Telling Data: Artifacts and the Digital Humanities

Beginning last week, Boston hosted four days of digital-humanities doing, thinking, and making: on Friday and Saturday at Simmons College, Digital Humanities: the Next Generation brought scholars, librarians and archivists, and technologists together for presentations and hands-on learning; on Monday and Tuesday, the Days of DH offered further opportunity for learning and sharing ideas at Wentworth Institute of Technology and Northeastern’s new multi-disciplinary, multimodal program, The NULab for Maps, Texts, and Networks. These events are two bright stars in a constellation of DH-related gatherings comprising an emergent consortial commitment to DH among Boston-area scholars and programs.

metaLAB took part in both facets of the four-day festival: on Monday, Michael McCluskey, Elizabeth Watkins, Sarah Zaidan, and Gretchen Henderson, all members of the metaLAB fellows community, presented that group’s proposal for documenting hybrid tech projects in the arts and humanities, which they’re calling the metaCatalogue. And on Saturday at Simmons, a group of metaLAB core members presented a session informed by our growing research initiative, Data Artifacts, which seeks to understand the collections data of libraries and other institutions as cultural objects—as artifacts, things assembled by human hands and minds, with stories to tell and values to express. In particular, we’re looking for phenomena that are frequently treated as problems—errors in cataloging data caused by typographical, vernacular, disciplinary, and technological clashes—and seeing them as interpretable, story-full phenomena that lend insight into the cultural roles of libraries and their collections in different times and places.

In presenting the Data Artifacts project to the group convened at Simmons, we took a participatory approach. Our audience consisted of librarian and archivists as well as scholars and technologists—a cohort at one varied and sympathetic, all of whom have had ample opportunity to engage with, and reflect upon, problematic data in digital and material collections. After a brief reflection on the kinds of problems we’re looking for, we set the audience loose to catch data artifacts on their own—either by searching their own favorite online and institutional collections, or by using a prototype search-and-visualization tool developed by metaLAB technologists Jessica Yukofsky and Alex Hugon. This tool is focused on the open metadata repository of the Digital Public Library of America, which is seeking to gather digital collections and make them comprehensively accessible. In the process of undergoing such translation and transmediation, these collections are likely to produce many data artifacts of the storytelling kind—quirks and effects that help us to understand how collections emerge, and what they can mean, in the era of open linked data. We put up a tumblr for the session, to which a number of DH-the-next-generation participants contributed examples of artifacts in the DPLA data and in other collections they know well.They’re compelling examples not of finished analyses, but starting points—place where they data snag and confuse, telling us that something worth paying attention to might be happening below the surface.