Digital Humanities in Spanish?

¿Humanidades digitales en español?

Original publication date: 06/2010

Juan Luis Suárez Tr. EN: Élika Ortega

Before entering a brief discussion of what is and isn’t Digital Humanities, I’d like to highlight their importance—even when we don’t know what we are talking about—pointing out the three pillars which jointly, keep the building standing: technology, research, humanism. Digital technology constitutes the most important lever of the social changes that we have witnessed in the past couple of decades, and will continue to be so at least for a while. Technology has always been involved in major changes in economic and social structures, but the most important aspect of this digital technology is that it is, above all, a communications and cultural technology: the traditional realms of action of Humanism. The coming of the digital galaxy, on the Internet or any other medium (books, music, film, education, patrimony, archives…) implies a reorganization of cultural practices and requires new tools and concepts in order to understand them and be able to explain them to the society in which humanists work. This takes us to the second of our pillars: research. If technology has already impacted our lives by means of computers, smartphones, and social networks, research has not yet done it to the extent that it should. It would seem that there is a certain consensus in industrialized countries on how research is fundamental for economic development and, consequently, the possibility of keeping current levels of well being and social security. Is this research solely ‘scientific’ or does humanistic research have something to say about human progress in our societies too?

Humanism, the third pillar, was born out of the first cultural revolution in modern times, that of the printing press and the possibility of multiplying the production and distribution of books, and of expanding the dimensions of human communication. Humanism is a practice based on texts—of which, for as good as it may be, the book is but one format and not its end product—and the expansion of human communication beyond the limits imposed by the physical presence of interlocutors. The Humanities are the institutionalization of the possibilities open by the printing press revolution. If Humanism was born in the 15th century as a social movement whose objective was the institutionalization of contents specific to culture (Classical and Biblical tradition and, later on, contemporary literary traditions) in order to shape communities and political projects and its social reproduction through an education system, Digital Humanities in the 21st century can lead the debate on the specific contents that are to inform our culture, of the way in which we want to give our political communities the kind of human being that will—thanks to the presence of an education system—be responsible of these cultural communities’ life.

Similar to the way in which 15th century Humanism was born in the embrace of the printing press and book technologies and to the studia humanitatis, 21st century humanities must develop the digital technologies and social processes that will allow the updating of a cultural program so that they can continue to offer a model of exchange with the world at a human scale.

Is Spanish spoken in Digital Humanities?

The answer is NO. Or better said, not enough. Let us remember that the main debates around the digitization of culture have taken place as a reaction to Google Books (on the usefulness and limitations of Google’s project to humanistic research Dan Cohen’s blog post “Is Google Good for History?” can be read); and as a defense of a series of rather blurry ideas appealing to lofty principles, which to a great extent manifest the non-existence (or inefficacy) of government plans to develop an utterly digital culture. The problem seems to be that a reaction is not enough in a world where there are millions of smartphones, while culture and education continue to be considered institutional priorities. Can we do other than react defensively to what large multinationals do? If culture and its industries (education included) are one of the political axis of humanism and other political projects in Spanish, digitization offers for the first time in a long while a scenario in which culture—digital culture—could become one of the most important economic sectors and a pillar of research interest. Of course, this means to take the lead, research actively, develop digital training programs, formulate research projects socially and intellectually relevant, and communicate in a better way. That is, to create or adapt digital technologies to the Humanistic project.

In terms of the Digital Humanities, and important part of its slow advancement in the Hispanic world falls on us, the humanists. The humanists—who not only in Spain but in the whole Hispanic world are of the utmost quality—have been trained in a print world and figures of authority schema. The print world will not disappear but it does not hold primacy anymore, despite what might have seemed a campaign in Spanish media against electronic editions and new reading interfaces. Now it seems that this tendency, reactive too, has stopped and the publishing world is trying to catch up. The truth is that our priorities should be focused on reading and not so much on publishing. On the other hand, respect for authoritative figures is, in part, a false premise of modern day Humanism considering that early humanists used to recommend a critical engagement with their model and, in contrast to scholastics, a transmission of classical culture not through inviolable rules, but as contextual adaptation of classical examples. Thus, the migration to the digital world would be another way to test the cultural strength of that foundational principle: to imitate the Classics according to the context of a given cultural or human need that must be dealt with. Is Humanism any good in the 21st century? Yes, of course, just as much as when it was born but only if it is digital in all the formation of humanists, their tools, and their objects of study.

The other issue delaying the humanists’ adoption of the digital has to do with the relevance of research in our everyday activities. For a long time the transmission of classical sources had been a humanist’s main task and this has become a mission in itself. It’s not that I’m against that; on the contrary, the updating and availability of what are considered the sources of the political community is fundamental to guarantee its cultural transmission. Nevertheless we must take a step further and carry out a mental workout before starting any kind of humanistic research: What problem are we trying to solve? And for whom is that problem important? What I mean is for whom it is important above all in social and cultural terms, not just in economic terms—although that is important too. As in pretty much everything related to social and economic development, the capacity to influence and participate in the emerging global community of digital humanists is linked to being present in the research world that is giving shape to said community. In that sense, research implies developing digital tools necessary to carry out the tasks proper to each of the humanistic disciplines in the digital age.

There are two mistakes in the common notion of digital culture. On the one hand, it is still assumed that doing something in the analog world (for example a critical edition of a Classic) and then pouring it in digital format on the Internet is a significant step. That was an important step ten years ago, not now. On the other hand, the most developed tendency up to now is the digitization of existing collections. This is fundamental for the preservation and accessibility of culture in a digital world, but not decisive. I say that it is fundamental because the development of this kind of projects will allow us to learn how to be digital humanists, and will open the door to humanistic research that will change our understanding of history and culture. But it’s not decisive—unless it is not done—, because Google has been doing it for years and creating the technology and shaping the social habits used now by researchers. Thus, aside from making culture available and accessible digitally, it is necessary to create the technology to do it and invent the work protocols that will lead to the birth of communities of practice that include librarians, archivists, researchers, entrepreneurs, and users. We have to do this, and quickly, to start taking advantage of the great computing power at our hands and analyze in a different way “the great amount of past” on which we can now do research—which we are not currently using to solve relevant problems.

Interestingly, it is widely accepted that Ibero American countries such as Argentina, Chile, Cuba, and Spain train highly skilled programmers that have nothing to envy the rest of the world. Nevertheless, the problem is not about envy or feelings about what they do, very well, in other countries, but on the global capacity of any of our Spanish speaking countries to satisfy a demand for “digitizers” required in the new economies and societies. I speak of “digitizers” and not just programmers because the problem goes beyond the technical, and encompasses any one who is responsible, publicly or privately, in the spheres of education, patrimony, communication, and humanistic research. Programming aside, which is a matter of knowledge and independence when carrying out intellectual activities, does any of these agents know what is needed, digitally speaking to solve problems of cataloging, identification, analysis, transmission, and manipulation of such objects? Is there a digital ecosystem in which multidisciplinary work groups including researchers, technicians, digital humanists, and entrepreneurs come up with the guidelines to update their institutions? Is there a definitive “digital requirement” in the funding of research projects in the humanities similar to those found in, for example, internationalization and staff training, so that among the expected results, it would be necessary to offer digital tool skills that other researchers, professors, and students may incorporate into their work routines?

And the future?

It seems that the future, at least the economic future, lies in Asia, and unfortunately Asia is not the epicenter of the Hispanic world. Spanish, however, has a possibility to say something in the world of Digital Humanities thanks to its presence in the US. The confluence of education, research and Hispanic population in the US, which also leads to the emergence of a market of Spanish media and culture, opens the possibility for our immediate participation in the discourse of Digital Humanities. This practical discourse must aim at Trans-Atlantic collaborations in humanistic research, with the digital component at its basis, and a level of development comparable in terms of scientific alliances already in place between Spanish speaking and North American groups. The effort is even bigger because Hispanists in North American land do no yet have a substantial presence in the Digital Humanities centers popping up in universities across the US, even when great pioneering projects are undergoing.

In the Ibero American world, even though there are very interesting digital research projects, I don’t think (I might be wrong) there is yet any university center expressly devoted to Digital Humanities. How would those projects be? I will draw on existing projects as concrete examples of what can be done. Of course, these are pioneer projects and as such have traced the first steps of a road that seems endless. Thus, learning from them is fundamental in order to avoid issues already encountered along the way by others.

The first example is the bibliographical management tool—that can be used for many other things too—Zotero. It was developed in 2006 at the Center for History and New media at George Mason University. It is available for free and its development was funded by both private foundations and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). I’m interested in highlighting the fact that it is a tool—in its 2.0 version—whose objective is to solve one of the basic problems any researcher encounters, but it does so with the potential of the new technologies in its conception, its design and its ease of use. Zotero is an extension of the Firefox browser to collect, manage, cite, and share bibliographical resources of any kind. Its creators are historians that know what humanists need and, even though there is no direct link with North American Hispanism, Zotero’s success (having been downloaded millions of times) has meant that its interface is available in Spanish and that the number of users in the Spanish speaking world amounts to tens of thousands.

Other pioneering projects in Digital Humanities is the Cervantes Project directed since 1995 by Eduardo Urbina at the University of Texas A&M. The project has published online the international bibliography on Cervantes, his collected works equipped with tools fit for digital research, and an image database on the author and his work. This project began thanks to the support of the National Science Foundations, the NEH, and later on the University of Castilla la Mancha and Banco Santander.

From the University of Brigham Young, in Utah, Mark Davis leads the project Corpus del Español, a repository with over one hundred million Spanish words belonging to more than 20,000 texts from 1200 until the 20th century, and which has also been funded by the NEH. The Corpus interface is organized to facilitate linguistic searches by word, phrases, lemmas, words in context, and recently, semantic, synonymic queries. It also allows some natural language processing—an aspect of further and further importance in humanistic research if we consider the millions of digitized texts now available.

In terms of digitization of content, the Hispanic community in the US is proving especially active when it comes to preserving their simultaneously Hispanic and North American identity through the creation of projects such as Bracero History Archive. This project, also located at the Center for History and New media at George Mason University is too a collaboration with the Smithsonian Museum of American History, The Institute of Oral History at the University of Texas El Paso, and NEH. Its objective is to collect, archive, and spread the oral histories and the artifacts from the Bracero Program—a 1942-1964 US government program that invited Mexican workers and has, thus, had a considerable impact in the memories and experiences of Mexicans in the US. One of the most important aspects of the Bracero History Archive is that it incorporates several tools that facilitates its use in schools and user interactivity in the web 2.0.

Lastly, although it is bad taste to talk about what one does, I will mention the Hispanic Baroque Project. Anchored at the University of Western Ontario, the project has been funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. The Hispanic Baroque is looking into the patterns of formation and expansion of culture during the first globalization between the 16th and 18th centuries. It also looks at the relationship between new media and Neobaroque aesthetics in 21st century globalization from a multidisciplinary perspective informed by both scientists and humanists from a variety of countries. Taking the paradigm of complex systems as the theoretical basis for the study of the emergence and expansion of the Baroque led us, automatically, to the development of computational tools—from art databases to multi-agent simulations to topic maps, among others. These approaches have allowed us to analyze and visualize large amounts of data and digitized texts coming from different sources and formats. Furthermore, Canada Foundation for Innovation has just granted the resources to build the CulturePlex Lab, where we will study cultural complexity and develop Digital Humanities software. In the next few years, the CulturePlex will focus its research in the creation of tools for visualization, digital content and cultural objects cataloging, and natural language processing in historic and literary documents.

All of these projects are characterized by a series of features that draw attention to the changing work habits that the humanities community has been incorporating in order to benefit from the potential of the Digital Humanities: large problems requiring team work; development of tools fit for the matter at hand (that can later on be adapted to other problems and projects); extramural and inter institutional collaboration; multidisciplinary research teams that include humanists, mathematicians, computer scientists, and curators to name but a few; sustainable projects; and projects relevant to the community they should be serving.

What, then, should be some of the guiding lines for the advancement of Digital Humanities linked to preservation and spread of Spanish as a language of global reach, connected to culture, and close to the world of science and technology? The list below is in no way exhaustive, but it aims at drawing the basic profile of a Digital Humanities program contributing to achieving the objectives outlined:

  • Digitization and opening of public institutions’ online libraries, archives, and art collections by means of API’s or other web services.
  • Online Spanish language teaching, and development of language acquisition tools.
  • The creation of a basic platform to manage Digital Humanities research adaptable to the needs of each individual project and includes bibliographic, social media, and content visualization tools.
  • The extension of basic training in the Digital Humanities in all humanistic university degrees with an emphasis on practical and technical content.
  • The opening online of all the data from all government departments, except those affecting national security.
  • The development of graduate specializations and programs in Digital Humanities drawing from information studies, literary textual processing, linguistics and history, patrimonial digital cataloging and preservation, and accessible cultural information visualization.
  • Encouraging Digital Humanities research with an emphasis on the creation of technology and tools, and the massive distribution of results through commercialization or the free availability for education and research sectors.

The objective is, doubtless, to create a digital ecosystem for the culture around Spanish language that will anchor 21st century humanism, and to guarantee the presence of Spanish in the linguistic creation of the future thanks to its connection to technology. It must also contribute to the well being of our societies by means of commercial or free applications—the product of world-class research. Everything is there, waiting for the humanist community to come together and for the governments to play their part in fostering the strategic moves that ensure the economic and social future of our Spanish speaking communities.