ALIA Online 2017

Under construction, 12 February 2017
This page is likely to be messy and incomplete. Check back later.

So what is Digital Humanities?

What DH does

Some possible definitions:

  • a neoliberal plot?
  • a strategic intervention?
  • the application of digital tools and techniques to topics in the humanities?
  • all of the above?

To be honest, I have very little interest in discussions about what DH is. What interests me what the sorts of questions and approaches shared within the DH community allow me to do.

I’m also suspicious of supposed ‘revolutions’, particularly when they’re driven by technology. It’s important to remember that DH doesn’t supplant traditional critical skills, it offers a broader landscape in which to apply them.

So what makes DH different? For me it’s:

  • The opportunity to see things differently – to use computational methods to explore changes in scale and context.
  • The invitation not just to make, but to make a difference – the emphasis on doing, sharing, and engaging with a variety of publics.
  • The encouragement of new collaborations – the breakdown of the ‘library as service’ model to imagine new partnerships.

The tools, techniques, projects, and examples I’m going to introduce you to today all relate back to these ideas in some way. It won’t be a comprehensive overview of the Digital Humanities, but hopefully it’ll give you a taste of what’s possible and inspire you to explore further.

More things to explore

But first…

Headline Roulette

I like to start off workshops with a quick round of Headline Roulette both because it’s fun (I hope) and because it gets us thinking about different ways we might use and explore cultural heritage data. In this case, Headline Roulette is drawing information about digitised newspaper articles from the Trove API.

Things to explore

Annotate this!

Screenshot of

This page can be annotated using As we go along you can add notes, reminders, links or clarifications. It’s easy!

Just click on the tab that appears on the right of the screen and log in. You can either comment on the whole page or highlight a section of text to annotate.

Things to explore

  • Go to the site and enter any old url in the ‘Annotate!’ box. You can annotate any web page!
  • is a project using to add a bit of scientific rigour to media reporting around climate change.
  • There’s lots if useful information in the their Education section. Think about how might you make use of in your own resources.

Liberating data

Trove Harvester in action

Data is everywhere, and as librarians I probably don’t have to tell you about things like or Research Data Australia. And then there’s the growing number of APIs and datasets being released by cultural organisation – like the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

But even APIs require a bit of effort and expertise to get useful data out. And there’s a lot of great data locked in proprietary systems or published in unstructured form on web pages. I spend a lot of time figuring out how to get data out of unfriendly systems. I do it to open the data for reuse, but also because I believe that access is never simply ‘open’. It’s a struggle – and in the process we learn.

Things to explore

Text as data

In a word

Sometimes the text is the data. Using digital tools we can break texts down into their component parts – words, phrases, and parts of speech – and manipulate them. How are certain words used within collections of texts? We can analyse things like occurrance, frequency, and context to better understand the layers of meaning within text.

Things to explore

Playing with scale


Sometimes the application of these sorts of computational techniques to text sources is referred to as ‘distant reading’. By aggregating resources and extracting and analysing features (such as word frequencies) we can build big pictures (and big arguments). But what kind of knowledge claims can we really make?

Things to explore

Seeing what’s missing


I’m assuming that I don’t have to go on about filter bubbles, search personalisation, and the ways algorithms shape our perceptions of the world in a workshop full of librarians. Nonetheless, the ‘professional hair’ tweet-storm from last year is a useful reminder that search interfaces hide as much as they reveal.

This doesn’t just apply to Google, a large part of my research is focused on understanding what we can’t see – exploring the biases, limits and assumptions that shape our cultural heritage collections.

Things to explore

Filling gaps

A number of digital humanities tools and projects have been concerned with how we create and preserve collections. Instead of waiting and hoping that material of historical significance will find its way to cultural institutions we can move quickly to capture it. By doing this we can also attempt to document a broader range of voices and perspectives.

You’ve probably heard of Omeka. It was developed by a DH centre at George Mason University and was inspired by the work they did to create an online archive documenting people’s experiences of the 9/11 attacks.

Things to explore

Seeing differently

Real face of White Australia

Computers are getting better at seeing. The things we take for granted, like the ability to recognise a face, are challenging tasks for computer vision. But recent years have brought great advances.

Computers can be taught to find shapes and patterns (like redactions!) within images. Facial detection (finding a face in a photo) is pretty straightforward. This offers interesting possibilities for historians, but the use of such technologies for surveillance also presents political and social challenges.

Things to explore


Real Words :: Imagined Tweets

Why should our work be locked up in pdfs or just presented at conferences? Using digital tools we can create interventions that exist within public spaces, that inhabit social media. We can release our cultural collections into the online spaces people already inhabit.

Things to explore

Alternative infrastructures

Historic Hansard

What happens when we start to pit some of these things together? How can we create new infrastructures for research and collaboration without lots of money?

  • Historic Hansard: For lovers of political speech – includes indexes for bills and people, as well as integration of Voyant and
  • GitHub – not just code sharing but free project publishing
  • Minimal computing – Ed. theme for Jekyll
  • Voyant Tools – the importance of hermeneutica
  • Other embeddables

Some more topics from my Exploring Digital Heritage unit

My stuff