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Digital humanities and interdisciplinarity

by Richard Meckien - published Sep 05, 2016 10:45 AM - - last modified Sep 14, 2016 10:49 AM
Rights: Original version in Portuguese by Mauro Bellesa.

José Teixeira Coelho Netto, Jane Ohlmeyer e Guilherme Ary Plonski

José Teixeira Coelho Netto (left),
Jane Ohlmeyer and Guilherme Ary Plonski

It has been a while since it is rare to find research on natural sciences that does not involve interdisciplinary teams and the use of digital technologies. But the emphasis on these aspects is not exclusive of the natural sciences and is increasingly present in the social sciences and humanities.

The IEA hosted Jane Ohlmeyer, a professor of modern history and director of the Trinity Long Room Hub (TLRH), research institute of arts and humanities at Trinity College Dublin, on August 24, to address this issue.

The conference The Power of Interdisciplinary Research: the Example of Digital Humanities was coordinated by Guilherme Ary Plonski, deputy director of the Institute. The debater was José Teixeira Coelho Netto, coordinator of IEA's Computational Humanities Study Group.

This has been Ohlmeyer's sixth visit to Brazil. Her relations with USP are due to the interaction she has with the researchers of the W.B. Yeats Chair of Irish Studies at the Faculty of Philosophy, Languages and Literature, and Human Sciences (FFLCH).

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Ohlmeyer has reported her experience in a characteristic interdisciplinary work of what can be done in digital humanities: the project in 1641 Depositions, a collaboration of researchers from the arts, humanities, science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Jane has also presented an overview of the TLRH.

Trinity Long Room Hub

An institute dedicated to research in the arts and humanities

Created in 2010, the Trinity Long Room Hub (TLRH) is the research institute of arts and humanities at Trinity College Dublin. It is one of four research institutes of the university (the others are dedicated to neuroscience, biotechnology and nanotechnology).

The name of the institute comes from the traditional Long Room of the University Library, founded in 1652 (see photo below) .The objective was to mark the links to the library and express the importance of their collections to the activities of the academic community.

The studies for the creation of the TLRH were carried out from 2006 to 2008, the year in which the Irish government granted € 10.8 million to its implementation.

The Institute's headquarters have a striking architecture and have been installed in the center of the historic part of the university campus. This outstanding location means "the centrality of the role of arts and the humanities at the university and in society."

The TLRH has nine schools of the university as partners. They support the development of priority and comprehensive research topics. They also lead collaborative projects within the university and in partnership with other Irish or international institutions.

In addition to a permanent academic staff of six people, the institute brings together about 60 researchers working at the same time (graduate students, post-doctoral researchers and visiting researchers).

About 100 visiting researchers from 39 different countries have been at the TLRH in the last five years. The registration for the 2017-2018 program will be open from September 5 to October 31.

The program for visiting researchers aims to strengthen the participation of the Institute in international research networks and to put the university's researchers in dialogue with what is best in their respective fields.

The TLRH has five broad research priority themes: "Making Ireland", "Identities in Transformation", "Manuscript, Book and Print Cultures", "Digital Humanities" and "Creative Arts Practice".

Throughout the year, the institute carries out around 150 academic events (conferences, seminars and public lectures) with the aim of increasing the visibility and impact of their research. "Many of the events deal with topics of interest to society, because we want to be a reference for policy makers."

According to Ohlmeyer, the concern of the Institute is to promote three aspects: excellence, interdisciplinarity and public engagement. "I tell my university colleagues to continue in their departments if they want to conduct research in their area; to only come to the Institute if they want to do something different and work at the intersection of disciplines. There will be risks, but we are a safe place to take risks."

She said that the Institute seek to encourage the researchers in arts and humanities to talk with colleagues in computing, physics, natural sciences, neurosciences, health, mathematics. "This gives rise to very interesting programs in environmental humanities, humanities in health and digital humanities."

The TLRH is seen very positively by the university, "since the area of arts and humanities at Trinity College Dublin has the most prestige in the international rankings."

Ohlmeyer said that it cost the Institute a lot of work to reach that level of prestige and keep it, "and you must be approved in several reviews and undertake a constant struggle for resources."

As the IEA, the TLRH is a member of UBIAS network of university-based institutes for advanced study.

Biblioteca do Trinity College Dublin The Long Room of the library
at Trinity College Dublin

Infrastructure and networks

Building a broad infrastructure for digital humanities in Ireland and in connection with the European landscape of the area has been a fundamental condition for the project's success, according to Ohlmeyer: "I realized that from the start, a decade ago."

She said that the digital humanities are well developed in Europe and that the reference is North America, which is "one step ahead".

One of the top 12 strategic infrastructures for research in digital humanities in Europe is the DARIAH-EH (Digital Research Infrastructure for the Arts and Humanities). "It is at the level of the CERN or the large telescopes supported by the European Commission, not in terms of resources, as they demand more, but in terms of policies in the scientific field. It is a research infrastructure federation across Europe."

According to Ohlmeyer, the Irish government has decided to support the digital humanities because there was lack of coordination and strategy in the area, which contrasted with the strong presence of information and communication technology companies in the country, such as Intel, Google, Twitter and IBM.

Besides the establishment of a coordination and the encouragement of a collaboration between research institutions, an engagement with European initiatives such as Dariah has been promoted, as well as the participation of the productive sector (the 1641 Depositions had the collaboration of IBM).

Ohlmeyer believes that researchers should pay attention to their new panorama in the humanities, taking the following items into account:

  • the access to a wide range of primary sources, especially manuscripts and printed material;
  • the access to knowledge, expertise, methodologies and practices in various areas;
  • the adoption of standards and best practices;
  • the possibility of preservation of information in the long term and in a sustainable manner;
  • the conduction of experiments and innovation in partnership with researchers from multiple fields and disciplines.



At the conference, Ohlmeyer used the 1641 Depositions as model case: "These documents are considered the most controversial of Irish history. It is a unique source of information about the causes and events related to the 1641 rebellion in Ireland against England, when tens of thousands of people died, and for the social, economic, cultural, religious and politic history of the country. "

According to her, the 31 volumes of manuscripts with 8000 testimonies of Protestant men and women about the events related to the rebellion have been kept for hundreds of years in the library of Trinity College Dublin. "No one had access to them. They were only used for anti-Catholic propaganda in the past." The testimonies deal with loss of property and possessions, military activity and the alleged crimes of the Irish rebels, including murders, imprisonments, beatings and even denudation of people.

The first finding of the project's team was that it would be necessary to obtain € 1 million to do it. The funds were obtained from the Irish government, British universities (Cambridge and Aberdeen) and the collaboration of IBM.

The project has provided care to the conservation of the manuscripts and their digitization, transcription, transformation into digital text and online publishing, "but since I do not fully trust in the digital world I have decided to also publish them on paper," said the researcher.

Ohlmeyer said that the project's implementation has been an exciting challenge for computer scientists, because "they love the challenge of working with what they call 'dirty data'. In the case of the manuscripts, the 'dirt' consisted of lack of consistency and predictability in everything (capitalization, punctuation, spelling, syntax and semantics).

Other features of the project, she said, were the fact that the domain of the area is restricted to historians of the 17th century, without the participation of computer scientists and computational linguists, and the difficulty in capturing semi-structured, structured and unstructured data.

The project was attended by 17 experts in history, computing, physics, mathematics, linguistics, geography, literature, gender studies, librarianship, archival science and conservation, with the support of IBM, which provided a natural language analysis software.

Launched in 2010, the website of the project now has 23,000 registered users from all over the planet.

Ohlmeyer said that the 1641 Depositions became the leading project in digital humanities because it has been done at a high level. It has received various resources in Europe and has expanded to other projects in digital humanities. "The most important derived initiative is the Cultura program, which deals with the standardization of 17th-century English texts and their adaptation to modern English. Another result was the presence of the project in classrooms. Several other research projects related to it have also been carried out and presented in various publications."


According to the historian, the main lessons learned during the development of the 1641 Depositions project have been:

  • technology is transformative but not a substitute for reading the document and its context;
  • infrastructure and standards are of fundamental importance;
  • we need to do something sustainable which can migrate, be updated and become accessible in the future, for it does not result in a digital warehouse;
  • the system should be developed in a way as good as the data, for it does not perpetuate mistakes;
  • agility in identifying data is essential to the formulation of new questions in a survey;
  • reciprocity: it takes a great deal of respect, trust and dependence among experts from the different involved areas to build a project like this.



After the conference, Teixeira Coelho asked Ohlmeyer about the real changes that digital technologies promote towards the humanities in order to work and educate in the universities. She said she realized that digital humanities were something specific when the Trinity College Dublin began to quote them in ads for hiring professors. "I noticed that they were a specific area. Currently there are six professors who are digital humanists at the university."

Martin Grossmann, former director of the IEA who coordinates the Research Group Permanent Forum - Cultural System Between Public and Private, commented on the problem of institutional assessment and researchers through their digital production: "USP promoted a process of evaluation in 2015 and the website of the IEA was not considered relevant by the people invited to evaluate the Institute. We are far from the moment when people will start using statistics for the evaluation of digital platforms." He asked Ohlmeyer to elaborate on this issue in relation to Ireland and Europe.

Ohlmeyer said that there is still the problem of evaluation of the production area for progression in the careers of researchers: "It is still made from printed material, with articles being evaluated by peer reviewers. Reviewers are not interested in digital publications. I think there is still a long way for these digital results start to be considered serious academic publications."

Arlindo Phillipi Jr., former Director of Evaluation at CAPES, commented on the growth in the number of proposals for interdisciplinary graduate programs in Brazil and how they are evaluated. For him, the difficulty is still the lack of qualified evaluators to analyze this type of proposal, although they are great specialists in their disciplines. "There is a continuing need to work with our colleagues, trying to insert the idea that what is at stake is to solve the problem we are going to analyze, and not the discipline that we are going to use. We need to check that subjects have to gather up to achieve a very well explained problem, how to find solutions to it and which multi or interdisciplinary strategy should be used."

"We have new doctors in Brazil with an interdisciplinary profile. They still face problems when competing for places in some universities, but as their presence is growing, we are reaching a new balance of powers. They have shown that it is possible to do good research within this new profile. The problem is that there are only a few interdisciplinary journals in the country."

In relation to interdisciplinary research, she said that there are two points to be analyzed. This kind of work takes time because it is not easy, so it deserves more understanding of development agencies, which need to allow more time for their implementation, especially for the presentation of results. The other point is the difficulty of evaluation: "We do not know how to evaluate an interdisciplinary approach; it is difficult to find someone who feels equally comfortable in various disciplines."

For Plonski, another vocabulary to address the issue might be necessary: "When using 'inter, multi and transdisciplinarity' we are still stuck in the paradigm, in the anchor of disciplinarity". He said that Simon Schwartzman argues that there are two modes of knowledge production: one of them is based on the paradigm of discipline and involves a specific agenda, stable groups, career plans, hierarchy and other factors; the other one is motivated by the problems to be solved and involves temporary groups, lead switching, no hierarchy and other components.

Anthropologist Massimo Canevacci, former visiting professor at the IEA, said that he had to change his research methodology with the Bororo Indians in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso because they are already used to using digital technologies. Given this degree of presence of these technologies in society, Canevacci asked Ohlmeyer if digital humanities will have an impact beyond the academic environment. For her, by observing Ireland and Europe, the digital humanities are becoming a part of the cultural heritage language. She cited the Cultura program as an example, which has the creation of internet tools to be used especially by museums and art galleries among its objectives.

Ohlmeyer has also been asked about the dilemma between using resources to conserve physical information sources (manuscripts, books, works of art) or their scan. For her, if there is no other choice, one should invest in preservation, as the material can deteriorate in five or ten years, getting inappropriate for scanning.

Photo: Leonor Calasans/IEA-USP; Trinity College Dublin