IN ONE CORNER OF THE ROOM, A STUDENT SLIPS A PIECE OF AUDIO TAPE onto a reel-to-reel tape recorder, preparing to listen to the sound of a poet’s voice from 1960s Vancouver. In another corner students translate and digitize General e Grand Estoria, the most expansive 13th-century book written in Spanish, while another student works on an augmented reality animation project that retells stories featured in South Asian scroll paintings.
These projects are three of the many taking place at UBCO’s AMP Lab, which investigates the relationship between non-digital media—like books, paintings, photographs and analog tape—to digital media such as software, websites and social media. The lab explores questions about what scholars and the general public know about digitized cultural history.
Digital humanities work involves researching, teaching and learning about the humanities in a digital context—whether that’s building and using software, websites and datasets to display information, or digitizing, preserving and using other technology-focused methods like augmented and virtual reality. This relatively new field of study—with its origins in the mid-20th century—is helping scholars develop fresh knowledge about the past and present it in dynamic new ways.
According to Dr. Emily Murphy, Assistant Professor in UBCO’s Faculty of Creative and Critical Studies and Assistant Director of the AMP Lab, when materials are digitized they are easier to access and the life span of materials increases.
“Cultural history only continues to exist if we re-engage with it and recirculate it. Digitization can help to do this: it translates cultural knowledge from one media form to another and gives us new ways to access and circulate it. It can also increase scholarly and public interest in the original, non-digital object.”
As part of a recent digital humanities course, Murphy’s students had the opportunity to re-engage with a part of society’s cultural history when they produced digital editions of the novel Dracula. Published in 1897, Dracula has special significance because it’s largely about media and technology. Characters are frequently recording themselves on phonographs, sending telegrams and transcribing and compiling documents.
“I was really proud of the quality of work they produced. This book provides a rich ground for students to examine both their own manipulation of text and their relationship to media.”
Dr. Murphy adds that the digital humanities are exciting because they help reveal the relevance of cultural questions we’re having in conversation with technologies that seem to be dominating our lives. These include podcasts, websites as well as virtual and augmented reality—just to name a few.
The AMP Lab provides a physical space for researchers to work in tandem, sharing space, having the opportunity to rub elbows, enjoy a coffee and exchange ideas.
“The AMP Lab is more than just a research hub made up of individual members, it’s a community where students, faculty and staff from the university and people from the larger public can exchange ideas and build new knowledge,” says Dr. Karis Shearer, an Associate Professor of English and Cultural Studies, and the AMP Lab’s Director.
The lab is fast becoming a hub for public digital humanities events, including noon hours talks, workshops and readings. For instance, The Tech Talk Series brings together students, faculty and industry collaborators to discuss their digital humanities research, digital tools they use or build, and the digital strategies used to address research or teaching challenges. “This series is free and open to the public,” explains Dr. Shearer.
At its core, the AMP Lab houses large research projects like SpokenWeb, a multi-year, federally funded initiative that provides access to digitized literary audio recordings in a searchable repository. Research teams from organizations across Canada are currently working on digitizing their own collections of literary recordings. These include Simon Fraser University’s documentary recordings of poetry events from across BC, works on Canadian poet Earle Birney at the University of Calgary, and the AMP Lab’s own tape collection with literary recordings donated by major Canadian writers such as Fred Wah, Sharon Thesen and George Bowering.
Dr. Shearer explains that one of the many unique aspects of the SpokenWeb project is the interdisciplinary collaboration among literary scholars who work in archives and archivists who manage collections.
“Usually we have conversations about archives separately,” she says. “This project brings together our expertise to work on digitizing, cataloguing and studying the media formats of cassette and reel-to-reel tape.”
The lab is also committed to providing undergraduate students with research opportunities and mentorship. Hiring students to work on projects and events is a central focus. Students have hosted literary events and readings as well as attended national and international conferences in collaboration with faculty researchers.
“It’s of enormous value to have a dedicated workspace like the AMP Lab for humanities research—a space where students can gain hands-on skills in digital preservation and can become part of the international research community. Internships allow students to engage creatively with archival materials, curating exhibitions or producing podcasts, for example.
“We want the lab to be a meaningful community while students are here at UBC Okanagan, as well as a launching pad for their careers; our students often go on to work in cultural heritage institutions like galleries, libraries, archives, museums or in education after completing their lab internships,” Dr. Shearer says.
The role of the library
Thanks to digital humanities, connections within the literary community are now being explored, expanded and discovered through digitized materials. Libraries, and especially archives, play an important role in this area due to the unique skills and knowledge of librarians and archivists in digitization, cataloguing, preservation as well as making artifacts searchable and accessible.
“What I find most fascinating about my role is supporting people who are interested in researching the humanities using technology like interactive websites, designing searchable databases or leveraging machine learning,” explains Mathew Vis-Dunbar, a Data and Digital Scholarship Librarian at UBCO Library.
He adds that when it comes to texts and analog material, people tend to transmit information through discourse.
“As a humanist, part of what you do is engage and interpret through discourse. And when we move into a digital environment, the way that the discourse is presented to us is often mitigated through programmatic algorithms.”
“The resources in archives have something for everyone—if there’s a history to be had in any discipline, there’s probably an archival repository out there that could provide some of that primary source insight.”
Donna Langille, a Digital Humanities Subject Librarian, has a strong focus on digital storytelling. Working closely with UBC Vancouver, Langille helped develop the Digital Toolkit Workshop Series to answer questions about tools like those used for open-source publishing and creating digital exhibits, and what may be the most appropriate one to use for a certain project. The workshops cover a number of digital tools as well as issues related to their privacy and reproducibility.
“It’s about an introduction to these tools,” she says. “So, how can we help people feel comfortable using these tools, to ask questions about them and to know what they can do with them.”
Digital archives are another area of shared focus between the digital humanities and the library. Archives, simply defined, are traces of activity.
“The cultivation of archives is one of the best institutional services for digital humanists, since they’ve been refined, interpreted and made findable to scholars and the public. This allows researchers to gather and understand potential data sets more easily, which lets them take their research further,” says Archivist Paige Hohmann.
Hohmann says any discipline can consult archives and find materials for their research. She’s spent time in classrooms across several disciplines to introduce the basics of archival research to undergraduates so they know this resource exists.
“The resources in archives have something for everyone—if there’s a history to be had in any discipline, there’s probably an archival repository out there that could provide some of that primary source insight,” Hohmann says.
In this short SpokenWeb film, Bachelor of Fine Arts alum Evan Berg merges Walt Whitman’s poetry—as read by Warren Tallman—with moving images of Vancouver’s urban and natural landscapes. Archival recordings from the SoundBox Collection in the AMP Lab were used for this project.
The digital dark ages
The work of digital humanists and archivists is never done. That’s because all files physically live on a server somewhere, and sometimes file sections fall off in what’s called “bit-rot.” Dr. Murphy explains that there’s now a need to have active preservation strategies for digital files.
“People are in what we think will be called the digital dark ages, starting from the 1990s to now. Since the beginning of the internet, so many websites have disappeared, for example,” she says.
There are sets of tools available for archivists to address bit-rot, leading to confidence in the medium-term for digital records, but it’s still an active area of research in the profession.
So what does all this mean for preserving our history? There’s a lesson here about the importance of continuing to engage with our history and the importance of the humanities, of telling stories and understanding stories, and why that matters.
“There’s value in using a humanistic lens on technology. It’s not the invasion of scientific approaches to the humanities, but rather a re-evaluation of humanities’ ways of doing things,” Dr. Murphy says.