NEH’s Brett Bobley to Speak at Launch of Digital Innovation Lab October 10, 2011

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The Digital Innovation Lab will be “officially” launched on Monday, October 10, by College of Arts and Sciences Dean Karen Gil in conjunction with the visit to campus of Brett Bobley, Director of the Office of Digital Humanities of the National Endowment for the Humanities.  Bobley will give a public talk at the Institute for the Arts and Humanities (University Room, Hyde Hall) at 2 pm, followed by discussion/Q&A.   Faculty, staff, and students from UNC-CH, Duke, NCSU, and NCCU interested in the digital humanities are especially welcome.


Technology has already had an immense impact on the sciences. Fields like biology, chemistry, astronomy, and mathematics rely heavily on technology. But not simply for increased efficiency. It isn’t a matter of getting things done more quickly; rather it is about getting things done that couldn’t be done before. That’s the game-changing aspect of technology. . . .  [S]ince the widespread use of the Internet browser, the world has seen significant change in the way people read, write, learn, and communicate. . . .  This isn’t a fad or a trend but, I would argue, a permanent change in our society that needs to be addressed – and needs to be addressed by humanists.     –Brett Bobley, “Why the Digital Humanities?” (2008)

 The phrase “public good” often refers to the idea that there are good things—things of special social value—that ought to be produced for free public use rather than as a marketable commodity. . . .   Thomas Jefferson put it most eloquently: ‘He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.’. . .  [A]lthough public goods can be extended to more users at or near zero cost, they can be quite costly to produce in the first place. The case of digitally produced scholarship is an excellent example. Economic theory tells us that we ought to charge nothing for it at the margin: we ought to give it away. On the other hand, it tells us nothing about how to pay for its production or how much of it to produce. It does tell us that markets will underproduce this kind of good, though, and it also tells us that, as a general matter, the solution of public-goods problems requires collective action.” Our Cultural Commonwealth: The Report of the American Council of Learned Societies Commission on Cyberinfrastructure for the Humanities and Social Sciences (2006), p. 23.


In the first of her recent six-part New York Times series, “Humanities 2.0,” Patricia Cohen announced: “the next big idea in language, history, and the arts? Data.” “Powerful technologies and vast stores of digitized materials,” she argued, are transforming the questions scholars and students in the humanities and humanistic social sciences might ask, the kinds of knowledge they might produce, how and with whom they work, and what “counts” as scholarly expression and productivity. (“Digital Keys for Unlocking the Humanities’ Riches,” Nov. 16, 2010)   The term “digital humanities” has emerged as a general term for application of digital technologies to everything from mapping exchanges of letters among Enlightenment thinkers to tracking the evolution of verb endings in written English.

The digital technologies that are driving change throughout humanistic disciplines within the academy are also creating a rapidly expanding space for what we might call public digital humanities: opening up new opportunities for scholarly engagement with non-academic audiences, democratizing access to archival holdings and public records, creating new teaching environments for K-12 students through “ubiquitous learning,” changing relationships between cultural heritage organizations (museums, libraries, preservation organizations) and their publics, creating vehicles for personal commentary and storytelling, allowing communities to rediscover the histories of neighborhoods lost and reborn, and increasing the relevance and value of cultural materials for new and different purposes.

The Digital Innovation Lab commences it works on the creation of digital “public goods” with this conversation about the promise and challenge represented by public digital humanities.  We want to use this occasion to bring together individuals and groups who are exploring this new frontier in the digital humanities , those for whom this work is or might be relevant, and those who might make important future contributions to its growth and development.

Among the questions that might frame our discussion:

  • What is the range of projects, programs, tools, and activities constituting the “field” of public digital humanities and what are examples of current best practice?
  • Who are the major organizational “players” in this arena and what are their roles/perspectives? (university units, cultural heritage organizations, government agencies, non-profits, etc.)
  • What challenges do public digital humanities activities present for the players?
  • What are the implications of embracing public digital humanities for archives, libraries, museums, university faculty and graduate students?