Digial Humanities: On digital scholarship in art history

Soooo, digital humanities. It’s more than just fun with databases and coding websites, right? (Sorry for the looooong post.)

The Center for History and New Media and Samuel H. Kress Foundation recently published a report on the impact and future of the digital world within the discipline of art history, “Transitioning to a Digital World: Art History, Its Research Centers, and Digital Scholarship,” by Diane M Zorich (May 2012). [Note: the CHNM at George Mason University is responsible the awesome tool, Zotero!]

The report asks a bigger question than what is the present role and future potential of digital humanities within art history? The real question: are members of a conservative discipline willing to experiment (and risk failure) for the sake of taking on bigger and better research projects? 

Frankly, the report is depressing.  I can’t help but wonder if such a report unfairly weights the opinions of senior art historians for whom new digital technologies represent only a very thin and recent slice of their careers.

Must Read on Social Media and Art History:

“Art history scholars do not appear to be part of this trend [of using social media], preferring instead to use email or listservs for scholarly communication rather than blogs, wikis, or other forms of social media. What are the implications of this? A vast amount of information is now available on social media platforms that is not available on Web sites or in databases. Additionally, these platforms offer broader opportunities to share research results because they reach far wider audiences.1 What are art historians missing by not being part of the scholarly information and networking that increasing passes through these channels? What opportunities are being lost by not promoting new research, programs or other scholarly efforts in the discipline via these channels?

Encouraging the discipline to use social media forums for scholarly communication will require some convincing and handholding, as both biases and fears about the use of these communication channels remain high in the discipline. Nevertheless, there are important strategic reasons for doing so. First, these communication channels cast a broader net than email and listservs, extending the discipline’s reach and impact to a larger scholarlycommunity. More importantly, use of these channels help move the research process further into the digital arena. Art historians already conduct a portion of their work in an online environment – they routinely search through databases or Web resources for information relevant to their research inquiry at some point in their research process. Conducting scholarly communication via social media channels essentially puts another part of their research workflow into this realm as well. In doing so, it extends the functional perception of the online world from being ‘a place to search’ to ‘a place to interact.’ This might well be revelatory for a discipline that, as one scholar noted, still narrowly views the digital realm as just ‘one big research library.'” (Zorich, “Transitioning to a Digital World, 51)

  1. A recent experiment by humanities scholar Melissa Terras illustrates the impact of social media in the context of her own publications. Terras found that when she tweeted or blogged about certain publications, their download rate from her university’s digital repository increased eleven‐fold over publications she did not tweet or blog about. See Terras, Melissa. “Is Blogging and Tweeting About Research Papers Worth It? The Verdict.” Melissa Terras’ Blog, April 3, 2012. http://melissaterras.blogspot.com/2012/04/is‐blogging‐andtweeting‐about‐research.html.

My Summary:

The report highlights the division within the field between those who do and those who don’t see the potential of digital humanities in the field.  On the positive, some see digital humanities opening up new areas of research, better access to historical information, wider publication, and higher quality education. It’s probably only a matter of time until the rest of the community recognizes the new forms of scholarship, new research opportunities, new research methods and work-flows made possible by digital humanities.

The executive summary lists a bunch of factors for the low status of digital art history, “perceived threats to existing research paradigms and behaviors, outmoded reward structures for professional advancement and tenure, insufficient capacity and technology infrastructure, the absence of digital art history training and funding opportunities, problems with digital publishing, and the need for multidisciplinary partnerships to develop and sustain digital art history projects” (pp 5-6).

The report also includes several general recommendations for the future of digital humanities. Nothing earth-shattering here:

  • increase our understanding of how digital humanities impacts the training for art historians (I gave workshops on creating PowerPoint presentations to my colleagues in the art department for a few years, because others did not know how to make a visual argument with their images and supporting text or how to make the software do what they wanted)
  • reflect on the roles of art libraries and librarians (they are on the front lines!)
  • compare/contrast the situation in the US and UK (hey, what about Canada?!)
  • analyze the work habits of art historians
  • look to other communities and disciplines to see how they use digital technologies

My Analysis:

For professors and students (like me) who are currently in graduate education programs, digital scholarship has totally transformed what we learn, how we learn it, and how we are assessed. This fact cannot be undone by others who are of the opinion that digital scholarship has little impact.  When we do research we go to the internet first and use database tools to identify and locate images and publications. Some of my colleagues are of the opinion that the objectives of art history comprehensive exams needs to be reviewed given the fact that grad students have access to streams of images exponentially greater than previous generations of students.

At the very basic level, we use personal computers every single day. Most of us write and edit our research papers on computers. Zorich describes a range of programs we use to create and share with one another. I think there is a lot of potential in the idea of making some research centers “change agents” that promote digital scholarship and teaching (p. 18).

The factors that contribute to the low status of digital scholarship in the humanities also contribute to other problems that go beyond the issue at hand. Fears of loosing one’s turf abound in academia and this results in major battles for funding, space, and other resources within universities and research centers. (Related to this is the problem of image copyright holders demanding prohibitively high fees to reproduce an image in a scholarly publication. Authors, not publishers, are primarily responsible for these fees, which is why so many art books have black and white images instead of full-color plates. There are creative solutions to this problem. For example, a publisher could include the full-color images on a CD-ROM with the book or they could publish the images on a website that was accessible to those who have bought the book itself. Authorities in the field (e.g. presidents of organizations like CAA or major museum directors) could collaborate with publishing houses and release a set of fee-limits that they feel would benefit the image copyright holders, authors, and publishers.)

I would like to read more about how time and space are re-conceptualized by the use of digital technologies. Perhaps digital technologies will shorten the long delay in publishing from the time a manuscript is accepted to its final print/publication date?  The standard publishing lag time in our field is years, which would never be allowed to happen in other fields where cutting-edge research is processed by editors and publishers within a matter of months.  In terms of space, researchers can now access images and historical documents through the internet which takes the burden off researchers who may not have the financial resources to travel.

What’s also missing is sufficient attention to the importance of collaboration among scholars and research centers. The risk is that everyone is going to reinvent the wheel and duplicate efforts. Although the report highlights potential affiliations and partnerships (pp 35-39),the nature of the internet promotes a networked world in which everyone and everything is interconnected. Collaboration is also fundamental because only by putting the skills of several very talented people together can we create awesome new things.  Image the possibilities when we combine a techy person with an art historian?


Here is the press release from the Kress Foundation (release date: June 1, 2012).

Here is the PDF version of the report. 

Portions of the report will be published in the Journal of Digital Humanities and Visual Resources.

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