Digital humanities


Speaking notes
Dr. Guy Berthiaume, Librarian and Archivist of Canada
Speech delivered at the Colloque numérique Midi-Pyrénées
Toulouse, France
November 26, 2015
The speech was delivered in French. This is a translation.

I am convinced there is an important role for memory institutions to play in the development of the digital humanities.

To illustrate this point, I’d like to present some of the ongoing projects at Library and Archives Canada.

LAC goes to great lengths to digitize its content and to make its collections available online.

Our website provides access to a number of datasets, including census information and Western Land Grants.

You can also find First World War medical files, a database of Canadian feature films, and illustrations from rare books in our collection, among other things.

By providing this raw, open data, we give Canadians the chance to use it in ways that in turn contribute to new knowledge and create patterns of information—patterns which show up only when you put large volumes of data together.

Also, LAC contributed resources from its First World War collections to a project entitled Out of the Trenches. This linked open data project features a variety of First World War resources, including sheet music for war songs, war diaries, photographs, sound recordings and films.

Let’s examine why some of our initiatives have been more successful than others.

For example, Project Naming.

In 2001, we teamed up with the Government of Nunavut—the northernmost territory in Canada.

We digitized photos of Inuit from our collection, as well as asked their fellow community members to help identify these anonymous faces that had remained unidentified for decades.

The goal was modest: to digitize and identify 500 photographs.

Project Naming was expected to be finished within the year. But we were wrong. The project took on a life of its own—we have digitized approximately 8,000 photographs since the project’s inception, and we’re still going strong!

The support of Inuit and non-Inuit communities has meant that nearly one-quarter of the individuals, activities or events portrayed in the images have been identified.

Families and friends have reconnected.

And we have just expanded it to include Inuit living in the Northwest Territories, the northern part of the Province of Quebec, the region of Labrador, as well as First Nations and Métis communities in the rest of Canada.

This project enabled a people to reclaim their heritage in a highly measurable and tangible way.

However, not all digital projects are as successful as anticipated.

A few years ago, Library and Archives Canada launched Double Take—an exhibition that features portraits of both well- and less-known Canadians, and their unusual and surprising stories.

The physical exhibition was very well received, but user traffic on the online site has been low.

Somehow we failed to ignite peoples’ imaginations.

Perhaps we did not offer them the opportunity to participate, in the same way we did with Project Naming.

The digital world has created a culture of participation, where users like to interact with the content that is presented.

The online version of Double Take is modelled on the typical physical exhibit.

People standing in front of portraits and looking at them.

It’s passive, not interactive.

Yet digital technology lets us do so much more.

We need to get our clients’ attention, and then we need to hold on to it.

Again, collaboration, and creating the conditions for it, may spell the difference between success and lack of interest.

Consider the success of the 2010 collaboration between the British Museum and the BBC.

A History of the World in 100 Objects allowed schools, museums and television audiences across the UK to tell the history of the world through 100 objects from the British Museum and other museums throughout Britain.

Part of the success of this idea was that it managed to link heritage, in the form of museum objects, with current lives, to create a sense of living history.

In this way, it anticipated and responded to the needs of its clients.

This is a major goal for us as well.

Another good example of the power of participation is the Digital Public Library of America, a common portal for access to the holdings of a variety of memory institutions.

We were fortunate enough to have a presentation on this a few weeks ago by Dr. Robert Darnton, the father of the DPLA and the former librarian of the Harvard University Library.

The DPLA provides free online access to digitized cultural heritage content from libraries, archives and museums across the United States.

This content includes 10 million books and other objects, from 1,600 institutions throughout the US, accessible to millions of users. Not to mention content in some 500 languages!

Aside from the sheer volume of information it makes available, what is noteworthy about the DPLA is the extraordinary contribution of volunteers to the project.

Again, there was a chance to get involved, and thousands of people jumped at that chance.

We are in the midst of a revolution.

Not only do new technologies and the emergence of big data change what we know about the world,

they change the way we learn about it.

This knowledge spreads over every aspect of our lives—economic, social, spiritual, physical, and cultural.

The way we use this new knowledge will have a huge impact on how we see ourselves, and how we understand the way our society works.

What big data and content mining can do is allow us to see our world from a different perspective—like a drone, which flies over the landscape and allows us to see patterns which are not visible from the ground.

With the help of the digital humanities, these patterns can be interpreted and explained.

And the bigger picture of who we are, where we’ve come from and where we’re going can be made available and preserved for the future, with the help of our memory institutions.

Thank you.

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