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Digital Humanities & Artificial Intelligence Conference and Blog Series

We look forward to welcoming delegates from all over the world the to Digital Humanities Community of Practice’s Inaugural Conference on Monday 17 June 2024.

Established in September 2022, the DH CoP stands as a beacon of innovation within our university community, driving research excellence, fostering ambition, and nurturing a culture of experimentation and collaboration among all research themes. Through a diverse range of activities and initiatives, the CoP aims to increase awareness and understanding of DH within the University, while enhancing its national and international profile in the field. The CoP serves as a platform for open dialogue on DH issues, facilitates the exchange of expertise, and provides essential support for both ongoing and prospective projects. Through networking events, methodological workshops, grant development support, and training sessions (in collaboration with the DH Hub) as well as fostering internal research synergies and cultivating external partnerships, the DH CoP serves as a cornerstone for the advancement of digital scholarship and collaborative research at Reading.

As we convene for this landmark event, we celebrate the culmination of our collective efforts in shaping a vibrant and dynamic DH landscape. The conference theme aligns with the DH CoP’s mission and invites us to explore the rich intersections between Digital Humanities and Artificial Intelligence. Reflecting on Reading’s research strengths in Cultural Heritage, Ethics and Synthetic Media, our discussions promise to illuminate pathways, challenge conventional boundaries, and inspire innovative research. View conference programme

We are thrilled that the conference is sold out! For those who were unable to book a place, don’t worry – you can still follow the day’s events on our social media channels, including our X account @UniRdg_Research, using the conference hashtag #DHAIUoR.

Additionally, throughout the summer, we will be hosting a blog series featuring snapshots from the research presented at the conference. Stay tuned for more exciting content!

From Discovering Digital Humanities to Digital Humanities Officer

by Dawn Kanter

It’s a pleasure to have joined the University of Reading last month as Digital Humanities (DH) Officer. I’ll be working as part of the Digital Humanities Hub, which combines expertise in different teams across the University in order to support research that falls within the broad and dynamic discipline of DH.

The first DH project that I became interested in – or at least, the first I recognised as DH – was the UK Reading Experience Database (UK RED). The UK RED collates records of experiences of reading in Britain or by British subjects between 1450 and 1945. It includes information both about the experiences themselves (for example, who was reading) and about our evidence of them (for example, who recorded the reading experience). The former (information about reading) can be understood as data and the latter (information about information about reading) as metadata. I was fascinated by this systematic approach to something as complex and subjective as the experience of reading, not least because it has enabled researchers to examine, for example, how reading has changed over time.

 

Screenshot of the UK Reading Experience Database, https://www.open.ac.uk/Arts/reading/UK/

 

At the time that I discovered the UK RED, I was employed at the National Portrait Gallery (NPG), digitising textual information about portraits so that it could be served online. In the course of doing so, I discovered several accounts of portrait sittings: the moments of interaction between artists, sitters and sometimes others, from which portraits are typically produced. The accounts interested me because they gave insight into the social dimension of portrait practice. They spoke of the circumstances which prompted portrait production, the conversations that took place during sittings, and the thoughts and feelings of participants. However, this information could not be searched, analysed or compared systematically. Whereas I could search the gallery’s collections database for all paintings, I could not retrieve all portraits produced between friends, for example. (This focus on tangible cultural objects as opposed to intangible cultural events is not unique to the NPG, but rather characteristic of digital approaches to cultural heritage more broadly.)

‘Elizabeth [Garrett Anderson] wished to be painted in her M.D. gown. [John Singer] Sargent begged for some jewellery, so she added a pearl necklace costing sixpence.’ Biography of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson by Jo Manton (1965)

‘I [Alfred Hitchcock] sold [a script] to … [Michael] Balcon, for five hundred pounds. But I was so ashamed of the profit that I had the sculptor Jacob Epstein do a bust of Balcon with the money.’ Interview with Alfred Hitchcock by Francois Truffaunt (1966)

‘During our time together we discussed … music … I [Frank Salisbury] said my favourite piece … was Handel’s “Largo”. He [Henry Wood] said at once, “It is mine also.” [The] next day he brought his [sheet] music, and … I painted it into the portrait.’ Autobiography of Frank Salisbury (1953)

Excerpts from accounts of sittings for portraits of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Michael Balcon and Henry Wood.

I went on to devise a PhD research project, which explored how the methodology of the UK RED (and other, albeit exceptional, experience databases such as the Listening Experience Database) could be applied to address the portrait-sitting experience. As part of the research, I considered such questions as: What constitutes portrait-sitting data? What would be the value of such data? What could it tell us about portraiture and portrait practice? Specifically, I examined a period in the history of British art (1900-1960) in which there was supposedly a dramatic shift in portrait practice and function – from commissioned portraiture that affirmed the sitter’s position in society, to artists’ experiments in shape, space and colour that happen to take people as subjects. I used a database of portrait sittings to test – and present an alternative to – this narrative, to support new groupings of portraits, and to propose a new periodisation of portraiture. (Links to the forthcoming thesis and other related resources appear here.)

 

 

Screenshot of the Portrait-Sitting Database, https://portrait-sitting.co.uk/

 

One thing that I particularly enjoyed about this research was the capacity of digital and computational approaches to surprise me and to suggest new research questions. For example, I was surprised by how many portrait sittings involved exchanges of personal gifts. This led me to question the significance of such gifts and whether they were used, alongside portraits, in other periods. More generally, I am excited by what comes from combining the order and process of computing with the ambiguity and often-hidden complexity of humanities ‘data’ – and by the question of whether these disciplines are, in fact, so different and distinct. I look forward to exploring these matters further in the course of my role as Digital Humanities Officer, and to working with experienced colleagues across departments to support research in this field.

CFP: DIGITIAL HUMANITIES AND ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE

CFP

DIGITAL HUMANITIES & ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE

One-Day Conference at the University of Reading

17 June, 2024

 

Keynote Speaker:

Dr Barbara McGillivray

(King’s College London)

 

We invite scholars, researchers, and practitioners to participate in a focused exploration of the intersections between Digital Humanities (DH) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) at a one-day conference at the University of Reading.

The conference will feature three distinct strands, each proving a unique perspective on the evolving landscape of DH-AI:

 

Strand 1: Cultural Heritage

  • Explore the role of artificial intelligence in preserving, interpreting, and making accessible cultural heritage.
  • Discuss innovative projects and technologies that digitise, catalog, and safeguard cultural artifacts and historical sites.
  • Examine the impact of AI on the study and dissemination of cultural heritage.

 

Strand 2: Ethics

  • Delve into the ethical considerations and challenges posed by the use of AI in Digital Humanities.
  • Discuss issues of bias, representation, and inclusivity in AI-driven research and projects
  • Explore strategies and best practices for ensuring ethical AI applications in the digital humanities

 

Strand 3: Synthetic Media

  • Investigate the creative potential of AI-generated content, such as art, music, literature and virtual environments.
  • Showcase projects that leverage synthetic media for storytelling, cultural expression, and education.
  • Examine the ethical and cultural implications of AI-generated content in the Digital Humanities.

 

We welcome submissions in the following formats:

  • Individual research papers
  • Panel Proposals

 

Please submit your proposal by 20 January, 2024 following the guidelines below.

 

The conference will also lay the groundwork for a special edition of Digital Humanities Quarterly. If you are unable to attend the conference, but want to contribute to the DHQ special edition, please send your abstract by 30 July, 2024. See guidelines below for further details.

 

 

Guidelines for Submission & Timeline

Please submit your abstract (250 words) including a brief biography (200 words), affiliation and email address to DH-AI-Conference@reading.ac.uk by 20 January, 2024.

 

CONFERENCE DATE: Monday 17 June, 2024

 

Abstract Submission Deadline: 20 January, 2024

Notification of Acceptance: 15 February, 2024

Program and Registration opens: 1 March, 2024

Registration closes: 1 May, 2024

Abstract Submission for DHQ Special Issue: 30 July, 2024

Article Submission Deadline: 1 December 2024

Submission to DHQ: 15 January 2025

 

This is a free event sponsored by the Digital Humanities CoP at the University of Reading. Places are limited and registration is required.

For any inquiries, please contact the organising committee at

DH-AI-Conference@reading.ac.uk

 

 

Organising Committee:

 

Dr Mara Oliva, Associate Professor in History and DH Champion

Dr Dominic Lees, Associate Professor in Film, Theatre and Television and Steering Committee Member of Synthetic Media Research Network

Dr Jumbly Grindrod, Lecturer in Philosophy

Professor James Ferryman, Professor of Computational Vision

Dr Rachel Lewis, Research Development Manager for Heritage & Creativity

Dr Bonhi Bhattacharya, Senior Research Manager for Environment and Agriculture and Food and Health

Digitising Collections

Adam Lines, Collections Academic Liaison Officer

Caroline Gould, Principal Archivist

Claire Clough, UMASCS Librarian

 

Digitisation is becoming an ever-important aspect of the way collections are managed and shared. Colleagues at The Museum of English Rural Life and the University of Reading Special Collections  hosted an audience of colleagues recently, eager to learn more about their work in this area. Here’s a short summary of the insights and advice they shared.  

Caroline Gould welcoming colleagues to the Digitisation workshop

 

Why do we digitise? 

  • To provide a visual aid on the collections catalogue so that researchers can see the item when they search.  
  • To provide access to slides and negatives in our reading room that are a little too delicate for regular handling.  
  • To preserve items of financial or historical significance that would otherwise be damaged by overuse.  

How do we digitise?  

We have a host of different equipment for digitisation. Some we’ve had for a long time and some we were lucky enough to acquire through recent AHRC funding to provide sustainable digital infrastructures.

 

One of our digitisation suites is dominated by a camera and mount which allows us to photograph flat items as well as bound volumes up to A1 size. It was a huge investment but has meant that we have been able to undertake a huge amount of digitisation in-house rather than paying large amounts of money for external companies to do it. We’ve recently added a portable A3 size version of this setup at our offsite store so that collections can be digitised there without being transported back to The MERL. 

 

                                                    

We have a flatbed scanner that enables us to scan 35mm negative strips as well as medium format negatives. We also have a specially built slide scanner with a mounted camera, and a microfilm/fiche scanner.  We do sometimes use a professional photographer, especially for large documents. This ensures we get the best image possible, which is crucial for exhibitions and commercial use. 

 

Our digitisation work also extends to other formats. Our new audio-visual rack has VHS, cassette and minidisc players all connected to a powerful PC to capture and edit this content. We are busy drawing up procedures and guides so that more staff on the team can use the equipment.  

 

How do we store and share? 

The way we store and share digitised content has changed considerably over the years.  

We used to store all the images we took on CDs, but these will become obsolete and are not the most secure medium. We’ve also backed up digitised content on university drives and servers, but these files can be easily deleted by staff by mistake.  

 

We have now progressed onto a digital asset management system (DAMS). The advantage of using a DAMS is you must have permission to delete digital assets so it’s more secure and you can search for images using keywords which you can’t do on a shared drive. Our Virtual Reading Room  is an online portal where we securely provide access to digitised content to researchers around the world. 

 

Exhibitions and Research 

Online exhibitions enable us to enhance the visibility of our collections and tell stories about them. They offer a visual and digital output for collections-based research projects. They are built around images, audio and video content with captions added to them. We have a variety of visually appealing ways to structure these exhibitions depending on the desired audience and aims.

 

These exhibitions are hosted on our collection websites which act as a portal for sharing content from across the different collections. (For examples see https://merl.reading.ac.uk/explore/online-exhibitions/ or https://collections.reading.ac.uk/special-collections/online-exhibitions/) 

We have templates and guides for these should you be interested in creating a collections-related online exhibition. Our usual expectation is that the content is provided to us by the researcher or academic and collections staff upload this to the website, depending on what staffing resource is available.  

What are the challenges and demands? 

Digitisation is more than just the act of digitising. Staff have to be trained on equipment, retrieve collection items, investigate copyright issues and rights information, as well as process and store the resulting files. We don’t have a dedicated role for digitisation at present and rely on externally funded projects or fitting work around other core responsibilities.  

Many items are covered by copyright which lasts for 70 years after the death of the creator or 31 December 2039 – whichever is sooner. These are just some of the considerations we must factor into the decision to digitise.  

Want to incorporate digitisation into your research proposal? Here are some things to consider. 

Get in touch with us before you get funding for a research project. That way, we can advise you on the practicalities of digitising certain material. We may not – due to copyright and rights issues – be able to digitise and share the content. There might be some material we don’t have the right equipment to digitise. But we are always interested in talking to colleagues about the role we can play in digital humanities projects. 

Email us: merl@reading.ac.uk or specialcollections@reading.ac.uk  

 

 

 

10 years in: Reflections on building the Modernist Archives Publishing Project (MAPP)

By Nicola Wilson

 

This year, MAPP marks its tenth anniversary.

By improving access to publishers’ archives, MAPP aims to put publishers back into the teaching and research of modernism. Its been the first DH project to try and reanimate book production by linking archival objects to the people involved in making the books. Now a decade in, we’ve reached some important milestones, and have lots of activity going on.

Next month, MAPP’s digital archivist – Helena Clarkson, based in UoR’s Special Collections – will find out if we’ve won the ‘Openness in Research’ category in the internal Research and Engagement awards for work she’s been doing with public volunteers to transcribe digitised correspondence in MAPP’s online collection. We have always worked collaboratively with different groups in building MAPP – including students, archivists, and librarians primarily – but the opportunity to work with public volunteers over this last year and get them working with research materials to ‘co-create’ the site has been really exciting for us as a research team.

One of our Graduate Research Assistants from the University of Oregon is currently in New York working with the Berg Library curator on scoping parts of their collections to include in the site. Another is working with colleagues at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin to add digitised images from the correspondence of Jenny Bradley (an important literary agent) that we’ve finally achieved permissions for from a copyright holder in France… Meanwhile, I’m exploring Follow-on Funding (our AHRC grant will finish next February), as other project directors are busy training new Undergraduate Research Assistants for summer projects with the team; experimenting with feminist data visualisations; depositing csv files in institutional data repositories and integrating our metadata with our library partners’ catalogues; proofing born-digital biographies to prepare for integration into ModsNets (our academic field’s data aggregator). Another project director is planning next year’s international conference in Edmonton, Canada. We hope to launch our new co-edited book, The Edinburgh Companion to Women in Publishing, 1900-2000 (EUP, 2024) at this too.

MAPP is always fun, rewarding, and challenging. But it’s also a lot. And a lot of the work that goes on behind-the-scenes to build and sustain an international, collaborative DH project like this still often isn’t recognised.

We like to talk about work and process on MAPP. Last year we collaborated on an open access article for Archival Science, ‘Digital Critical Archives, Copyright, and Feminist Praxis’, which explored links between research and methods: how building the site now – working in collaboration with archivists and international library partners, the challenges of complying with copyright and chasing estate clearance for unpublished archival documents – has helped us reflect on the contents of our site, and particularly the unrecognised labour of a whole host of women press workers, previously not named (and therefore, not discoverable) in the paper archive.

Laura Mandell and others working in feminist DH and bibliography have long argued that feminist digital projects must perform structural work in advancing a feminist intervention at both systemic and conceptual levels. I’ve always been inspired by Jacqueline Wernimont’s writing and we’ve seen MAPP as part of a broader shift in the contemporary landscape of book history, archival studies, library and information science, and critical digital humanities that foregrounds gender, labour and affect, as in Wermimont and Losh’s co-edited Bodies of Information (2018) and D’Ignazio and Klein’s Data Feminism (2020).

For us on MAPP, recognising the previously unknown labour of female publishing staff is an essential component of our scholarly intervention, and we’ve developed expanded metadata fields to capture the group of (almost entirely women) typists and secretaries who remain unacknowledged in the historical record. Similarly, making visible and legible the labour involved in clearing copyright in the creation of digital archives today highlights the often under-recognised labour of archivists in preparing historical materials for digital presentation (we have employed a full-time member of staff to manage copyright and permissions workflows). In this way, we’ve tried to show how our data model and scholarly foundations reflects our own investment in critical feminist praxis.

It might seem odd that we’ve focussed on writing while building MAPP (in early DH debates this used to be framed yacking while hacking). But for us the collaborative writing and thinking has helped sustain relationships and invest in our creativity. Initially we saw the writing as part of our efforts towards sustainability, and even where co-authored publications are less valuable for systems like the REF, I get so much out of thinking together that I wouldn’t give up this way of working. Even in the last five years, we’ve come a long way since we wrote a collaborative book: Scholarly Adventures in Digital Humanities: Building the Modernist Archives Publishing Project (2017).

If we had our time again, I might do things differently. Its striking how many research projects now work towards sharing metadata or communicating the research in other ways rather than trying to create or provide a ‘new’ archive of digitised research materials. This is the advice I give to ECRs and postdocs now: if you are dealing with complex archival material – C20 or later, still in copyright, or unpublished (copyright remains in unpublished documents far longer than for published records) consider why and what you want to share or make available, and will you need more people onboard to realistically achieve those goals? If not, there’s lots of other things you can do research-wise, or with other tools. On MAPP, we’ve only been able to get so far as we have done thanks to continued institutional support and investment from different funding agencies (especially the Canadian SSHRC and now the AHRC), that has helped sustain and support a big team.

MAPP is now in its second frontend iteration, following a major revamp and work with a UX team last year. Let’s see where the next decade brings us!

The Modernist Archives Publishing Project is funded by an AHRC New Directions for Digital Scholarship in Cultural Institutions Grants (2021-4) (following a UoR REFT project award 2019-21) and a Canadian SSHRC Grant (2020-25). For a full list of sponsors and library partners see our Funders and Partners.

Digital Humanities and Heritage in Iraq

Dr Amy Richardson

On this blog in December, Mara Oliva raised the significant problem of “digital disparity”. In this blog, I want to revisit this issue, which is significant in Iraq where 59% of young people lack the digital skills required for employment. This gap is even more significant for women, only 51% of whom have access to internet, compared with 98% of men in Iraq. Over the past decade, we have been working with our colleagues in Iraq to address the gap in digital provision, through capacity building and amplifying voices in digital heritage.

Since the invasion of 2003, we have seen regular stories in the news about the looting of the Iraq Museum and the increased black-market in antiquities. The damage to Iraq’s heritage was compounded by the actions of ISIS in 2014, whose deliberate destruction of cultural heritage sites was an attack on the cultural rights of communities. In response to these acts, the international heritage community rallied to find digital approaches that could mitigate some of the damage through digital reconstructions and 3D printing of lost monuments. Reflecting on the state of heritage in Iraq in the post-conflict period, priorities have now shifted towards investment in infrastructure and skills-training to support and strengthen Iraq’s heritage sector, particularly through Iraqi-led projects and support for cultural heritage protection measures.

Testing a virtual reality (VR) experience in Sulaimaniyah, Kurdistan Region, Iraq (photo credit: Wendy Matthews)

In the long term, conflict is only one of the risks threatening the future of Iraq’s more than 17,000 heritage sites. Climate change, development and neglect all have a detrimental impact on cultural and natural heritage. At present, three of Iraq’s six UNESCO World Heritage sites have been included on the List of World Heritage in Danger. Together with Roger Matthews and Wendy Matthews in Archaeology at the University of Reading, I have been working with project partners in Iraq to develop resources for Heritage and Eco-tourism for Sustainable Development in Iraqi Kurdistan. In a recent survey on heritage in Iraqi Kurdistan, stakeholders noted current barriers in access to information about local heritage. To tackle this disparity, we are co-creating heritage guides in English, Arabic and Kurdish, available as both physical and digital resources, to ensure free and fair access to knowledge in the region. In partnership with the Slemani Museum, the Directorate for Antiquities and Heritage Sulaimaniyah, and Dr Rozhen Kamal Mohammed-Amin from the Cultural Heritage Organization, we have been developing augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) experiences to encourage sustainable engagement with the rich cultural and natural heritage of the region. Rozhen and her team have been at the forefront of AR and VR development in Iraq, working with minority rights groups to develop apps and VR experiences to develop empathy and understanding of the experiences of the persecuted Yazidi ethnic minority who were subjected to war crimes.

App development for a digital and augmented reality (AR) experience in the Slemani Museum, Kurdistan Region, Iraq (photo credit: Cultural Heritage Organization)

Knowledge exchange in digital heritage forms a core part of our projects. In recent years, there have been increasing calls on archaeological teams to prioritise building in training for Iraqi counterparts in the heritage sector. We have been working with colleagues in Iraq and Iran building capacity in digital skills, including training in digital recording techniques for the MENTICA project (such as databases, GIS, photogrammetry) and in new technologies for heritage protection, building gender balance into all our initiatives. We have committed to Open Access publishing our research, working with the Archaeology Data Service to ensure FAIR data principles are embedded in our practice, releasing both our results and the underlying data.

 

3D point-cloud for a proto-cuneiform clay tablet (Jemdet Nasr, Iraq, c. 3100 BC) (photo credit: Amy Richardson)

Open Research approaches are embedded in a new project, starting February 2023. Working with colleagues in the Vorderasiatisches Museum, Roger Matthews and I are examining the origins of bureaucracy. This project applies digital humanities and scientific approaches to clay objects involved in the administration of the first cities in Mesopotamia between 3,700 and 2,700 BC, including some of the earliest written documents in the world. Digital imaging of objects can reveal traces of the people who shaped the clay, such as the fingerprints of the men, women and children worked together to organise communities in the ancient world. Through network analysis, we are exploring the connections that people made and how they collaborated to shape society. The results of the project will form the basis of an online exhibition in 2026, as well as an Open Access database. This project aims to improve digital access to museum collections and unite fragmented collections, where the material from sites in Iraq has been distributed between different museums, and indeed different countries.

 

 

Through sustained collaboration at every level, digital disparity in Iraq is narrowing. International and governmental initiatives are developing strategies for the digital landscape of Iraq. NGOs and makerspaces are providing support for startups, delivering training in IT skills and business management. Organisations such as 51 Labs  and the Cultural Heritage Organization are embedding social responsibility at the heart of their mission to foster grass roots opportunities. People in Iraq are building a new digital future for themselves and it is one deeply embedded in heritage, sustainability and new technology.

 

Amy Richardson is a Senior Research Fellow in Archaeology. Her work is supported by the European Research Council (MENTICA: grant no. 797264) and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (HESDIK: grant no. AH/W006790/1; States of Clay: grant no.AH/X001717/1). Amy is a University of Reading Open Research Champion.

ChatGPT and The Philosophy of Linguistic Meaning

Dr Jumbly Grindrod, Lecturer in Philosophy

 

Image produced by Dall-E

 

Me: Write a captivating opening sentence of a blog piece about philosophy of language and large language models.

 ChatGPT: “Imagine a machine that can understand and produce language as well as a human, if not better: this is the reality of large language models, and with it comes a new frontier in the philosophy of language, raising questions about the nature of meaning, understanding and the relationship between language and thought.”

ChatGPT did a better job than I could of writing the opening sentence for this blog post.

It is results like this that justify the considerable buzz around large language models. These models seem to possess incredible abilities to produce extended text in response to brief prompts – they can write code, limericks, stories, competent essays, and even engage in conversation. (If you haven’t yet tried playing with one, ChatGPT is probably the best place to start).

I work in the philosophy of language, and the success of these models has made me reflect on whether digging into the way they work might tell us something about the nature of language and linguistic meaning. So how do these models work?

At their heart, these large language models draw on a way of thinking about meaning known as distributional semantics. Distributional semantics treats the meaning of a word as its distribution across a large body of text or set of texts. To capture what “dog” means for instance, you capture in which sentences it turns up and those in which it doesn’t. Typically, this is done by representing the distribution of each word with an ordered list of numbers that corresponds in some way to its distribution. The simplest method (e.g. for “dog”) is to list, for every word, how often “dog” appears next to that word. The ordered list would then represent the distribution of “dog”. (If you would like to see this approach in action, I have a Google Colab notebook where you can run some code yourself that produces these lists.) An ordered list of numbers can also be understood as a vector (i.e. a line in a space defined by its magnitude and direction), with each number in the list giving a coordinate along a dimension. Every word then would have a vector that occupies some part of a high-dimensional space. It is for this reason that this approach is often referred to as vector space semantics. You can see one of these spaces represented here. A clear benefit of understanding meaning in this way is that the distribution of a word can be automatically computed from very large bodies of text, even when the text has absolutely no accompanying information. This makes the approach highly scalable, which partly accounts for its success.

The way each word is represented is highly interdependent on its relationships with all other words. If we take that vector for “dog” mentioned earlier, the exact vector it ends up with depends on its distributional relations to all other words in the text. For this reason, in philosophy we would describe this as a holistic approach to capturing meaning. It is holistic insofar as the meaning of each word is dependent on its relationships with all other words.

There has been very little discussion of distributional semantics in philosophy. But there has been a great deal of discussion about holism, and it is fair to say that it doesn’t have the best reputation. There have been a number of arguments given as to why holistic accounts of meaning don’t work. Chief among them is the so-called instability objection. The idea is that if the meaning of a word depended on its relationships with the meaning of all other words, its meaning would change when the meaning of any one of those other words change. So a change in the meaning of one word would change the meaning of every other word. But this just doesn’t seem to be the case for words in a language. The meaning of one word can change while others remain the same, and words can be introduced or lost without affecting the meaning of others. The fact that we gained the word “Brexit” around 2014 didn’t lead to a wholesale change in meaning across our vocabulary—maybe it affected the meaning of “Europe”, but I haven’t noticed any change in the meaning of “kettle” or “University” or “the”.

In our recent work, Nat Hansen (Reading), J.D. Porter (Stanford) and I have investigated whether this instability objection applies to the distributional view behind large language models. We provide a defence of the distributional view on two fronts. First, we clarify the way that meaning is represented in these large language models. We argue that meaning there is best understood differentially, and that this can help disarm some of the instability objections that have been raised in the philosophical literature. Briefly put, the idea is that word meanings are defined directly in terms of their relations to other words, rather than in terms of the specific vector space that we construct. Second, we created our own language models in order to explore how word vectors change as we expand the corpus that the models are built from. In this way, we can explore just how unstable these models of language meaning actually are. We argue that there are in fact impressive levels of stability in these models, and the change that you do see occur can be made good sense of. What instability these models display is really better thought of as sensitivity to subtle shifts in meaning – it is a feature rather than a bug!

The holistic nature of these models is no barrier to taking these models seriously as capturing meaning in a language. We hope to show that beyond their astonishing ability to produce fluent text in a huge variety of genres, they can function as philosophical tools for cracking open classic questions about the nature of meaning in new ways.

Jumbly Grindrod, J.D. Porter, and Nat Hansen’s paper on distributional semantics and holism is currently at a draft stage for a forthcoming volume titled “Communication with AI – Philosophical Perspectives” edited by Rachel Sterken and Herman Cappelen.

Jumbly Grindrod’s paper on “Distributional theories of meaning” is currently in preparation for a forthcoming volume titled “Experimental Philosophy of Language”, edited by David Bordonaba-Plou.

Do we all need to be Digital Humanists?

In my role as Digital Humanities (DH) Academic Champion, I promote an understanding of DH within the University of Reading and I lead the Community of Practice.

One of the questions that colleagues ask me most frequently is whether DH is a discipline or a set of methods. To me, DH is both. It is a discipline in its own right that critically studies how digital technologies and methods intersect with humanities scholarship. It also applies such technologies and methods to answer interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research questions. In doing so, DH unveils new pathways of innovative and creative thinking.

As Lara Putman explains in her 2016 ground-breaking article, “The Transnational and the Text-Searchable: Digitized Sources and the Shadows They Cast”, DH has opened up new and more complex research questions in a range of disciplines and it has made collaborative and interdisciplinary research possible. DH tools make us think differently about our data (and yes, we all have data!). These can uncover patterns in our data that would be difficult to infer without such tools. They can also help us to represent and communicate ideas in different ways. In this sense, as Jeffrey Schnapp has argued, DH is not a continuation of humanist traditions. It is disruptive. It makes us rethink how we understand the humanities.

Do we all need to turn into digital humanists then? Of course not! Though, to paraphrase Ian Milligan, if we are not all digital humanists, we are all digitized humanists. Not all research projects require digital tools to answer their questions and DH’s aim is not to replace the traditional humanities. Quite the contrary, in this scenario the role of the humanist becomes even more essential.

As scholars, however, we all have a professional duty to engage with the broader debates surrounding DH as a discipline. Technology has always been central to the constitution of what we call “the human,” but DH cannot be imported into the humanities without criticism and self-reflection. We need to understand the impact that the Digital Age is having on our research practice and learning environment.

While DH can help address new, big and complex questions, it can also generate political and social inequality, what Gerben Zaagsma calls “digital disparity.” DH is a very expensive business and requires considerable financial and infrastructural support. Digitization processes, documentation storage, and projects’ sustainability (including environmental sustainability), to name a few, are all costly activities. No wonder so many public-private partnerships are increasingly driving these activities. What are the implications? How are these partnerships shaping access to resources? How inclusive are these processes? And what about research ethics?

Given its cost, DH has almost exclusively been the domain of the rich Global North and English has been its dominant language. What happens to those individuals, communities or countries who don’t have the financial resources necessary to access this digital world? Or don’t speak English? For me, as a historian, this raises one fundamental question: Who is going to tell their story?

Without conscious engagement, we are at risk of generating new archival silences and new forms of colonialism. We all, therefore, have a responsibility to become more digitally literate to understand the implications and the appropriateness of these methods. Regardless of whether we want to use DH methods in our research or not, we need to be aware of how technology is shaping the creation and dissemination of knowledge so that we can ensure that this process remains as transparent as possible and accessible to as many as possible. We owe it to future generations of students and colleagues

 

Dr Mara Oliva, FHEA

Associate Professor in Modern US history

Digital Humanities Champion, University of Reading

Peer Review Editor at Digital Humanities Quarterly

Reading’s Digital Humanities Hub: Innovation, Collaboration & Sustainability

Professor Roberta Gilchrist, Research Dean, introduces the University of Reading’s new Digital Humanities Hub

 

In 2022, the University of Reading launched its Digital Humanities Hub, a collaborative in-house project to create a sustainable base for Digital Humanities (DH).  Creation of the hub marks an important milestone in the development of DH at Reading, enabling us to transition from individual projects and pockets of expertise to a thriving Community of Practice supported by a cross-service professional team.  It also marks a landmark for me personally, as the culmination of six years of advocacy and pilot work in DH at Reading.  During this time, I’ve worked with colleagues to survey the needs of academic researchers, trialled approaches to skills development, raised digital awareness and ambition among researchers, and applied successfully for internal funding to develop the DH Hub in collaboration with the University Library.  I’ve shaped our DH programme around our shared values: Innovation, Collaboration and Sustainability.

I championed DH through my role as Research Dean for Heritage & Creativity, the University research theme that spans nine Arts & Humanities disciplines.  But the project has also been a personal journey for me, a means of engaging closely with the diversity of research questions and methods encompassed by the Heritage & Creativity Theme.  I took up the challenge early in my tenure as Dean, when a senior researcher in English Literature asked: ‘what are you going to do about Digital Humanities?’  I had no easy answer to offer.  I could see that Reading lacked centralised support for DH, but I had limited understanding of the existing needs and potential benefits of DH.  My own research sits within the discipline of Archaeology, which draws on a huge range of digital methods.  However, archaeologists regard these as tools to address specific archaeological questions, rather than identifying or aligning ourselves with DH as a wider discipline.  My research had involved the co-creation of complex databases of archaeological evidence, including medieval monastic burials (2005) and the antiquarian excavation records and finds from Glastonbury Abbey (2015).  I had ample experience of the digital, but I hadn’t reflected on the idea of DH as a discipline that could enrich my research questions and theoretical approaches.

What could DH do for me as a sceptical archaeologist?  Engaging with DH encouraged and informed my current research on medieval artefacts from the UK Portable Antiquities Scheme, which records public finds reported by hobbyist metal-detectorists.  Since the scheme was established in 1997, over 1.5 million artefacts have been recorded.  The data is extremely challenging for archaeologists to understand because it’s shaped by localised patterns both today and in the past, ranging from physical factors such as soil conditions, historical factors including regional differences in access to markets and cultural behaviours, to contemporary social relationships between detectorists and archaeologists.  A range of spatial-statistical methods facilitate analysis of PAS data, but the real breakthrough comes from understanding its ‘characterful’ qualities, ie the diverse human histories, structures and uncertainties involved in its creation (ie the ‘humanities’ bit of DH, paraphrasing Cooper and Green 2016).  Looking beyond their own datasets, archaeologists are now engaging increasingly with social and ethical questions as well as with methods arising from the Digital Humanities.  An excellent example is Chiara Bonacchi’s work on Heritage and Nationalism, utilising social media big data to investigate political identities and public engagement with heritage.

DH encourages innovation in Arts & Humanities research through interdisciplinary cross-fertilisation, such as the example above of a heritage researcher borrowing methods from Corpus Linguistics.  The exchange of methods between disciplines can open-up entirely new research questions and areas of enquiry, as shown by the adoption of GIS (Geographical Information Systems) to explore spatial questions in historical and literary research.  Examples include the Literary Atlas of Wales, using GIS to map geographical references to real and imagined places in Welsh fiction, combining historical, cultural, and sociological information about these localities, and Mapping Medieval Chester, an interdisciplinary exploration of how medieval people imagined and represented their city.

Ambitious DH projects such as these require an ethos of collaboration and the sharing of skills across disciplines.  No single person possesses the skills to successfully deliver a complex, interdisciplinary, DH project.  The ever-increasing sophistication of digital research demands teamwork and collaboration, nudging the Arts & Humanities into new collaborations, for example with research software engineers, commercial technologists and creative entrepreneurs.  DH requires a certain amount of risk-taking, the courage to try new methods, work with new people and to think about your research in new ways.  Our DH initiative is designed to provide Arts & Humanities researchers with the intellectual space, tools and confidence to take a leap of faith, to explore new ideas, take methodological risks and to put innovation, collaboration and sustainability at the heart of our research.

Professor Roberta Gilchrist

Research Dean, University of Reading