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Instutions In The Digital Humanities

Institutions in the Digital Humanities

(Apologies for the misspelled title.)

These reflections were developed for the Scaling the Digital Humanities in Canada strategic meetings organized by Ray Siemens at the DHSI 2010 at the University of Victoria. I was asked to talk about scaling infrastructure and this is an outline of what I presented.

Alan Liu in his dialogue with Pierre Levi at SDH/SEMI talked about the importance of institutions. They mediate between the individual and totalizing forces. He suggested that we need to think about institutions and their histories. He called us to learn about the history of digital humanities. Understanding the ecology of institutions we have is especially important if we want to imagine scaling up to provide national level support for research computing.

Institutional Capacity

One way to look at the capacity of the digital humanities is to look at institutions. How are institutions important to capacity?

  • Institutions mediate between the individuals and the broader field. Individuals can get involved, trained, and have a voice through institutions like centres or institutes.
  • Institutions are a way of showing and providing long term capacity – universities typically don’t set them up without some commitment to ongoing support.
  • Institutions provide context of support – specifically humanities computing institutions are what often run the infrastructure needed.
  • Institutions are often involved in the business of showing capacity and developing credibility.
  • Institutions can interoperate with other institutions forming larger consortia or collaborations that would provide the sort of scale needed.

Types of Institutions

It is worth surveying the types of institutions in the digital humanities:

  • Centres, institutes and labs – a crucial chapter of the history of humanities computing in Canada is tied to the formation of centres that could provide the computing needed for research and teaching. The Centre for Computing in the Humanities at the University of Toronto, for example, played a formative role in the development of the field in Canada.
  • Associations – Scholarly associations like SDH/SEMI play an important role. SDH/SEMI grew out of a consortium of centres and institutes in Ontario that was scaled across Canada. It is interesting that initially it was a consortium of universities not an association of scholars.
  • Publications – we have some publication venues like the new Digital Studies, but more importantly we have a projects providing publication support like Synergies.
  • Projects – projects tend to be some of the most important types of institutions for research. They get and have funding for research as opposed to getting funding for infrastructure or publication.
  • Departments, Programs, and Training Institutes – universities, programs and departments are some of the most durable institutions.
  • Virtual or Distributed Research Communities are a new and old idea.
  • Neighboring Institutions that we could collaborate with.

Scaling Institutions

The interesting question is what sort of institution can scale and what sort of institutions are needed for scale.

What can scale?

As part of the discussions at the University of Victoria on Scaling the Digital Humanities, I reflected on what sorts of institutions might be able to scale.

  • Centres and institutes are typically based at individual universities and therefore don't support large scale research and learning. That said we could imagine bringing back a consortium of centres like COCH/COSH as a national organization of centres and projects. We could also imagine virtual institutes.
  • Most of our projects probably can’t be scaled, but they are crucial as they have resources. The scale can come from efficiently bringing projects together into a consortium.
  • Associations could scale, but I don’t think SDH/SEMI is the right one – perhaps a Canadian chapter of centreNet could
  • Publication venues, especially platforms like Synergies and TAPoR can be woven in, though they have specific mandates
  • Departments and programs - We don’t normally think of them, but there may be opportunities to create a national curriculum and share teaching and learning
  • Neighboring institutions - We need to collaborate with similar institutions that have experience scaling

What is needed?

  • An understanding of the need for scaling. Why do we need to scale? What can be achieved a national level?
  • The development of common and accessible research infrastructure across Canada. Digital humanities institutions could take a lead on this by articulating a statement of need. Our experience in TAPoR is that it is fairly clear what basic support is needed to support research innovation.
  • Institutions like centres need ongoing support themselves, both from their universities and federal agencies. Institutions like electronic journals need publication support, centres need funding to run summer training and so on.
  • Institutions can learn from each other.



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