The Launch of Tooling Up

Today marks the public launch of a project called Humanities 3.0: Tooling Up for Digital Humanities. Over the past several months I’ve been working on Tooling Up at the Bill Lane Center for the American West. The project was originally conceived in conversation with Jon Christensen, director of the center, as an outreach initiative that would offer an accessible introduction to the realm of digital humanities. With generous funding from the University’s Presidential Fund for Innovation in the Humanities, Andrew Robichaud, Rio Akasaka, Jon, and myself began work last summer on a two-track project.

The first track is a series of online essays that explore different themes and issues within digital humanities, written in a journalistic style and aimed at a graduate student or faculty member with little to no exposure to digital scholarship or research. Each essay (there will eventually be a total of seven) deals with a particular topic within digital humanities - file and data management, digital archives, text analysis, etc. The essays are written primarily by Andy, a fellow history graduate student and DH-newcomer who did a phenomenal job of tackling topics that were outside of his comfort zone. Andy’s presence brought the added benefit of helping us all to better tailor the essays towards their intended audience: the humanities scholar who, for instance, doesn’t know what XML stands for, has only vaguely heard of Zotero, and is puzzled as to how Twitter would ever be useful for an historian. The second track of Tooling Up will take place in the spring quarter through a seminar/workshop series specifically for Stanford students and faculty. The workshops will mirror the essays by providing an in-person introduction to some of “the basics” of digital humanities.

Conceptualizing and then implementing Tooling Up forced us to grapple with a lot of issues. First, what was the project’s audience? We settled on not trying to be all things to all people. The content of Tooling Up is going to be painfully basic for the majority of people that identify themselves as digital humanists. Meanwhile, those in the #alt-ac world might be disappointed in its audience tilt towards traditional academics. And, of course, there are an inordinate number of references to Stanford examples and projects. But in the end we felt that focusing on the crowd that we knew best would allow us to deliver the most effective and coherent content.

The second issue that emerged was one of ephemerality. In a way that is markedly different from other fields, digital humanities are most commonly linked to tools, whether building them or using them, and this is reflected in the very name of our project. It is difficult to avoid ArcGIS when talking about spatial analysis or Zotero when talking about file management. But in the digital age, tools rapidly become obsolete. When Andy and I were discussing what to include in an essay section on building an online community, Delicious came to mind as an example of social bookmarking. As of the end of 2010, however, the site’s entire existence is up in the air. Ephemerality. Instead of emphasizing specific tools, therefore, we decided to use broader strokes: the basic concepts, themes, or issues surrounding different topics that will (hopefully) prove more enduring.

Finally, the issue of authority. None of us working on the project would consider ourselves experts in any one of the topics discussed in Tooling Up, much less all of them. We did our best to consult other people at Stanford who we did consider experts in those areas, but the nature of this kind of project is that it is going to always feel somewhat incomplete. In that vein, we have tried to make the project fluid and ongoing. Essays will be posted as they are finished and we encourage any and all readers to leave feedback on the site’s pages - commentary that we hope will become crucial components of the essays themselves.