Arts research in the digital era (Voice)

A slight departure from my usual focus on science, here is an article I wrote last year for Voice, the University of Melbourne’s newspaper, which is published monthly as a supplement to The Age.

As the internet and digital communications become ingrained in our lives, the ‘digital humanities’ has edged its way into Arts scholarship, writes Dyani Lewis.

Just two decades ago, if you wanted to find out about life in 19th century England, you’d most likely have to hop on a plane to the British National Archives, rummage through old newspapers and documents, before returning to Australia, notes and photocopies in hand.

Today, historical documents from around the world are being digitised and made available online in what is known as the emerging field of digital humanities.

Immediacy and ease of access are just two of the many reasons to embrace the changing face of humanities research, according to historian Professor Joy Damousi. Savings in physical space and research cost are also on the list of benefits to researchers.

“I think there are some real positives for research. For history particularly, it has actually redefined the way we research – it has created a new way of doing history,” she says.

Electronic communication and online archives are influencing the way research collaborations are formed, says Professor Damousi, whose collaborators include researchers in Argentina, the USA and Europe.

In addition to enabling collaborations between local and international academic scholars, digital technologies and online platforms are generating fertile ground for collaborations between researchers and the public.

The Founders and Survivors Project, headed by researchers from the University of Melbourne and the University of Tasmania, for instance, is a multidisciplinary project that draws on both academic and public contributions. The project charts the lives of the men, women and children transported to Van Diemen’s Land as convicts in the first half of the 19th century. Details of the lives of the convicts, as well as the lives of their descendents, are collected – a great deal of which is via the indispensable contribution of volunteer time and knowledge, explains Professor Janet McCalman, who leads the University of Melbourne arm of the project.

At the core of Founders and Survivors is a swathe of records detailing the lives of the 73,000-odd convicts brought to Tasmania from Britain.

While digitally astute researchers like Professor McCalman are embracing the new opportunities that the online environment herald, the field is not without its challenges.

As books and paper files are replaced with hard drives and virtual libraries, permanence is a concern. Will the file format du jour be around and supported in 10 years’ time? And who will pay for upkeep of archives and websites once establishment funding ends?

“That’s one of the big debates happening in the wider digital humanities community,” says Claudine Chionh, a researcher working on the Founders and Survivors Project, whose expertise in both historical research and computer programming exemplifies the future for the field.

Another issue that academics are grappling with is the notion that hard copy scholarly books – once the hallmark of academic success and productivity – may soon meet their demise. Yet Professor Damousi sees this, too, as an opportunity rather than a drawback.

With eBooks, she says, a researcher’s potential audience is global, and the reading experience more interactive.

“What you can do with the web is supplement the traditional narrative with links to graphs and charts,” she says. “This is something even the most traditional publishing houses are now doing as they begin to put their catalogues online and into a format increasingly preferred by readers opting for electronic devices and 24/7 connectivity rather than paper tomes.”

And she points out that this is also changing the very idea of what documents constitute historical records.

“It’s encouraging a multiple form of history with different interpretations and different mediums coming out – maps, oral history, diagrams, footage – it’s extraordinary what you can do.”

What paths the humanities will be traversing in the future is perhaps anyone’s guess. But with new technologies being developed every day, Professor Damousi has no doubt that the future – and even the present – is undeniably digital.

“It’s here, and it’s the future, and there’s no pretending now.”

Voice Volume 7 Number 12 December 12 2011 – January 8 2012

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