Technology takeover

You might not think your history degree would ever have you digitizing the x-rays of a sarcophagus, but with the rise of digital humanities, it could be a reality.

This area of study looks at the intersection between computing and humanities. It’s a lens that allows people to interact with important, but often inaccessible, artifacts.

Because of their historical nature, items like original manuscripts or ancient artwork are often just as informative as they are easily destroyed. Digital humanities (DH) seeks to digitally render what’s instructive about these objects, while safely preserving them.

Digital humanities allows students to quickly see otherwise intangible information. Digital maps, for instance, can communicate how far characters in a book travel more accurately than one’s imagination, lending the fictional journey more meaning.

Tiffany Chan works as a digital humanities student assistant in the special collections at Douglas Library. Her work is with stereo cards — pairs of images that, when viewed through a particular device, render a three-dimensional image.

Chan’s work requires significant creative thought on her part to communicate digitally what’s so striking about these visuals in person.

“Just having a 2-D picture of these stereo cards misses the 3-D part of it, so part of what my project does is using animated GIFs to get some of the 3-D effect in,” she said.

Although the process sounds undeniably cool, it may not seem especially applicable to your humanities lectures and seminars. Even so, you might be surprised by where digital humanities can take you.

For Chan, it’s easy to see how a number of students in humanities could one day end up doing work like hers. The prevailing thought is that academic careers shouldn’t be limited to professorship. Libraries, museums and academic publications all offer research opportunities to explore the digital humanities.

Beyond the implications of digital humanities on our academic futures, it can be prudent for students to consider this field right now.

“There’s a lot of criticism focused on our generation that we use all these technologies, but we don’t think about them,” said Chan, ArtSci ’15.

Digital humanities can be a way for us to think more mindfully about the technology we use every day and how it enhances our interaction with the study of humanities.

Chan got her start at the digital humanities field school offered at the Bader International Study Centre under the professorship of Shannon Smith.

The field school offers an immersive course as an introduction to digital humanities and privileges hands-on, experiential learning. As it turns out, most students already have some familiarity with this kind of work.

“Generally speaking, I think students might be more aware of, and exposed to, Digital Humanities methodologies, critical frameworks, and projects than they realise, especially as we all are, to some degree, more active in digital culture more generally,” Smith told the Journal via email.

“Chances are, if you have taken a few [humanities] courses, you’ve brushed up against some aspect of broader digital culture, and maybe even DH specifically. I don’t think it’s as much about awareness as it is about helping students to see what they might already be familiar with in a DH-oriented framework.”

In addition to introducing students to the area of study, the field school readies participants to take on positions like Chan’s, who work to digitize real artifacts. The biggest selling point seems to be that, because things are always changing, there’s always something new to learn and even from unexpected sources..

“[Digital humanities] is a very diverse field and being a part of it has helped me build connections across disciplinary boundaries, but also across other boundaries ... I’ve had my own research practice enriched by scholarly exchange with colleagues at the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, and the Digital Labs in the British Library in London,” Smith said.

For students interested in more information, the Queen’s University Library, in partnership with the field school, will be hosting a series of talks as part of the “Demystifying the Digital Humanities” initiative. The first talk will be held in Stauffer Jan. 19.

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