEI archives, but Mel has the rare ability to make any document sound fascinating. we resumed for more serious matters. Last before lunch, James Cronin from UC Cork spoke fairly inpenetrably about what is presumably a cause celebre in Irish architectural history : the elision from history of Lehmann James Oppenheimer , a key figure in the Irish Arts and Crafts movement at the end of the 19th century (I learn), but no longer featuring in any discussion of the churches whose interior he designed, presumably on account of his name (I hypothesize).
After lunch, about which I report only that it was not French, Andrew Flinn from UCL spoke entirely over my head about the information theory behind oral history methodologies (I plead total ignorance of this topic). Also from UCL, Vanda Broughton was much more accessible on the social history of what we now know as facetted searching, which she made a plausible case for having been invented by a real-life group of information scientists inspired by Ranganathan long before its reinvention or rediscovery in shopping systems and super cool web search engines (like Isidore). In the absence of the sadly-missed Claire Warwick (she was off sick) the next item on the programme was a “virtual presentation” by Ray Siemens, i.e. (I think) a previously recorded video of Dr Siemens gazing at us and chatting away very much like a late night radio broadcaster. I say that not just because of Ray’s mellifluously smooth mid atlantic phrasing, but also because he sounded unsure that anyone was actually listening to him. He had a number of interesting anecdotes about “pioneers of DH” (the Stanwood brothers, for example), some of which were new to me,but I found it difficult to engage with discourse so carefully inoffensive, and so clearly addressed to no-one in particular. And so, after a brief tea break, to my own presentation which was (need I say) entirely wonderful, if a bit chaotic. More to the point, I managed to get through it within the time allocated, leaving a bit of time to answer questions before the six o clock deadline for everyone to decamp to the room where several bottles of a really quite drinkable chardonnay awaited us. I got pleasantly drunk, staggered out into the night, hailed a taxi to Paddington, and thus eventually back to Oxford for a well-earned rest.