“Green Paper on Digital Humanities at UofT”

May 26, 2009 at 8:07 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

In case participants haven’t seen it, the Spring 2009 University of Toronto Libraries Newsletter (available as a .pdf download from the Library website) has an article by Mary Ann Mavrinac, Chief Librarian at University of Toronto Mississauga, “Digital Humanities: Transforming Libraries, Advancing Scholarship.”

The article mentions a 2008 report, “Green Paper on Digital Humanities at UofT,” co-authored by professors Bob Gibbs, Director of the JHI, and Brian Cantwell Smith, former dean of the former Faculty of Information Studies (now the Faculty of Information): A copy can be obtained here:

DH at UofT

I think this green paper should be mandatory reading for the working group, because it provides an excellent and pertinent springboard for the discussions the working group proposes to have, and will help us generate our own green paper. There are a number of points in the Gibbs and Cantwell Smith green paper that require further debate, for example:

1. In defining DH, the paper says “it is best viewed as ‘extra-disciplinary'” (2), yet it still views DH as taking place with the traditional boundaries (limitations?) of “the humanities.” However, as the membership of this working group demonstrates, DH challenges the boundaries and definition of “the humanities” by forming collaborations on a much broader scale than those between traditional humanities disciplines. (Interestingly, a number of participants have complained about the prescriptive nature of the JHI profile registration form because it makes assumptions about who is involved in humanities research rather than letting those who are involved in humanities research establish the parameters of what constitutes a humanities researcher).

2. The conceptualization of DH as comprising three groups of people: Humanities Researchers, DH Researchers, and Constructors. Divisions like this will be a major issue of interrogation in the working group. True, the authors acknowledge in a footnote that in DH research, “distinctions between and among these categories begin to dissolve” (4) (yes, under ideal conditions), but I find the descriptions provided for these groups to be artificial. It is essential that we think beyond these limiting distinctions and account for a much broader spectrum of DH practice and practitioners.

3. The green paper is fundamentally a call for support and resources to enable the institutionalization of DH at U of T, directed at the university administration. While this would indeed be wonderful, it should not be seen as the only model to do DH at U of T. Institutionalization comes with its own problems (bureaucracy, inflexibility, reification). Another model the working group should discuss is what might be called the ‘self-help’ model of DH, where DH researchers come together and pool their expertise and resources to achieve a mutually-beneficial goal, and then go on to form new partnerships that will help grow their projects. Another model might be termed the ‘entrepreneurial’ model, where DH scholarship is developed outside the university, within the wikinomic world of mass colloboration, which dissolves boundaries between academe and the public realm it is supposed to benefit.

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