A New Beginning for Digital Humanities at Trinity College Dublin

Screenshot 2016-04-22 22.28.09A decade or so ago, I found myself live blogging academic talks and events (and being some weird exceptionalist on the fringe) – ’tis admittedly where I like to live. Over the years this has transmogrified itself into live tweeting from such events – snapping furtive pics and capturing pithy prose. This has become my primary form of note taking and more profoundly of knowledge sharing. Ironically, oddly and seemingly incongruously more recently I have been undertaking a digital detox. As a result this is being composed in a fine Rhodia notebook perched on my knee, composed with ink on paper with one of a growing stable of fountain pens and a striking ink choice (Pelikan Brilliant Violet 4001 and a Lamy 2000 with an extra fine hooded nib). As is now my way what you read has been digitally transformed from what I wrote in a lovely traditional longhand.
Today our corespondent finds himself attending the launch of the new Trinity Centre for Digital Humanities. It is a gratifying pleasure to attend this launch as just a few short years ago I recall concern at the departure of the reigning TCD Digital Humanities champion. The past decade had witnessed the development of a flourishing Digital Humanities practice in Ireland and I am personally proud to have had a role in the Humanities Serving Irish Society initiative. It’s why I came to this country. HSIS instigated an interconnected group of DH programmes involving UCC, QUB, UCD, NUIG, NUIM and TCD among others. The departure represented a depletion of resources and threatened the whole. Thankfully a couple of years on there is a demonstrable resurgence and today’s event at Trinity reflects this. I wish the ‘new’ Trinity Centre for Digital Humanities the very best for future endeavours – there are some great folks involved!
Today a resurgent DH at Trinity demonstrated a lively showcase of Digital Humanities projects to whet the audiences’ appetite for a keynote by TCD alumni Sir William Sargeant, founder of FrameStore.
The keynote was teasingly entitled ‘Technology meet Creativity’ – cute. Interestingly the speaker professed that until a week before this talk he considered Digital Humanities a contradiction in terms. I respect his critical appreciation and less than subtle scepticism. Apparently so does the Provost of TCD. As part of his introduction of the speaker Prof Prendergast grudgingly admitted to being a bottomline oriented individual. However, he confessed great surprise in discovering that 34% of the funding attracted by the six humanities disciplines at Trinity has been for Digital Humanities projects. More surprisingly he discovered that 12% of the funding attracted to the School of Computer Science and Statistics (SCSS) has also originated from Digital Humanities projects. DH is clearly spanning disciplines at Trinity. I guess this justifies the investment in a full Digital Humanities Centre.
Sir Wm. Sargent presented a most thoughtful discourse exploring his perception of DH across four specific themes: Relevance, Collaboration, Catalyst, and Leadership.
A few aspects resonated with me and bear sharing.
In answer to a question from a staff member at the TCD ADAPT centre Sargent firmly asserted that money ? innovation. There was a less than subtle suggestion that he was in in enviable position (he is) and can do great (and innovative things) because he has a track record and capital to do so. He diplomatically affirmed the value of having a person with passion behind an idea who creatively leverages technology to create a prototype will find the necessary financial resources. Hard work and dedication coupled with an inspiration will succeed. Prototyping (in support of a good story) will get you the money!
Funding is the reality, but in many (too many) cases this leads to an institutionalised reluctance to persevere without a fiduciary safety net.
Sargent charged that, contrary to opinion, he believed that the digital turn (and the the internet) has provided the potential for a reclamation of individuality within society – there’s great room for debate here. I feel compelled to extend the this to suggest that this turn has provided the opportunity to be seized to promote this mechanism to promote the ideas that we individually have passion for. The challenge arises from internalising and through fully being able to contemplate this passion in a world increasingly happening superficially on your screen and buffeted with waves of digital static. You still have to choose the tools but they are available and in no way discount the human dimension.
So what do I take away from the Sargent talk?
One thing that I was and still am having trouble getting past was that each slide in the presentation contained a prominent copyright statement. Hmmm.
Sargent spoke of collaboration and co-creation but his presentation materials subtly exhibited proprietary ownership over his shared knowledge. Is this sharing? I realise that it is a function of of different worlds and perhaps it was a rote behaviour. However, it led me to wonder about how he sees ‘the story’ go forward. If we are able through the digital turn to ‘make our own telling’ where does this leave antiquated models of intellectual property and ownership? If our stories are told across social and a wide range of media as Owen Conlan suggested in his response – do we ‘own’ our ‘own stories?? I was left wondering.
Great ideas were shared today – but if there is proprietary ownership of what was presented what can I actually do with them?
We were honoured at UCC to have Prof Andrew Prescott provide a thoughtful keynote at our DH and DC Institute two weeks ago. In that talk he made a challenging/prescient challenge/accusation that Digital Humanities is troubled in itself to lose some sense of proprietary control/ownership of the digital in the humanities. He identified a subtle weakness in the self-declaimed discipline of DH – and in light of this I wonder where this same challenge over IP leaves studios such as FrameStore.
Does co-creation totally upset their own value proposition?
This is not by any means a comprehensive review of Wm Sargent’s keynote address – nor is it. I am picking a choosing only a couple moments of pith that stuck with me.
One of the more interdictive points was a reference to Digital Humanitarians rather than more common Digital Humanists. I have personally wrestled with this parsing of phrase as I do not consider myself a humanist – digital or otherwise. A humanitarian however – is a tag that I would aspire to – or at least would like to. I think it’s an equally loaded phrase – but it bends toward the Public Humanities or what I would like to see as the Active Humanities or the Engaged Humanities! This was a call to action if I ever heard one.
The launch of the Trinity Centre for Digital Humanities was a fine event indeed. It was great to find a few familiar faces who I have not seen in far too long but I was also equally conscious of the absence of some that I would have expected to see.
All the very best wishes and realisation of hopes in the fruitful endeavours of the TCD Centre for Digital Humanities.

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