CFP for Roundtable on Data Management for Humanities Research at MLA 2013

In collaboration with my friend and colleague Korey Jackson at University of Michigan, I put out a CFP for a panel on Issues in Data Management for Humanities Research for the 2013 MLA in Boston.

Since the MLA site only allows eeensy-teeensy little abstracts (check ours out here), we decided to elaborate a bit. And please note that it’s not “for Digital Humanities Research.” We’re thinking about data broadly in the Humanities, and wondering what exactly that might mean.

MLA Call for Papers: Issues in Data Management for Humanities Research

 In 2006 the American Council for Learned Societies released a report titled Our Cultural Commonwealth summarizing the promises and challenges of “big data” within the humanities and social sciences. The radical growth of computing, networking, and digital storage promised (or at least prefaced) a new era of “cumulative, collaborative, and synergistic” scholarship. And as we’ve seen in the half-dozen years since the report was issued, much of this promise has been borne out. Examples include inter-institutional projects like those sponsored by the Digging into Data program (administered by the NEH’s Office of Digital Humanities); the Mellon-funded Project Bamboo (designed to become a content management and collaboration hub for IT and humanities researchers); and massive data collection undertakings like the Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive (a collection of nearly 52,000 testimonies from Holocaust and other genocide survivors).

Of course, most humanities research datasets don’t begin to approach this kind of scale. Single researchers and research teams working with local materials, locally created databases, and local storage are still very much the norm. The question that this roundtable talk focuses on, then, is: How do we define and support good humanities data practices at the individual and local level?

Presenters are encouraged to take a step back from “big” and ask how scholars, librarians, and technologists can help foster better local data collection, storage, and distribution in order to build research practices that promote multi-disciplinary and multi-institutional synergies from the ground up. By sharing local instances of data management, we hope to explore big data as a process of “building toward,” rather than a monumental or sui generis product.

Questions that might be addressed include:

  • What counts as humanities data? The term data is unsettling for many scholars in part because it connotes something definitive and unproblematic. Where humanities scholarship often thrives on complication and constructivism, data seeks repeatability and finality. Datasets are construed as a kind of incontestable bedrock which, to some, make them not only a little boring, but dangerously and deceptively boring. Is there a way for humanities researchers to have our constructivist cake and eat it, too? Can we, in other words, productively question the constructedness of datasets even as we assemble them? And can we expand the kinds of information that constitute data?
  • Metadata and Occam’s Razor. When it comes to metadata, there are any number of fields to fill in, tags to apply, descriptors to append… and not all of them are useful. Or rather, it’s difficult to know what metadata will be useful to current and future researchers and, for this reason, difficult to know when and where to stop. What are best practices for metadata? Is there a standard (Dublin Core, say) that ought to be adhered to? What are the benefits and drawbacks of standardization? Can cloud-sourcing metadata offer solutions for humanities researchers to develop more comprehensive data markups to meet the needs of diverse users?
  • Copyright, Fair Use, and Open Access. Compiling data is one thing. Being able to use it legally is another. Come discuss obstacles, strategies, and successes dealing with copyright and use issues.
  • Grants and Funding. Have you successfully (or unsuccessfully) applied for grant funding that requires a data management / preservation strategy? We welcome conversations about how to articulate data management as a component of the grant application process. Funding is also an issue when it comes to supporting the programmers, designers, project managers, and copyright lawyers that may need to be part of a data management team. How do diverse institutions budget these costs? What experiences have you had seeking institutional in-kind support or funding for your own projects?

The roundtable will feature as many as eight presenters and is open to scholars, educators, and technologists from across the humanities. All presentation formats are welcome, but do let organizers know if you have specific technology needs.

Please send 250 word abstracts and a brief bio to or by Monday, March 19th.

 Keep in mind that all panelists will need to be registered MLA members (or have their membership waived) on or before April 7th.

We’re very much looking forward to seeing what folks come up with for papers for this panel, and we hope it can create some conversations that blur the line between “traditional” and “digital” humanities.

A good example of the sort of conversation we’d like to stimulate is a panel for which I’m giving a short talk at c19 (click through to the schedule and search for “data”) in a few weeks. The panel, Digits, Data, and Dilemmas: A Roundtable on Digitization and Knowledge Production [Friday 10:30-12, TR] features an interesting mix of scholars thinking about everything from web archives to teaching. My talk, “The Vanity of Systems: Data Management for Humanists” is an attempt to problematize the bibliography as a core information set that includes a variety of data points that can be deployed using different digital tools, and to enable a range of types of research.


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