The last workshop of the season concluded the Digital Humanities Initiative at Queen’s sponsored by Special Collections in the Library. Today’s topic: Google Tools for Digital Scholarship – brought me to reflect on a few of the more salient aspects of the fluidity of data and tools in the digital age.
I began delivering this workshop three years ago in response to a perceived need for an introduction and survey of practical, approachable and useful tools for digital scholars. Impetus for this arose from a realisation that many the of ‘simple‘ and ‘popular‘ tools that might take for granted and not universally known or used.
This workshop has proven to be very popular and routinely sells out well in advance. Everyone finds a tool, idea or website that they had been unaware of and walks away interested in exploring further.
As I have given this workshop on a regular basis, I am routinely reminded of this fluidity as I freshen and verify the availability of tools. They come and they also go as do the sources of data that I have come to rely on and to leverage for demonstration purposes.
This has become a routine learning to ensure that, as a scholar, you maintain your own access to the data and not become overly dependent on a tool that you cannot rely on being there tomorrow. Make sure that you have a Plan B and have explored your own contingencies.
I also often begin this workshop with an apology about my promotion of tools and platforms that are primarily proprietary and even more importantly: turn the scholarly user in to a commoditisable product. However, what I should mean to do is warn rather than condemn. Making a value decision to trade the personally derived benefit of the tool for sharing usage (or other data) is absolutely sane, fair and reasonable – if you are aware of the implications of the choice. It’s a contract. You have to be aware that both sides need to benefit and reach some accord – and both sides need to think about what they are exchanging for a particular benefit.
There are three crucial aspects that emerge from this workshop:
- Always make sure that you can extract the data that you provide and manipulate – so that you don’t remain wedded to the tool/platform;
- Ensure that your data is stored in at least two places to ensure it’s long term preservation and availability;
- Always take the time to consider your alternatives – whether they are other tools or platforms.
As the title hints, over the span of offering this workshop Google has morphed into Alphabet – and as part of this workshop we explore tools, platforms and initiatives beyond the G now.
Learning from developing, delivering and enjoying the feedback from this workshop has led to a schematic of how we interact with Alphabet and the data we might provide explicitly or implicitly. Tools and platforms can be seen across three dimensions:
- Simple –> Complex
- General –> Specific
- Abstract –> Fun
Leading to definition of a recurring digital scholarly process of:
Mining –> Making –> Applying – a process that underlies much of what we do as humanities data scientists.
This workshop is part of a larger series of workshops that have been developed and delivered as part of the Digital Humanities initiative at Queen’s University Belfast. Thanks to the support of the Graduate School and the Institute for Collaborative Research in the Humanities we have been able to find engagement across the entire University.
One of the most gratifying aspects – and should not be particularly surprising – has been the very broad multidisciplinarity of the participants. Initially targeting humanities scholars, those from Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences have often been outnumbered by attendees from the Business and Medical schools. This has brought much additional value to the workshops through the varied perspectives that this has brought to discussion. As an example, I was pleasantly surprised when delivering and Introduction to Omeka, when a participant from the Business School cleverly devised a Learning Management System for himself within Omeka. In his model Case Studies existed as specific digital objects and he used the Omeka commenting system as an open forum for extended discussion. Assignment submission were handled in a lightweight manner through Omeka contribution facility. Brilliant!
Unanticipated outcomes can be both positive and negative – but it’s been especially gratifying to see the ways in which workshop participants have applied their experience to the tools, platforms and methods being presented – truly witnessing Scholarly Innovation in Action!