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