Q&A with Brett Bobley, Director of the NEH's Office of Digital Humanities (ODH)

HASTAC Scholars Kathleen Smith and Michael Gavin asked Brett Bobley--Director of the Office of the Digital Humanities for the National Endowment for the Humanities--his thoughts about "The Future of the Digital Humanities."  Please read below for his answers, and please share your thoughts in the HASTAC Scholars Discussion Forum, open now at http://www.hastac.org/scholars/forum/02-02-09The-Future-of-the-Digital-Humanities.

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed are those of Brett Bobley and do not necessarilyreflect official positions of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

1) What are themost interesting innovations happening right now in the field of digitalhumanities, and is it possible to predict or anticipate what will be mostimportant in the future?

The most interesting innovations?  That's a great question - one that I couldtalk about all day!  First, let mebriefly explain what we mean by "digital humanities."  Not that this is an official, formaldefinition (this is the humanities, after all!).  But I use "digital humanities" as an umbrellaterm for a number of different activities that surround technology andhumanities scholarship. Under the digital humanities rubric, I would includetopics like open access to materials, intellectual property rights, tooldevelopment, digital libraries, data mining, born-digital preservation,multimedia publication, visualization, GIS, digital reconstruction, study ofthe impact of technology on numerous fields, technology for teaching andlearning, sustainability models, media studies, and many others.  It became way too exhausting to recite thatentire list whenever I spoke with someone, so "digital humanities" seemed tonicely summarize the issues.  (Plus, itsounded better to me than "e-humanities" which is what I used to use!).

This long list of things related to digital humanitiesreally reinforces why my staff is so busy - it is because the impact oftechnology on the humanities is so profound. As Tom Scheinfeldt has characterizedit, it is a game-changer.  Somepeople wonder if game-changing is an exaggeration, but let's put it thisway:  technology has radically changedthe way we read, the way we write, and the way we learn.  "Reading, writing, learning" - three things thatare pretty central to the humanities. 

In terms of interesting innovations, I think a lot ofthem surround technology and how it helps you interact with humanitiescollections.  At its heart, technologyallows you to manipulate and interact with "stuff" in different ways.  The "stuff" might be music, it might bevideo, it might be text, it might be images of objects (it might even bepeople).  Before we look at humanitiesscholarship, let me throw out an analogy. Consider how, in a very short period of time, technology has changed popularmusic.  Let's break music down to threekey areas:

  • Access.  Putting music in digital format has completely changed the access paradigm.  I remember back when I was in college I was the station manager for my campus radio station (University of Chicago, WHPK - "88.5, cold kickin' it live!").  At the time, before the Web and a few years before CD's came out, music was still remarkably regional.  Whenever I was heading home to New York to visit my family, station DJ's would ask me to buy records for them.  Think about that for a moment - even in Chicago, one of the biggest cities in the country, there were many, many records you couldn't get your hands on.  So in order to get the latest rap records coming out of New York or even a lot of imports from the UK, you had to fly to another city and bring vinyl back in your suitcase.  The Internet completely and utterly changed that.  Today, you can listen to a band from Australia as easily as one from your hometown. 
  • Production and Distribution.  Just a few years ago, it was nearly impossible for an unsigned band to get their music to a wide audience.  Trust me, as the former head of a college radio station, most bands couldn't even make a demo tape that didn't sound horrible.  But technology allows anyone with a home computer to record their music and the Web allows them to distribute it to anyone in the world. 
  • Consumption (Listening).  Digital files have enabled people to have much, much larger collections of music than they could physically store before (piracy helped too, but that's another, related, issue).  I carry my entire music collection on an iPod.  This changes the way you listen, what you listen to, and the way you share music with others.

Now let's look at these three areas again (Access,Production, and Consumption) but in the context of humanities scholarship.  What do humanists do?  Well, a big part of what they do is studycultural heritage materials - books, newspapers, paintings, film, sculptures,music, ancient tablets, buildings, etc. Pretty much everything on that list is being digitized in very largenumbers.  The change in access may not bequite as far along as it is for music, but it will be soon.  Like with music, you'll have access tomaterials from all over the world.  Youwon't have to send a book via airmail from New York to Chicago because you'llhave instant access to it on your PC (or your mobile device).  If you want to study materials in China,you'll be able to view them (or for that matter, find out about them) using theWeb.

On the production side, we're already seeing more andmore scholars producing their work for the Web. It might take the form of scholarly websites, blogs, wikis, orwhatever.  But, like with music, ascholar (even an amateur, part-time scholar) can make her work available to theentire world at very low cost of production. After all, scholars still have to eat and so be compensated for whatthey do best-the analysis of scholarly materials and being part of the largerscholarly conversation (so production and transmission of knowledge). Plus,keep in mind that the entire production cycle uses technology (collecting,editing, discussing with others) before the final product is created.

On the consumption side, people get their materials inall kinds of new ways.  Reading haschanged with the Web.  It has changedfrom a technology perspective, of course - thinking of e-readers and laptopsand mobile devices (and some of the now-starting-to-get-obsolete tech productslike microfiche machines).  But thechanges are more profound than that.  Theway we read is changing.  Bits and piecesof varied content from so many places and perspectives. 

If I had to predict some interesting things for thefuture in the area of access, I'd sum it up in one word:  scale.  Big, massive, scale.  That's whatdigitization brings - access to far, far more cultural heritage materials thanyou could ever access before.  If you'rea scholar of, say, 19th century British literature, how does yourwork change when, for the first time, you have every book from your era at yourfingertips?  Far more books than youcould ever read in your lifetime.  Howdoes this scale change things?  How mightquantitative tech-based methodologies like data mining help you to betterunderstand a giant corpus?  Help you zeroin on issues?  What if you are ahistorian and you now have access to every newspaper around the world?  How might searching and mining that kind ofdataset radically change your results?  Howmight well-know assumptions in various disciplines fall once confronted withhard data?  Or, perhaps, how might theybe altered or re-envisioned?

2) How do you seedigital technology transforming work in the disciplines of the humanities? Arethere disciplines in which digital technology will have less of an impact?

In my earlier answer, I spoke about how access to largecollections of digitized cultural heritage materials will transform thehumanities.  So let's also talk a bitabout digital research tools and methodologies and their impact.

More and more scholars are starting to take advantage ofdigital research tools.  Let me note thatpretty much every scholar uses a digital tool for her work:  namely, a word processor.  And I'm sure there must be all kinds ofinteresting papers about how a word processor and its ability to edit andre-edit on the fly has changed scholarship. But we don't even talk about a word processor as a digital toolanymore.  But that's really the pointhere.  What might seem novel at first canbecome accepted even by "regular" humanities scholars over time.  There are all kinds of interesting tools andmethodologies.  I've been seeing a lot ofreally interesting uses for GIS.  Mappingplaces and events, over time, in a geographical space to help gain new insight.  Visualization is another technique that Ithink will become a great deal more common in the humanities.  Scholars have always consumed materials togain insight into why an event happened (or why the artist drew a painting thatway, or why an ancient temple was constructed, etc).  Visualization may prove to be anothertechnology that can help scholars see their materials in a new way.

There are many, many digital tools that scholars useevery day to collaborate, to organize their work, and to publish it to thecommunity.  I suspect that many of thesedigital practices will become the norm. The tools will change (many will die out) but useful methods willstick.  By the way, for a nice list ofdigital tools for the humanities, see Lisa Spiro's DiRT Wiki (http://digitalresearchtools.pbwiki.com/).

Digital technology may impact some disciplines more thanothers.  But, frankly, this is hard topredict.  Obviously, sub-disciplines likegame studies are very tech heavy.  But whowould have guessed that classics would be one of the most digitally-savvydisciplines? 

3) What road blocksare scholars in the digital humanities encountering, and what advice do youhave for graduate students and junior faculty?

The road block issue is much discussed.  It seems like every conference I go to thereis discussion of promotion and tenure issues, so this is certainly a bigtopic.  Let me preface this by sayingthat I'm not a scholar myself - I'm a government grantmaker andtechnologist.  I say this because I wantto make it clear that I can't speak authoritatively about how P&T works onyour campus.   That said, my impressionis that on some campuses, graduate students and junior faculty are stronglyencouraged to steer away from digital scholarship and instead to write about"traditional" topics and publish "traditional" monographs.  On the other hand, I do hear about more andmore campuses where digital scholarship is highly valued and counted towardspromotion.

I have a few thoughts here.  First, I think it is important for peoplethroughout the humanities community to understand that digital scholarshipdoesn't have to mean non-traditional.  Inother words, to get back to my word processor issue, have you ever heardsomeone say to a young philosopher "oh, you better not write your book about Aristotleusing a word processor!  Someone will think you're one of those crazydigital humanists and you won't get tenure!" This example seems silly, but keep in mind that it wasn't all that longago that a word processor was newfangled technology.  My point is that you can tackle "traditional"humanities topics and questions while still using the latest digital tools ifyou find it adds value to your work. Maybe you used data mining techniques to see how Aristotle influencedother philosophers.  That's great - butthe focus of your book should be the results (the scholarship) and notnecessarily the techniques you used.

One issue I'd like tosee graduate programs tackle:  moretraining in digital tools and methodologies for humanities scholarship.  In the sciences, graduate students learn howto use digital tools for research and analysis. But how many graduate humanities programs include classes on using GIS,3-D modeling, data analysis, or other methods of scholarship?  I suspect the number is fairly low.  I wonder if this isn't an area more graduateprograms should be exploring.

4) How will digitaltechnology in the academic system in general (for example, in the changing roleof textbooks in the classroom, open-access databases, or publishingrequirements for tenure) affect the way research is performed and shared?

I think research will change a great deal over the next20 years.  We have already seen this inthe sciences where mining "big data" has changed the way scientists to theirresearch.  (See: Chris Anderson's. "The End of Theory: The Data DelugeMakes the Scientific Method Obsolete" from Wired).  Imagine a futurewhere we have huge digital libraries of far more material than you ever hadaccess to before.  Now imagine automaticlanguage translation for those documents, which greatly increases your abilityto study documents from around the globe.

Let'sface it:  sometimes scholarship isconstrained by seemingly mundane hurdles like copyright, travel costs, orlanguage barriers.  Let's take arthistory for a moment.  If you're an arthistorian and you want to write a book about French painters and you get therights to reproduce the paintings of Renoir but not Monet, which artist willyou choose to focus on?  You'll probablywrite a lot more about Renoir for strictly practical reasons.  What if you're a political philosopher andyou can read English, French, and Greek but not Chinese.  Might there be incredible literature inChinese that would help you understand how ideas moved through cultures andacross languages?  But if you can't readit, you probably won't focus on it.  

5) Tell us aboutsome of the programs the NEH is currently funding. What are your priorities forthe next few years?

In a nutshell, NEH funds five major areas:  Research (e.g. fellowships and collaborativegrants to give scholars time to think, research, and write); Education (e.g.teacher seminars and institutes); Public Programming (e.g. documentary filmsand museum exhibitions); and Preservation and Access (e.g. preservation ofbooks and other cultural heritage artifacts as well as access to importantcollections, often via the Internet).  Myoffice, the Office of Digital Humanities, works to promote digital scholarshipand the development of cyberinfrastructure across all those five areas.

Here are a few of our grant programs:

  • Institutes for Advanced Topics in the Digital Humanities-This program supports major training institutes or workshops to teach advanced topics in the digital humanities.
  • Digital Humanities Start-Up Grants-This program, which is a partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services, supports the early research and planning stages for innovative digital projects in all areas of the humanities.
  • Digging into Data Challenge -- The idea behind the Digging into Data Challenge is to answer the question "what do you do with a million books?" Or a million pages of newspaper? Or a million photographs of artwork? That is, how does the notion of scale affect humanities and social science research? Now that scholars have access to huge repositories of digitized data -- far more than they could read in a lifetime -- what does that mean for research? DID is co-sponsored along with three other leading research agencies, the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) from the United Kingdom, the National Science Foundation (NSF) from the United States, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) from Canada.
  • Keep your eye out for a new program we'll be announcing soon. It will be called Preservation and Access Research and Development. It will be an R&D focused program that will be a great vehicle for funding the next stage of Start-Up Grant projects.

One of our priorities is outreach and cooperation withother funders and organizations that are part of the digital humanitiescommunity.  Cyberinfrastructure can't bebuilt alone.  It is important that theNEH speaks with the community on a regular basis to ensure our fundingstrategies are best suited to help the field. 

6) Many of the NEH'sprograms involve collaboration with other institutions. What does the NEH needfrom administrators and researchers to make successful programs?

In the Office of Digital Humanities, we're looking forreally cool projects to fund!  Of course,being the government, I can't exactly make the peer review criteria "coolnessfactor" and expect the lawyers to be OK with that!  In all seriousness, though, we're looking forinnovative projects that demonstrate how technology can be brought to bear on ahumanities problem and, ultimately, yield great scholarship for use by avariety of audiences, whether is be scholars, students in a formal classroomsetting, or the interested public.

Administrators and researchers who are interested inapplying to the Office of Digital Humanities should definitely check out theprojects we have already funded (they are all easy to find on our website -check out our Libraryof Funded Projects).  It is alsoimportant to understand how to work collaboratively.  So many of today's digital projects involveteams of people from various disciplines. Each member of the team brings different strengths to the project.  We often see humanities scholars teaming upwith computer scientists, librarians, social scientists, and others.  And the projects are richer for it.  If you are developing a tool or methodology,we're very interested in broad applicability. Does this method just help your scholarship?  Or can others benefit as well?  Make sure you perform an environmental scanto find out what similar projects may already be underway.  Also check out this nice articleon how to prepare your NEH application.

Lastly, I suggest getting out there and communicating.  Use new media tools like blogs, wikis, socialnetworks.  Go to conferences when youcan.  Talk to people in your field andother fields to find out what is possible and what needs to be done.

Brett Bobley serves as the Chief InformationOfficer for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and is alsothe Director of the agency?s Office of Digital Humanities (ODH). UnderODH, Brett has put in place new grant programs aimed at supportinginnovative humanities projects that utilize or study the impact ofdigital technology. Brett has a master's degree in computer sciencefrom the Johns Hopkins University and a bachelor's degree in philosophyfrom the University of Chicago. In 2007, Brett was recognized by thePresident of the United States for his exceptional long-termaccomplishments with a Presidential Rank Award.