Reflections on DH2017 Montréal

Room in Museum of Fine Arts, Montréal
Video projections of swaying trees and twittering birds in the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts bring back the magic feeling that painted clouds and cherubs might have inspired centuries ago. Photo by Sylvia K. Miller.

By Sylvia K. Miller and Hannah Jacobs

Some new trends emerge as Duke colleagues reflect on DH2017 in Montréal and contrast it with previous DH conferences. Following is a distillation of our observations in the form of a list of takeaways:

  • Collaboration. There was more frequent reference to project partners, indicating more acceptance, even embracing of, collaboration. Many presenters explicitly, fully, gratefully thanked their team colleagues, showed their pictures on the screen, etc. Associated with this positive development for DH and humanities at large is concern over how collaborators are to be formally credited for publication and tenure.
  • Diversity. The diversity workshop, for the first time open to all attendees, was a critical moment indicating that the community remains committed to addressing its diversity challenges.
  • Librarians are more and more taking ownership of their role in enabling and supporting DH. I attended the “DH in Libraries” SIG meeting, and the lecture hall was quite full; I’d guestimate 200+ people. There were a number of projects to classify library/archive collections in new ways.
  • TEI is more synonymous than ever with XML in the library world and world of DH scholarship. This is important for publishers to know if they are collaborating on multimodal projects that will have integrated library or repository components. (XML comes in different established schemas; TEI=Text Encoding Initiative.)
  • “Phygital.” I heard more about the interplay between analog and digital forms, particularly 3D printing. (One paper called multimodal physical/digital projects “phygital,” though it is impossible to predict whether the term will stick!) The phenomenon of 3D printing of historical artifacts is fascinating and problematic: is it right to “copy” an artifact before returning it to the community from which it was stolen? (What if the artifact is a human bone?)
  • Music/art. There was more art and music this year, though the emphasis of the conference is still more computational than artistic.
  • Visualization. The expansion of visualization as an accepted DH practice stood out. There was an increased presence of visualization in its many forms; especially prevalent were node maps showing network relationships and geo-maps showing data sources or trajectories. Some of this work was also self-study (e.g., Taxonomy of Digital Research Activities in the Humanities, TADIRAH).
  • Cultural heritage work was a theme. In Europe it is well funded, but systems developed there are not universally applicable; scholars working with American Indian communities find that digitization challenges and metadata schemas are very different in the US context.
  • Overlaps. Several different teams around the world found that they are developing similar tools. At DH2015 in Sydney, there was a lot of special OCR work and machine-reading of historical texts with special scripts or other visual challenges. At DH2017, there seemed to be a significant amount of attention to adapting face-recognition software to recognition and comparison of other types of visual data (e.g., newspaper layouts, furniture/decorative arts, etc.).
  • Publishing. The conference demonstrated a wide variety of computational, visual, and interactive scholarship that demands new modes of publication. Sylvia has noted some specific, if scattered, developments elsewhere; taken together, they remind us that scholarly publishing in its current form is seen by practitioners of DH as a barrier to growth and innovation.
  • There was some AR and VR at the conference but not as much as one might expect. One exciting AR project stands out in retrospect, a project by Amanda Marie Licastro (Stevenson University, MD) to share the experience of Syrian refugees and create empathy in millennial students, who are, according to research, 40 percent less empathetic than earlier generations(!); in the Q&A session, she told a striking story about a student whose views were radically changed by the VR experience. I also heard about an exciting visualization project from Rachel Hendery of the University of Western Sydney, a projection of a node map inside a dome, where people can experience it together in 3D without having to wear 3D equipment.
  • Funding. Mellon and NEH are the important funders of US work. European work is well funded by governments and the EU.  There is a new government-funded DH initiative in South Africa.
  • Peer review. There were many calls for proper peer review and recognition of DH as legitimate scholarship for promotion and tenure. One speaker mentioned that the University of Florida is the latest institution to create a DH peer review committee; content creators were asked to recommend a level of equivalency in terms of traditional scholarship on which the DH project should be evaluated.  This was considered not ideal but perhaps a necessary interim step. (In this context, the Mellon-funded project at Brown University to evaluate digital scholarship at the department level seems especially interesting and ambitious.)
  • Congenial spirit. There was a great deal of friendliness and mutual appreciation at this meeting; many scholars, especially graduate students, feel alone at their own institutions and appreciate meeting like-minded people. The group Tweeted up a storm! See #dh2017  (and @SylviaKMiller)
  • Attendance. I heard that there were around 1,100 people at the meeting.  I have not been able to confirm this online and have written to the ADHO–Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations, the umbrella organization that hosts the conference.
  • Future meetings. Next year the meeting will be in Mexico City, June 24–30, 2018; in 2019, Utrecht.

Humanities Futures

Screen shot from Papers page of Humanities Futures site at
Humanities Futures Papers page at

Humanities Futures is an interesting example of publishing at the crossroads.  This Mellon-funded project at Duke’s John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute explores the future of humanities and interpretive social science disciplines and interdisciplines through an ongoing series of events such as talks, symposia, and conferences.  The project is unusually well documented, and this is where the publishing part comes in: in addition to posting video of many of the events, the FHI also publishes papers–“think pieces”–based on the talks. Some, but not all, later become journal articles or chapters in books, sometimes in the same form and in other cases thoroughly transformed. The papers are professionally edited and presented, although they are not peer reviewed, making them an interesting hybrid type of publication. Some might be considered “grey papers,” but not all.

Not to beat the metaphor too hard, but the think pieces might be said to represent a few things at a crossroads: (1) scholarly work, captured as it crosses from initial research and draft paper to formal publication; (2) scholarly publishing, as it experiments with a hybrid format combining elements of a searchable online database, an informal online journal, a blog, and conference proceedings; and last but not least, (3) humanities itself, which the project intends to both examine and reinvigorate at a perceived point of endangerment.

Recently I created the site’s first table of contents. The variety of topics covered is quite astonishing, as scholars are invited both to reflect on the future of a discipline or interdisciplinary topic and to demonstrate the future of scholarship through specific, exemplary work.  The most recent think pieces published on the Humanities Futures site are:

“Water Security in the Middle East and North Africa” by Neda Zawahri

“The Black Outdoors After Property and Possession” by J. Kameron Carter and Sarah Cervenak

“Multilingualism as Migration: Remarks on Literature, Philology, and Culture” by Till Dembeck

Hello world! Crossroads, Meeting Streets, and Makerspaces

Why “Crossroads”? If I ever started a publishing company, I would call it Meeting Street Publishing.  It refers to the collaboration that is behind most publishing projects, and it reminds me of many years attending the wonderful Charleston Conference, where librarians and publishers have equal billing. (Of course many towns have Meeting Streets, but Charleston’s is well known.)  “Meeting Street” as a metaphor is related to “Crossroads,” which is a reminder that scholars, publishers, librarians, and technologists will together determine the direction that scholarly publishing will take in the future.  Sometimes we think of publishing as a sort of weather pattern in the sky over which we have no control, but I am interested in how we shape the future through our choices.  “Meeting Street” is about communication and collaboration, while “Crossroads” adds to that the image of roads to be taken and not taken.

Some people say that publishing is changing rapidly, but in my experience over the last few decades (yikes, a long time!), this change is astonishingly slow. The pace definitely gives us time to reflect on what we are doing (or not doing).

The term “Crossroads” is also related to Publishing Makerspace, a working group that I co-founded in 2014.  It is dedicated to encouraging collaboration, supporting multi-modal publishing, and ultimately redefining scholarly publishing to include all the forms of work that scholars are creating today.

I like the idea of liminality–a boundary that is not a line but rather a creative space where categories overlap and recombine.  Whether I am planning an encyclopedia project that will define a field for a generation or sewing a pamphlet to please a friend, I appreciate the sense of “serious fun” and creative possibility inherent in publishing and want to share it.