Designing Digital Collections for Social Relevance

Susan Schreibman (, Maynooth University, Ireland

Digital Humanities, and by extension digital humanists, tend towards a culture of open access, interdisciplinary collaboration, and a maker ethos. These disciplinary values position the digital humanities for high impact reaching beyond disciplinary boundaries into more public fora. One might argue that this public-facing ethos is a natural extension of web-based scholarship.

Yet, simply putting resources on the web does not necessarily engage the public or publics they wish to reach. With institutions, research bodies, and funding agencies expecting greater impact from research (see, for example,
Watermeyer, Ozanne, Reale), digital humanities scholarship is increasingly being viewed as an answer to that perpetually thorny crisis in the humanities. In his 2010 article, ‘The Engaged Humanities: Principles and Practices of Public Scholarship and Teaching’, Gregory Jay believes that public scholarship and community engagement will become central to revitalizing the humanities in the 21st century. He argues that the future of the humanities depends upon two interrelated innovations: the organized implementation of project based engaged learning and scholarship, and the continued advancement of digital and new media learning and scholarship (51)

Further, he writes, ‘efforts to connect humanities research and teaching with projects to advance democracy, social justice, and the public good might take advantage of the latest episode of the crisis in the humanities and even represent a new direction for revival (51). A means for advancing new values within our teaching and research is through the development of projects of social relevance which engage the public in their design and implementation. These go by various names: crowdsourcing, participatory engagement, and social engagement.

Crowdsourcing is a popular term that has been used for over a decade. Defined by Mia Ridge in
Crowdsourcing our Cultural Heriage as ‘…the act of taking work once performed within an organisation and outsourcing it to the general public through an open call for participants’ (1). Crowdsourcing structures public participation more as what the public can do for my project as opposed to understanding why the public might choose to spend their creative capital on my research. This may lead to a framing of public participation as project work that gets outsourced to those with lesser skills than individuals within the academy and/or on the project team. This can lead to a bifurcation of a them vs us mentality, with the ‘them’ (the public) not as educated, talented, or resourceful as the ‘us’ within the academy.

This very point was articulated in a thread on the Text Encoding Initiative list in February 2016. After some 15 positive responses about successful crowdsourced projects, one respondent asked why were we not hearing about failures. This quickly morphed into another thread with the subject line ‘Crowdsourcing Transcription Failures’. In this thread respondents posted a number of issues and challenges in carrying out these projects (as well as some advice by others on the list in how to address these). One respondent, however, indicated that it was not feasible to think about public participation at the same level as that from those on the project team. And while in principle, this is a reasonable assumption, the articulation of this particular post starkly drew the us vs them line with the us not having the ‘patience’ to clean up the mess left by the them:

what we call ‘failure’ may simply be a matter of impatience. If we expect to do the equivalent of a ‘barn-raising’ in digital humanities, where a large number of people come together and do a lot of tedious work quickly, we have to expect a lot of ‘mopping up’ to do afterwards. And we’re limited by our level of patience, in how far we want to go to train people to mark texts in thoughtful, observant, well-informed ways. (Beshero-Bondar).

This attitude reinforces public perceptions of academics existing in an ivory tower in which research can only be undertaken by a scarce, specialised work force. Participatory engagement projects, on the other hand, begin to debunk notions of us (the experts) against them (the amateurs [or the public]). Participatory engagement, on the other hand, frames involvement on the project differently. It is a political and a design issue, in addition to being a research decision. The participatory process is one that generates new thinking about the research process, audience, and value while a vehicle to challenge limiting beliefs of who our scholarship is for and the role of the humanities as a public good in society. The National Centre for Public Engagement identifies the public as not simply an extended work force, but active players in the design process:

Public engagement describes the myriad of ways in which the activity and benefits of higher education and research can be shared with the public. Engagement is by definition a two-way process, involving interaction and listening, with the goal of generating mutual benefit.


In his 2010 book
Cognitive Surplus:
Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age Clay Shirky observes how the Internet changes the way we spend our spare time. The so-called ‘cognitive surplus’ that used to be spent on passive activities (notably watching television) can now be used in a profoundly different way, for new kinds of creativity and problem-solving. He writes, ‘the wiring of humanity lets us treat free time as a shared global resource, and lets us design new kinds of participation and sharing that can take advantage of that resource’. (39)

Participatory Engagement projects provide us with opportunities to rethink our roles as researchers and as teachers, about our obligations to those in society who have not had the same opportunities as we have, and last, but not least, how to build meaningful, socially relevant, digital collections for our own and future generations.

Yet, these types of projects have different lifecycles, require different staffing and skills, and come with different obligations than more traditional DH projects, and many project teams are not prepared for this. This talk will explore the motivations of the public in participating in our scholarship,
 our responsibilities in inviting them as collaborators, and new ways to think about the goals, motivations, and audiences for our research.

Appendix A

  1. Boshero-Bondar, Elisa. (2016) ‘Crowdsourcing Transcription Failures. .
  2. Jay, Gregory. (2010) ‘The Engaged Humanities: Principles and Practices of Public Scholarship and Teaching’
    Imagining America. 3:1 p.51-63.
  3. Ozanne, J.L. et al. (2017) ‘Assessing the Societal Impact of Research: The Relational Engagement Approach’. ^Journal of Public Policy and Marketing. 36:1. P1-14.
  4. Reale, E, eta al. (2017) ‘A review of literature on evaluating the scientific, social and political impact of social sciences and humanities research’.
    Research Evaluation. P1-11.
  5. Ridge, Mia. (2014)
    Crowdsouring our Cultural Heritage. Farmham. Surrey: Ashgate.
  6. Shirky, Clay.
    Cognitive Surplus:
    Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. New York: Penguin Books.
  7. Watermeyer, Richard. (2014) ‘Impact in the REF: issues and obstacles’
    . Studies in Higher Education. 41:2. p199-214.

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