By Danielle Trynoski
The 51st International Congress on Medieval Studies was last week at Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA, hosted wonderfully by Western Michigan University. Out of almost 600 sessions over four days, there were a satisfying number with a technology focus. One memorable panel featuring Medievalists.net’s own Peter Konieczny hotly discussed the ethics of live-tweeting, but many sessions featured digital humanities (DH) projects. DH projects seem to be springing out of the proverbial ground like so many mushrooms over the last few years. With 2016 being my fourth year in a row, I can attest to a rising trend in this sub-field at the Congress. While I personally wish that more historians would note what new (and not-so-new) technologies can offer, it is refreshing to see a few of them taking time to experiment.
Digital humanities include research which incorporates traditional humanities research methods, i.e., primary source analysis, with a digital tool or resource, i.e., Geographic Information Systems (GIS). The application of digital systems has been used for a number of years however recent accessibility to stable and useful open-source software has helped encourage the development of DH projects. Who doesn’t like free?
Productive conference sessions featuring DH tended to include project case studies, discussions of method, and concrete results, all with a healthy dose of realistic reflection of the actual process. Many of these speakers had clear goals and a large amount of data, hence their impetus to seek out a database management system or other technological resource. The need to record, track, and quickly process data has resulted in medievalists from all fields exploring new tools and methods. What is very positive and refreshing about most of these papers was an overt disclaimer of “this is new, I’m not completely sure I’ve got it right, but here’s where we’re at and let’s talk about it.” Folks are trying things, and then looking for feedback on how to expand or improve. This is not a symptom of a research fad which will be dropped.
A few examples of great projects included mapping the social, religious, and political networks of Gerbert of Aurillac by Courtney De Mayo of Heidelberg University, a network theory analysis of the economy of East Central Europe using coin hoards and topography by Donat Wehner of Christian-Albrechts-Univ. zu Kiel, a virtual reconstruction of the abbey of Vadstena, Sweden including sounds and sight lines by Michelle Urberg of U of Chicago/U. of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and the development of online educational tools at The Met. Other presentations included the proposal of ideas and outlines for getting started like S.C. Kaplan’s fledgling Paperbound (medieval watermarks database) project. These are all just honorable mentions of the sessions I attended; there were many more in other sessions.
While it’s great to see network analysis, spatial analysis, database management, database query systems, digital archives, searchable indexes, and more DH research popping up across the globe, there are a few concerns to address. Many projects reach across university department lines; primarily by including computer science students to help write computer programs and manage databases. Despite this close proximity to historical content and medieval historians, are computer science students “getting” the humanities? Or are the humanities just using their skills? It’s like humanities scholars are putting computer science students into the facsimile of an airplane cockpit: the buttons make noise and the lights flash but the never take off. With so much potential for collaboration, how can we pull computer programmers over to the “dark side” of pursuing a career or lasting investment in DH rather than just D?
DH researchers should also seriously consider their commitment to the project. Which projects are actually viable on a long-term basis? What is the expected lifespan of the project? How is it sustained now and how will it be sustained in the future? Digital storage, like a physical storage container, has a monetary value and as software updates there is a human factor to manage and maintain the data and programs. If you are a project lead and you leave your university, who will take over? Your cash-strapped department or library? Your soon-to-be-departing graduate students? Think again. Many projects, such as the search indexes for niche topics like medieval legal texts or monastic cartularies, are dangerously close to being beautiful solely in the eye of the beholder: beloved by their primary researcher and not many others. The ability to locate digital resources is important, however where’s the search engine to sort the search engines?
Lastly, is this really a “new” trend? Or one which is finally getting some much needed attention and debate? I can’t answer that one, but I hope that the Medieval Institute at WMU – as the primary organizers of the ICMS – continues to offer platforms for the presentation, evaluation, and discussion of DH projects. I look forward to seeing the line-up for next year’s Congress and the continued conjunction of medieval and digital.
Danielle Trynoski earned her MA in Medieval Archaeology at the University of York in England. When she’s not visiting museums and historical sites, she’s riding horses or reading about Vikings. She currently lives in southern California and manages the website CuratoryStory.com