Research in the humanities: digital tools for the study of digitized material – University of Copenhagen


Research in the humanities: digital tools for the study of digitized material

PhD project by Jeppe Eimose Waagstein, M.S. in Computer Science

By focusing on the cooperation between CHIs and universities, this sub-project will contribute toward answering our general research questions by directly addressing sub-question 3:

What digital infrastructures do CHIs develop as part of their obligations towards knowledge institutions such as universities?

This will be done at a positive, practical level by analyzing and implementing a digital tool for participatory research studies of digitized material in collaboration with the Royal Library, and at a theoretical level by discussing how qualitative studies and collaborative research in the humanities may be supported by the computer.

As such the project tries to provide constructive answers to the second part of the general research question: how digital transformations affects CHIs’ possibilities to disseminate cultural heritage.

With the large amount of resources that CHIs spend on digitizing cultural heritage, the question of how to use this material in humanities research becomes ever more relevant. In the digital humanities, big data and quantitative analyses have lately preoccupied much of the debates (e.g. Gold, 2012) and funding agendas (AHRC, 2013; NEH, 2013). But these have also met with critique and a demand for other approaches (Croxall, 2014).

For CHIs, simply presenting the digitized material on websites has been, and still is, the norm. However, and as described above, participatory it-systems, which include digital tools for user interaction with digitized material (crowd-souring), are becoming the new agenda for CHIs. Needless to say, the micro-tasks of crowd-sourcing offer few research possibilities for the qualitative researcher.

In order to study other approaches than big data and crowdsourcing, this project will focus on qualitative analyses. "Qualitative" is used here to denote the thorough, in-depth analysis of information which is closely related to understanding (“Verstehen”), hermeneutic interpretation and introspection.

In this perspective participation is understood as interactive relation between CHI and researcher: the researcher adds interpretation and expert knowledge to the digitized collection offered and possibly curated by the CHI.

A consequence of designing digital tools for participation and user interaction is the possibility of cooperative research. In such computer-supported cooperative work (CSCW), researchers may share their work with CHIs as hubs (Schmidt, 2011).

In summary, this sub-project will study how a library may design participatory digital tools to support cooperative qualitative analyses of digitized material for the humanities researcher. It is the assumption that such digital tools are desirable and of great importance in ensuring that the knowledge produced can be shared between scholars and disseminated.

The project will consist of a practical/empirical part and a more theoretical part designed to assist each other. As Waagstein will work closely together with the Royal Library, the sub-project will focus on libraries.

The practical part will draw on Waagstein’s master thesis (Larsen, 2012).

First, the user requirements for both collaborative and participatory qualitative research will be identified and discussed.

Secondly, and building on these requirements, a set of digital tools will be designed. In the design process, the extensive experience with computer-assisted qualitative data analysis software (CAQDAS) will be included (Seale, 2013).

Finally, a proto-type instance of these tools will be implemented in close collaboration with the Royal Library, Denmark for one or several of the library's digitized collections. Afterwards, the tool will be briefly evaluated. Thus, the practical part will follow the classical life cycle of IT-system development: analysis, design, implementation and test (Sommerville, 2011).

In the theoretical part, two key aspects will be studied and discussed.

First, it is assumed that the computer may be used to support qualitative research. As the computer is ultimately quantitative and works by computation, performing interpretation by digital tools is not a trivial task (Dreyfus, 1992. For a popular discussion see Christian, 2012). The sub-project will discuss how and to what degree the computer can be used to support qualitative research in the humanities (Shillingsburg, 2006; Boonstra, 2004; Schreibman et al., 2004).

Secondly, as the number of digital networks and the amount of communication increase, possibilities for cooperative research supported by the computer become still more widespread. In collaboration with Professor of Computer Science Jørgen Bansler, the sub-project will discuss how cooperative research in the humanities may be supported by the computer and how CHIs may be involved (Schmidt, 2011; Deegan and McCarty, 2012).