The teachings of the West African porcupine

Timo Steyer

After three years of collaboration, humanities scholars and IT experts from the Digital Humanities Research Collaboration held their closing conference in Göttingen. Timo Steyer from the Marbach Weimar Wolfenbüttel Research Association (MWW) took part and discovered much common ground with his work at the MWW.

Semantic web technologies enable different resources to be connected virtually. See for example this description of the West African porcupine as part of the Semantic Blumenbach project. The image is taken from Dr Jörg Wettlaufer's Powerpoint presentation about the project. Available at: [Viewed: 05.06.2015]

What do Twitter analyses, high-voltage physics, virtual cabinets of curiosities and content regulation have in common? At least one thing: all these subjects were dealt with in Digital Humanities Research Collaboration (DHFV) projects. This research collaboration includes the Göttingen Research Campus and the Herzog August Library Wolfenbüttel.

The DHFV, which is funded by the Lower Saxony Ministry for Science and Culture, brings historians, philologists, political scientists and sociologists together with computer scientists and programmers to address research questions by applying Digital Humanities approaches and methods. The DHFV has also established a Digital Humanities teaching programme at the University of Göttingen.

No way back

Following a three-year funding period, the project was reviewed at the #Digital Humanities in Practice conference, which took place at Göttingen State and University Library on the 1st June 2015. The conference not only showed the diversity of themes and content in this collaboration, but it also revealed how cooperation between different disciplines facilitated innovative solutions to research questions based on digital data.

The DHFV had decided not to set up its own virtual research environment; however, the relationship between research in the humanities and digital infrastructures was discussed extensively at the conference. The literary scholar and Göttingen professor, Gerhard Lauer stressed that whilst Digital Humanities would not be possible without digital infrastructures, such infrastructures could not be established effectively without the involvement of researchers.

The general consensus amongst participants was that the influence of Digital Humanities on research was irreversible. At the same time, there was agreement that Digital Humanities must take into account the particular characteristics of each discipline.

Exemplary teamwork

Göttingen information architect, Fabian Kremer and information scientist Oliver Schmitt described the exemplary teamwork and coordination of researchers and Digital Humanities scholars at the DHFV. The results of the individual projects presented demonstrated the benefits of this collaboration.

This positive appraisal can be confirmed by experiences on MWW projects. Digital Humanities have facilitated the development of academic catalogues for the early modern era as part of the Writers’ Libraries Writers´ Librariesresearch project, which involved the use of existing bibliographic metadata.

New research avenues

The importance of communication and mutual understanding between disciplines and the recognition of their different working methods also became evident at the Göttingen conference. This was equally applicable to the sustainable management of research data, a process which begins with the collection of data and extends though to the evaluation, distribution and long-term archiving of that data.

As semantic web technologies will also play an important role in the development of the MWW's virtual research space, the presentation on text-object relationships in the Semantic Blumenbach project particularly interesting. This project involved the digitalisation of selected publications by the Göttingen professor and anthopological founder, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1849), as well as of objects from natural history collections. These digitalised texts and objects were developed using metadata and were linked by semantic descriptions. In this way different resources (text, object and image) are connected virtually presenting researchers with new avenues and approaches to the material. An example of this can be seen in the above description of the West African porcupine.

Productive and interdisciplinary

The MWW Research Association takes a similar approach; as a result, digital information units, which were previously considered disparate, can be represented and edited collectively. Most notably, this includes the MWW institutes' academic and specialised databases.

The fascinating discussions and exchanges of ideas which rounded off the conference were evidence of how productive interdisciplinary interaction between specialist disciplines and Digital Humanities can be, and of how much research associations in this field can learn from one another.