The following is a presentation I prepared to reflect on some of the issues I faced while working on my digital history project for this semester. I have included both the slides and script here incase others are interest in discussing my experience.
Over the course of this semester for my Digital History class, I worked with my classmates to create a short book for the Canadian Science and Tech Museum. The book is in the form of an in-flight magazine from the 1960s. The articles within it are meant to explore some of the history of Air Canada in the 60s. The museum gave use a number of artifacts to draw on and showcase in the project. In order to make use of these artifacts we attempted to make 3D models of them. The models, along with links to more in-depth articles, videos and other forms of media, were imbedded into the project using digital augmentation tools. As the reader scans photographs in the magazine a second layer of materials will be revealed to them. This presentation is meant to be a collection of my thoughts on the issues we faced while doing this project and more generally, what I see as the challenges of working in the field of Digital Humanities.
My largest issue with Digital History is also probably the hardest of all to address. As our class started brainstorming what we wanted our project to be it was easy to see how different technologies could be used on different materials. 3D modelling and digital augmentation were the two main tools that we ended up using for the project but it was not immediately apparent why we were using these tool, aside from the fact that we were asked to do so in the assignment. The issue I have with this is that I am a firm believer in simplicity in design and the idea of value added. In other words, what’s the point? I want to make it clear that I am not saying that I think digital tools do not have value and that we should just stick to the old ways of doing things. On the contrary I am a firm believer in trying new things and approaching old problems from different perspectives. I am not however a fan of doing things for no apparent reason or as some form of gimmick. My first concern when presented with an assignment like this is to determine how augmenting a book digitally adds value to the text. It is important that the tools we use to tell our history fit the material. In a case where we are expected to actually produce a physical product form becomes important. In our case the augments to the magazine should add something that could not be accomplished some other way. This is often a much harder task than it may seem. I think most people would agree that adding the 3D models is something only possible through and augment but then the question becomes, what does that model add to the overall project. I think allowing people to view these artifacts which may never be present in any other form justifies their inclusion in the magazine but I think I could have done more to integrate them into the history I was trying to tell through my articles. It can sometimes be tempting to be drawn in to new ways of presenting our work but we must always remember to ask if they are really the best way to present our work.
Working in a digital environment requires a certain level of proficiency with computers. The level of proficiency is entirely dependent on what you are trying to do. It is one thing to know how to set up a blog on WordPress but it is a completely different proposition when faced with understanding how to use rendering software like Meshlab. This is probably self-evident but it is a constant issue when trying to work on digital project. I do not think I am generalizing too much when I say that most students of the humanities have only a basic level of computer skills, myself included. We know our way around word processors pretty well and most of us have our favorite time saving apps but we know little or nothing about how these things work. We lack the basic knowledge and language that any first year computer science student has. You do not need to be a programmer to leaner how to use many popular digital humanities tools but a certain understanding of the language is required. At the moment it seems as though the majority of the people in the DH world have a slightly higher than average understanding of computers. As helpful as many of these people are it can often be difficult to engage with them for the simple fact that I just do not know the proper terminology. A bit of a walled garden has been created by many digital humanists. There are those like the Programming-Historian who are trying to nock down these walls and bring more people into the digital realm but there is still work to be done. The reality of working in the digital world is that as a beginner your vision will very often exceed your reach. Digital tools can let you bring history to life in ways that are both informative and more engaging than most other forms of presentation. We have reached a point where most things imaginable can be replicated or expressed using digital representations or tools. This does not mean it is always possible or practical to accomplish these tasks within the confines of a given project. One of the largest challenges of working on the project for this class was stepping back and realizing not what it was possible to do but what it was possible for us to do. We had to decide what the highest returns for our time were. For example the most technical aspect of the project was probably the construction of the 3D models. We took advantage of photo analysis software that was able to construct the models for us from a series of photos. Although we learned how to use this software and make minor changes to increase the odds of success, we relied primarily on taking the right types of photos so that the software would be able to do more of the work. It is entirely possible to transfer some of our failed models in more advanced rendering software and edit the models by hand to fix errors made by the computer, it would even be possible to build the models entirely from scratch with these tools. However, the time necessary to learn these tools was to great for us to accomplish in just one semester. The more one builds these proficiencies, the more they are able to accomplish on other digital projects. Even more than this the more proficient you become the easier it is to learn the new skills the will continue to move you forward. Digital Humanities can have a high learning curve and until you start to understand the language it is important not to become discouraged.
Although working within the digital community seems to be much more collaborative than traditional forms of historical work, their seems to be a certain expectation of self sufficiency or what I would call a D.I.Y. ethos. The emphasis on how to learn digital skills seems to be placed more on doing than teaching. A quick search of the internet will turn up a number of written or video tutorials for most of the more popular Digital Humanities tools. These resources are all geared towards independent study. This seems to suggest that knowledge is very specific in the digital world. In other words what you know is often a direct reflection of what types of projects you have worked on. I can definitely appreciate the efficiency of this approach in some regards but in terms of working as part of a formal class it presents some issues. Assuming it is impossible to find a reasonably sized project that would encompass all aspects or types of digital work, sacrifices have to be made in terms of what will be learned as a result of which project is chosen. In our case augmentation and 3D modelling were the focus of our project. Although we spent class time discussing concepts and approaches to fields like data analysis we did not have the same hands on approach to these. All that can be reasonably expected is that I have now been made aware of some of these other tools and have an idea of where to look to learn how to use them. When the need arises I can embark on another independent effort to become proficient with them. I see this as both a strength and a weakness of doing digital work. Being able to learn independently and self motivate are some of the most valuable skills I think a person can have and this sentiment seems to be reflected in the Digital Humanities world. The issues again goes back to proficiency, the relative lack of a unified knowledge base only makes the barrier to entry seem that much more difficult for those not initiated into the field. Without any background in computer sciences it can be a slow process to learn how to use some of these tools. The even great problem that I see is that learning only to use the tools does not necessarily lead to an understanding of how the tools themselves work. Without this understanding it becomes increasingly difficult to be critical of the work accomplished with them. If you have no conception of how a program like Voyant goes about finding words or connections in texts how can you comment on the results. The algorithms used to do searches have their own built in biases that are being transferred to your work without you knowing. I say this all as someone who has no practical programming skills but as I try to involve myself more in the Digital Humanities I have become less and less easy with dismissing what goes on behind the scenes in a program as magic. I think most historians at this point would see this as an unacceptable stance in regards to more traditional approaches to history. Countless papers have been written about how we must not be ignorant to archival process that shape our sources, why then would it be okay to blindly charge into a new field and make the same old mistakes.
Although our project had its fair share of bumps and surprises along the way I am happy with what we were able to create and more importantly I feel as though I am better prepared to face my next digital project, whatever it may be. It may often be difficult to get started in the Digital Humanities and the types of skills needed are often outside the comfort zone of your standard historian but this should not discourage those with a willingness to learn. The value that digital tools can add to projects is both great and varied. As a result of this the ends are easily worth the struggle of working through the challenges. As more and more historians do start to take the plunge we must remain critical in our work. Should embrace these new tools but also make ourselves aware of the structures they represent and how they will not both improve and influence our work.