So you want to embark on a digital research project?
But where should you start? This page contains some things that will help you consider whether you need a Digital Humanities element in your project and the decisions that this may entail. These are just pointers to help you develop the questions that you might have for the DH Hub team. You don’t need to know all the answers and you can approach us at any time, but this may help you get started.
You might be really experienced with digital humanities technologies, where digital methods and techniques are something that have been normal practice for years. You might have ideas about how to enhance your research with digital humanities but not know where to start. Or you might have no idea what we are talking about or what to do! All of this is fine, and we are here to help everyone, whatever their experience and knowledge of DH. Here are a few things to consider as you embark on a DH project.
Questions to ask when starting out
- Why are you considering digital humanities as part of your research? Make sure that any tools and methods that you use are appropriate for your research questions; the tools should enhance your research and be fully integrated into your project.
- What can digital humanities add to the research? Consider the advantages of using digital methods and tools. Can these allow you to analyse information differently? Look at more information? Do you want to display or visualise your results in a way that’s more accessible for your audience?
- What data will you be analysing? Consider the format, location and accessibility of your source material.
- What do you want to do with your source material? This will help determine the DH tools/methods you could use and how you will be able to apply them.
- Do you want to use your discipline to challenge digital technology? How will you do that? Why?
Using established tools and methods
There are many established tools and technologies, encompassing the creation of a database, encoding text etc. If you are using these approaches, your needs are relatively well served already and there is some choice of how to approach digital methodology, with models having been established by others in the past. There are a few important considerations:
Standards are established and agreed specifications and guidelines for the management of resources. Consider these carefully. There is a range of standards that have been developed by groups around e.g. text encoding, image digitisation, naming conventions etc. You should seek to use established standard wherever possible and avoid inventing new ones. This means data can be interchangeable across systems, link up with others’ data and increase the chance that the data can be preserved for the long-term. It is important to establish which standards might apply in the early planning stages of a project.
Consider who will carry out the work. Not everyone needs to learn how to encode text, for example. External services can help to build tools and outputs. A postdoc on the project may be able to carry out the work or extra training for the team members might be required; we can help you to determine the skillsets that you might be looking for in your project team. Outsourcing is a good option, but it is still useful for investigators on a project to have a good understanding of the digital part of the project so they can return to the data after the project has ended and make sensible decisions about how to take the project forward or deal with issues that might arise. It is a good idea for the PI to at least learn the basics about the method being employed.
Data collection and preservation
It is vital that the raw data can be separated from the interface used to access it. Web design will date and web pages may eventually cease to be hosted. As long as the data can be archived and accessed, it can be made available again for future researchers. You will need to consider how this should be costed into a grant or whether the institutional data repository, or a subject repository is an appropriate place to keep it once the project is complete. Ensure the data is in an appropriate format that can feed into other systems.
Where you are creating a database, is there scope or desire to link it to other pre-existing data sources? Can you make use of information that already exists rather than inventing a data source from scratch? An increasing number of datasets are available online and you may need to do some prior work to establish whether it is possible to use data that already exists. Again, it should be established at the early planning stages what you want to do with your data (e.g. a resource for other researchers to interrogate; data that can be fed into visualisation software; the basis for interactive maps) as that will determine how you construct your database.
Pushing the boundaries of the technology
Some projects go beyond using digital tools to answer research questions and are truly interdisciplinary. Humanities questions pose interesting challenges to researchers in other disciplines (e.g. computer science), since humanities data is frequently ambiguous, has gaps etc. ’Translational’ support can be useful to help computing specialists speak to the humanities researchers and bridge any gaps in language and understanding of concepts. Projects seeking to apply new concepts and technologies to humanities research may also contribute to the development of the technology itself.
Art and Humanities researchers may also use their field to challenge the ways in which digital technologies are used, thinking about issues such as accessibility, ethics and digital society. Practice-based research can ask exciting and difficult questions about digital practices. Creative approaches can bring a new perspective to digital disciplines, challenging and questioning the perceived norms.