[globaloutlookDH-l] Re: Interview with Dan O'Donnell, Call for translations

Ernesto Priego efpriego at gmail.com
Tue May 7 15:31:41 MDT 2013

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<p dir="ltr"><strong>Ernesto Priego</strong>: <em>Please introduce yourself...</em></p>
<p dir="ltr"><strong>Daniel O?Donnell</strong>: I am a Digital Humanist and Anglo-Saxonist.</p>
<p dir="ltr">I was trained primarily as an Anglo-Saxon philologist at both the University of Toronto
(1989) and Yale (1996). Toronto and Yale both were very strong in what you might see as traditional
medieval studies: heavy emphasis on language training and detailed reading primary sources and in
the sense that they have always been willing to use technology, in the footsteps of <a
title="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roberto_Busa" href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roberto_Busa"
target="_blank">Father Busa</a>. While I was an undergraduate, I worked at the <em><a
title="http://www.doe.utoronto.ca/" href="http://www.doe.utoronto.ca/" target="_blank">Dictionary of
Old English</a></em>, primarily indexing semantic studies. The DOE was the first dictionary to be
based on a completely computerised corpus, a decision that was made when the project was first set
up in 1972.</p>
<p dir="ltr">At Yale, my dissertation was in essence a giant database: it contained an annotated
discussion of every single textual variant in the corpus; I wrote most of it using a database
programme at the time (something called Notebuilder, if I remember correctly). Initially my
supervisor, <a title="Fred Robinson, Yale faculty page"
href="http://english.yale.edu/faculty-staff/fred-robinson" target="_blank">Fred C. Robinson</a>, and
I thought about trying to hand in the database as my dissertation. We decided in the end that it
probably wasn't worth the fight, however. And to be honest, we also thought that it would be a
better dissertation if the data was surrounded by an analytic narrative.</p>
<p dir="ltr">I think the most interesting thing for me in my career thus far has been in fact my
transition from somebody who defined himself primarily as an Anglo-Saxonist to somebody who defines
himself primarily as a Digital Humanist. After my dissertation, I began editing the Old English poem
Cædmon?s Hymn with the intention of publishing it as an electronic text. When the edition was
finished, I planned to go back to being an Anglo-Saxonist and put digital stuff away--I used to
complain that publishing the edition digitally had easily added another 5 years to the project. </p>
<p dir="ltr">Just as the project was finishing, however, I got involved with <a
title="http://digitalmedievalist.org" href="http://digitalmedievalist.org" target="_blank">Digital
Medievalist</a> and the <a title="http://tei-c.org" href="http://tei-c.org" target="_blank">Text
Encoding Initiative (TEI)</a> and began to work increasingly with scholars with whom my common
interest was the use of digital technology in the humanities rather than Anglo-Saxon studies:
digitally-oriented sinologists, slavicists, classicists, modernists, and so on. </p>
<p dir="ltr">Most recently, I've found this self-definition as Digital Humanist is even beginning to
trump my self of identity as a textual scholar: I recently attended the <a
title="http://www.vast2012.org/" href="http://www.vast2012.org/" target="_blank">VAST Virtual
Archaeology conference in Brighton</a>, followed immediately by the <a
href="http://www.textualscholarship.eu/conference-2012.html" target="_blank">European Society for
Textual Scholarship conference in Amsterdam</a>. I?d never attended VAST before, and have long
considered the ESTS to be a ?home.? Surprisingly, however, it was at VAST this time that I seemed to
have the most to contribute.</p>
<p dir="ltr"><strong>EP</strong>:<em> Please do tell us about <a
title="http://www.globaloutlookdh.org/" href="http://www.globaloutlookdh.org/" target="_blank"
>Global Outlook DH.</a> What is it and how did the idea take shape?</em></p>
<p dir="ltr"><strong>DO</strong>: <a title="http://globaloutlookdh.org"
href="http://globaloutlookdh.org" target="_blank">Global Outlook :: Digital Humanities</a> is in
essence a global Community of Practice or Identity for researchers and students who use digital
technology in the research and study of the humanities, cultural heritage, and arts. Its primary
goal is to provide a means for addressing what was a relatively complete lack of communication
between researchers in High Income Economies vs. those in Mid- and Low Income Economies.</p>
<p dir="ltr">The primary impetus for my involvement came from my growing sense of the Digital
Humanities as a paradiscipline, a sense that was evolving, as I mentioned earlier, as a result of
the ever closer collaborations I was having with DH researchers who did not have a background in
Medieval Studies.</p>
<p dir="ltr">What gradually became striking to me was the fact that although the range of background
disciplines among my collaborators was quite diverse, their geographic locations were not. On the
whole, I worked with people in laterally contingent regions: Japan, North America, Western Europe,
occasionally Eastern Europe, and of course, the great ?left-right? exceptions, Australia and New
<p dir="ltr">What I didn?t have were contacts who lived outside of this band: nobody in Africa,
Latin America or the Caribbean, South Asia, South East Asia, and so on. Moreover, as <a
target="_blank">Melissa Terras?s excellent infographic</a> on the state of Digital Humanities
demonstrated, this was also true of the discipline as a whole: despite its extraordinary growth in
recent years, DH was more or less as tightly associated with the same laterally contingent regions
as I was. All constituent organisations in ADHO were from these regions, as were almost all of the
associations? individual members. With the exception (at the time) of a single centre in Brazil and
another in South Africa, Terras listed no DH centres outside of the usual Northern countries and
Australia and New Zealand. GO::DH was set up to help address this isolation.</p>
<p dir="ltr">Three events really precipitated its development. The first was some discussions I had
in Hamburg at DH 2012 with <a title="Jieh Hsiang faculty page"
href="http://www.csie.ntu.edu.tw/%7Ehsiang/" target="_blank">Jieh Hsiang</a>, <a
title="http://mbingenheimer.net/" href="http://mbingenheimer.net/" target="_blank">Marcus
Bingenheimer</a>, <a title="Christian Wittern Kyoto faculty page"
href="http://www.kanji.zinbun.kyoto-u.ac.jp/%7Ewittern/" target="_blank">Christian Wittern</a>, <a
title="Peter Bol Harvard page" href="http://scholar.harvard.edu/pkbol/" target="_blank">Peter
Bol</a>, <a title="Neil Fraistat UMD faculty page"
href="http://mith.umd.edu/people/person/neil-fraistat/" target="_blank">Neil Fraistat</a>, <a
title="Harold Short KCL faculty page"
href="http://www.kcl.ac.uk/artshums/depts/ddh/people/academic/short/index.aspx" target="_blank"
>Harold Short</a>, and <a href="http://web.uvic.ca/%7Esiemens/">Ray Siemens</a> about opportunities
and challenges for working with DH researchers in China and Taiwan; this led to the formation of the
original mailing list (<a title="mailto:globaloutlookdh-l at uleth.ca"
href="mailto:globaloutlookdh-l at uleth.ca" target="_blank">globaloutlookdh-l at uleth.ca</a>) and the
development of a small GO::DH organisation led by Marcus and myself. The second impetus was when
Neil put me in touch with <a title="http://elotroalex.webfactional.com/"
href="http://elotroalex.webfactional.com/" target="_blank">Alex Gil</a>, who was just beginning his
superb ?<a title="http://www.globaloutlookdh.org/around-dh-in-80-days/"
href="http://www.globaloutlookdh.org/around-dh-in-80-days/" target="_blank">Around DH in 80
Days</a>? project. And the third was the INKE organised <a
href="http://inke.ca/projects/inke-conference-2012-havana/" target="_blank">Birds of a Feather
meeting in Havana in December 2012</a>.</p>
<p dir="ltr">The Havana meeting was so important both because it built on the ideas we had developed
through the other two events and because it helped widen the group?s membership. It also really
helped us improve our proposal for the group! If you compare <a
href="http://ubuntuone.com/187LiVZpJKwFNaRV0lZJeD" target="_blank">the (mostly pre-Cuba) proposal to
ADHO for the formation of a Special Interest Group</a> with <a
title="http://www.globaloutlookdh.org/about/" href="http://www.globaloutlookdh.org/about/"
target="_blank">the description of the project on its current website</a>, for example, you?ll see a
major difference in emphasis. The original document is primarily about ?us? and ?them?: it wonders
why people in Mid and Low Income Economies are not part of the Digital Humanities as practiced in
the High Income Economies, and asks the question from a High Income Economy perspective (as was
appropriate since it was addressed to an organisation that consisted at the time almost entirely of
researchers working in High Income Economies). At the Cuban meeting, however, we learned how
important it was to turn the focus to ?us?: our current project description makes it explicit that a
global network is not about aid but instead recognising how much we have to share with, teach, and
learn from each other.</p>
<p dir="ltr">An example of how this works is the GO::DH <a
href="http://www.globaloutlookdh.org/working-groups/minimal-computing/" target="_blank">working
group on ?minimalist computing.?</a> This is a group that has developed a very interesting research
topic out of what most of us (Cuban as well as participants at the meeting from High Income
Economies) saw initially and primarily as simple deficits in the Cuban infrastructure: e.g. lack of
bandwidth and older computer hardware. </p>
<p dir="ltr">In discussion, however, we began to realise that these infrastructure issues provided
lessons that were globally beneficial to the DH community: lessons on how to ensure the broadest
possible access to digital cultural work can be useful worldwide. Often Digital Humanists in places
like North America and Western Europe are too willing to work on the assumption that audiences have
access to the latest technology and the the most powerful infrastructure. But in doing so, we forget
that this is by no means true of even audiences living in High Income economies: for example, I have
been recently working with <a title="http://visionarycross.org/" href="http://visionarycross.org/"
target="_blank">3D imaging of an Anglo-Saxon stone cross from a parish in rural Scotland</a>: while
some of the parishoners in this case do have access to the most sophisticated computing equipment,
others either do not own a computer or have an old one lying around from the late 1990s. My thinking
on how to deal with these audiences has already been shaped by the discussions we've had on
<p dir="ltr"><strong>EP</strong>:<em> Please allow me to follow that up with a question that might
be difficult, as money is a key issue that it?s still hard to talk about across cultures. Where does
the funding for GO::DH come from? Often just sharing experiences requires a particular privileged
setting which can be taken for granted, the time to do it, the right tools no matter how basic. How
can we ensure collaborations in the near future remain sustainable when there is great financial and
contextual disparity between collaborators?</em></p>
<p dir="ltr"><strong>DO</strong>: GO::DH is funded, to the extent it is funded at all, in two
<p dir="ltr">The first and most obvious is a small amount provided by the <a
title="http://www.uleth.ca/research/" href="http://www.uleth.ca/research/" target="_blank">office of
the University of Lethbridge?s Vice President Research</a>. </p>
<p dir="ltr">But the more sustainable funding comes from effort of its volunteers. </p>
<p dir="ltr">This is something I think we often underestimate in the Digital Humanities. Although
the University of Lethbridge initially gave me $5,000 to fund the administration of GO::DH, that
money is in practice either too little or too much for what we need. If we aren't actually paying
salaries (for which $5,000 wouldn't be enough), what is there that we could spend it on? In terms of
day-to-day expenses, it is actually the tremendous enthusiasm and willingness of others to pitch in
that actually keeps GO::DH afloat. </p>
<p dir="ltr">I say this is an undervalued resource in DH because I have seen it play a role time and
time again. The Text Encoding Initiative (TEI), for example, has a budget of between $80 and
$100,000/year to pay for accountants, systems support, travel, and the like. But the real meat of
their activity is the work of the <a href="http://www.tei-c.org/Activities/Council/">council</a>,
conference organisation team, and editors of the <em><a
title="http://journal.tei-c.org/journal/index" href="http://journal.tei-c.org/journal/index"
target="_blank">Journal of the TEI</a></em>. And that is work of a value you couldn't possibly buy
with ?only? $100k/year. </p>
<p dir="ltr">The real key with such organisations is to exploit the inherent value they contain:
that is to say the in-kind value they can release that makes it mutually beneficial to both the
volunteer and the organisation to work together. This can be by turning the activity into
publications; providing leadership or other experience that is useful on a CV; or creating
opportunities for people to become known and/or have an impact on their field.</p>
<p dir="ltr">When things work out, as I think they have so far for GO::DH, this hidden in-kind
funding leaves you enough space to do creative things with the actual cash you are able to find. So
in this case, because we don?t actually need money to run things, we have been able to turn the
University of Lethbridge money to support an innovative research bursary programme. </p>
<p dir="ltr">To pick up the last part of your question: practicality and disparity of opportunity.
This too is a fundamental recognition at the heart of GO::DH: that access to money is also a
differential experience. Even among High Income Economies, funding opportunities vary widely. But
access to funding is not simply a province of those in those countries: there are many funding
opportunities, especially in the international and private philanthropic sectors, that are
restricted to or require participation by researchers in Mid and Low Income Economies.</p>
<p dir="ltr">One of my goals for this first year at GO::DH is to create the mechanisms by which we
can begin to access this funding. And once again, this is a question of bringing diversity of
experience together to build something that is bigger than its parts. I am hoping, for example, to
build a working group on funding that will include people with records of success and experience
with various types of funders: the national funding agencies, UN and other International groups, and
the many foundations interested in international exchanges. It is my belief that we can end up
really helping each other by looking for ways to collaborate across regional and economic
boundaries--both on our actual research and in our search for funding.</p>
<p dir="ltr"><strong>EP</strong>:<em> All the best of luck; the project deserves it. It seems to me
that sustainability should be a key issue: it is a shame when valuable projects disappear and the
resources they created suffer digital rot after the funding runs out! A final question: how do you
personally see the role of the global digital humanities in the advocacy for the humanities? In
other words, what can DH initiatives around the world do to communicate the importance of the
Humanities as a general field of knowledge?</em></p>
<p dir="ltr"><strong>DO</strong>: It is interesting that you ask this because, in a certain sense,
the thinking that led to my role in developing Global Outlook Digital Humanities comes actually from
the larger question.</p>
<p dir="ltr">For many years, my department has received an annual list of titles of literary
criticism from India for consideration for purchase by our library. These are not (especially) books
about literature in India, or post-colonial approaches to literature, or anything that represents
something we might consider to be an Indian ?speciality.? Instead these are books on the full range
of literary studies: Indian literature, African literature, Victorian literature, medieval
literature, and so on.</p>
<p dir="ltr">What has always been striking to me, however, is how few of these books we actually
order. In fact, I have long suspected that the traditional humanities suffers the same kind of gap
between networks that I mentioned above as being true of DH . </p>
<p dir="ltr">The Digital Humanities, to my mind, offers a way of addressing this gap, because it
emphasises <a
target="_blank">the paradisciplinary skills that people share</a> over the disciplinary skills and
networks that keep people apart. That is to say that I've always felt it might be easier to get
people to share aspects of their lives as researchers, teachers, and students if we could first
introduce them to each other through the extra-disciplinary skills and interests they share. </p>
<p dir="ltr">One early model for how this works is, once again, Digital Medievalist. In medieval
studies, the cause of the network gap is not income (primarily) but the breadth of the ?discipline?:
a field of study that covers about a millenium throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Northern
Africa, across numerous languages, and involves often very narrowly defined research specialisations
is simply going to have large groups of people that never talk. </p>
<p dir="ltr">Digital Medievalist bridges this gap by focusing on the paradisciplinary interests that
are shared by medievalists who use technology. The result is a community where many of the people
who work most closely together in the executive and at the journal belong to disciplines that, in
traditional medieval studies, might never come into contact with each other: Hispanists working with
Germanists working with Anglo-Saxonists, and so on.</p>
<p dir="ltr">I also think, as your question suggests, that the Digital Humanities has an extremely
important role to play in simply advocating for the value of the humanities. In my view, the arrival
of the digital in humanistic study is what ensures us relevant: computers are the killer app for the
Humanities. They both give us an opportunity to answer pressing societal questions in ways no other
disciplines can and allow our students to apply skills they acquire in the course of their
traditional study in ways that make sense in contemporary society.</p>
<p dir="ltr">In other words, the really interesting thing about the Internet it is not the
underlying infrastructure--most of which is relatively stable technology--but the new ways of
communicating, organising ourselves, and disseminating culture it is allowing. How teenage social
networks have been affected by Facebook is a question for sociologists, not engineers; how blogging
and texting is affecting writing is a question for rhetoricians, linguists, and literary historians
more than it is computer scientists; how social media is affecting gatekeeping mechanisms in
scholarly and scientific communications is primarily a question for historians of science and
information scientists.</p>
<p dir="ltr">Likewise, our students? much vaunted ability to think critically and express themselves
well is of no more than intrinsic value if we do not also teach them how to use this training in the
real, networked and computerised world. Courses in the Digital Humanities, especially those that
offer hands on technical experience, offer an obvious route towards ensuring that humanities
graduates are able to participate fully in economic and social life after they graduate--whether we
mean this in terms of their ability to find meaningful employment or their ability to act as engaged
citizens. </p>
<p dir="ltr">So in the end, I think the Digital Humanities will play a crucial role in advocating
for the humanities--both because it is increasingly the paradiscipline that ties together what is
otherwise a very fractured collection of relatively narrow and isolated cultural and historical
disciplines and because it brings to the humanities an obvious practicality and extensibility that
allows us to make the case more strongly for the societal relevance of what the public
(by-and-large) pay for us to teach and research.</p>

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