Thursday, June 6, 2013

Philly DH Recap

The view from the 6th Floor of Van Pelt Library at the University of Pennsylvania

On Tuesday I attended PhillyDH@Penn, a one-day unconference for people--librarians, archivists, academics, and students--interested in the digital humanities.  It was my first experience at one of these events and though some of it was a bit over my head, I was glad that I went.

People who attend digital humanities (DH) unconferences are different from the scholars who attend traditional academic conferences. One of my students who was with me at the conference used the word "hipster"to describe many of those in attendance.  I am not sure if I would be able to recognize a hipster if he/she passed me on the sidewalk, but I will say that it was a very young crowd.  DH folks also seem to be less pretentious and do not take themselves as seriously as traditional academics. They were welcoming and hospitable. Name-tag gazing was at a minimum.

I began the day with a session on how to get the most out of WordPress. I am now convinced that you can do a lot more with WordPress than you can with Blogger, but I am not ready to move The Way of Improvement Leads Home to WordPress just yet.  Something about an old dog and new tricks.

The core of the day was devoted to unconference sessions.  Attendees proposed sessions on the fly in the hopes that democratic conversation on DH-related topics would occur.  It did.  Faculty members, undergraduates, archivists, museum professionals and techies of all varieties seemed to take everyone's ideas very seriously.

The first unconference session I attended was devoted to teaching DH.  Those in attendance shared how they incorporate DH in their classes.  I was a bit disappointed that there was not much conversation about specific DH courses or how such courses might fit into the curriculum, but I still learned a lot.  Several folks talked about the need for a digital media lab on campus to help students employ digital tools in their class projects.  I really like this idea.  Such a lab or center should find a home on our campuses alongside writing and tutoring centers.

Next I attended a session on using digital collection tools--such as Evernote or Zotero--in the archives.  My research habits are still pretty old school, but I did learn about a few tools that I think will be helpful down the road.  There were some great exchanges between scholars (demand side) and archivists (supply side) about how to make the most out of a research trip. 

After a session on DH at small liberal arts colleges, and another session on how to get started with Omeka, I settled in for the lightning round portion of the day.  Participants had two minutes to discuss their DH project or share an idea. A small gong was used to make sure people did not go overtime.

The unconference ended with a lecture by Michael Edson, Director of Web and New Media Strategy at the Smithsonian.  Edson's address was entitled "The Age of Scale." With a sense of boundless optimism, Edson urged the audience to move beyond the brick and mortar buildings that house museums and historical societies and embrace the Internet as a way of bringing the humanities to people around the world.  According to Edson, it is time for new dreams.  We must reject the vision of pubic humanists who forged their dreams in simpler times when bigger collections, staffs, and buildings were an essential part of the field.

At one point I thought I was listening to Tom Paine's call to start the world anew.  Edson's talk was representative of the progressive spirit that informed everything I heard at this event. The DH community is peddling a new modernism--a sort of Enlightenment on steroids.  They want to use developments in science and technology to change the world, to make us more human.  The implications for public history are great.  Edson wants to get rid of "rooms full of stuff" that only a few million visitors might see each year and replace such venues with online spaces that can reach billions.  It is all about scale.

Whatever one thinks about this approach to public humanities, it is here to stay.  A revolution was taking place on the 6th floor of the University of Pennsylvania's Van Pelt Library on Tuesday and I got to witness it first hand.  One might even say I got participate in it.