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Valorizing Big Data in the Humanities

Interview with Prof. Marcel Broersma, director new Centre for Digital Humanities, University of Groningen, Faculty of Arts
Text: Neeltje Miedema, Research & Funding

‘The digitization of the Humanities will expand the traditional scope of the Humanities significantly in the next few years,’ says Prof. Marcel Broersma, Director of the new Centre for Digital Humanities of the University of Groningen. ‘It’s an exciting adventure, taking the Humanities to the boundaries of our current knowledge.’

Scholars in various disciplines are challenged by the increasing availability and accessibility of data, including big data, both digitized material and digitally-born data. It provides an opportunity to develop and test new theories and models and explore new avenues of research. New technological tools to study data sets are being implemented and new results presented to the academic community and to society. The new Centre for Digital Humanities of the University of Groningen is intended to be the platform where scholars from all disciplines in the Humanities come together to make this happen.

Broersma: ‘Research in the Humanities was always based on sources, but the sources were in a sense limited: we read books and newspapers, or searched through physical archives. The traditional archives are now being digitized, giving us access to mountains of data: Big Data. Researchers are not only able to ask different types of questions about ongoing studies, but also new questions, questions that were previously impossible to answer simply because searching through our resources took up too much time and manpower.’

Experimental research

‘As well as the recently digitized existing research resources, we also have new digital sources such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Twitter, for example, is an interesting medium for linguists. The medium has quickly developed into a fully fledged communication channel and is now a huge corpus of informal language use that previously was not available. One of the linguists in our Faculty, Gosse Bouma, is currently studying linguistic variation between gender as well as different sub - cultures. He asks whether men and women use the same type of language on Twitter, for example, and if not, what are the differences? And Todd Graham and myself are currently studying the use of Twitter among Dutch politicians. He wants to find out whether politicians are actually interactive on Twitter; do they just communicate their own messages or do they use social media to debate issues with their followers?’

Correlations in material

‘Digital Humanities enables us to study existing research questions in more depth and try to find more conclusive answers. The source material is changing dramatically and our research methods are changing with it. For example, a researcher can now use Big Data as a resource to search for correlations in material. It enables researchers to approach questions from an experimental angle: there seems to be a link somewhere in this huge vat of data, but what is it exactly? Research using physical sources is much stricter because, as I said earlier, it is such a time-consuming business.’

Digital Humanities Labs

‘It is up to us to introduce the new Centre for Digital Humanities to researchers throughout the country. The first step is to get researchers from various research disciplines in the Humanities around the table, so that cultural researchers, linguists and archaeologists, for example, can join researchers in philosophy and religious studies to formulate research questions together. The Centre will play the role of network organization. Our aim is to organize a multidisciplinary cooperative platform for researchers, which will eventually evolve into a type of Digital Humanities Lab. A necessary next step will be to set up a Data Science Centre in association with the Center for Information Technology (CIT) of the University of Groningen. Data scientists, programmers, working in the Data Science Center will be available to help researchers translate questions into tools designed to answer questions. These data scientists will be closely involved in the research from an early stage. Linking the best of both worlds in this way will create a new, multidisciplinary research community, and give a huge boost to new, innovative research.’

Best of both worlds

‘Take Mladen Popović, Professor of Old Testament and Early Judaism at the University of Groningen, for example. He is studying the historical context of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of manuscripts containing more than 900 texts. The manuscripts are written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. They are of huge significance because they are among the very few written resources that shed light on Jewish culture more than 2,000 ago. Popovićwants to find out more about the cultural context in which the scrolls were written and whether particular words can be attributed to individual writers. This is a complex and time - consuming task, as the manuscripts mainly consist of characters. Lambert Schomaker, Professor of Artificial Intelligence at the University of Groningen, sees Popović’s question as a challenge to develop automatic text recognition tools that will help to unravel thiscomplex web of manuscript fragments with their characteristic letter shapes.’

Skills training and education

‘The next important step is to ensure that Digital Humanities becomes embedded in our education. We will organize courses and workshops for all staff. An annual Digital Humanities Day will be held on the last Friday of October to present the latest developments within the Digital Humanities field, and to allow researchers to pitch their projects to their colleagues. In 2016 we will launch a new MA in Digital Humanities and there are also plans to make Digital Humanities part of the Bachelor’s degree programme. People are very keen, particularly the students. We organized a few pilot workshops and our first Digital Humanities Day to coincide with the opening of the Centre last year. They were completely sold out.’

The Centre for Digital Humanities Groningen is an initiative of the Faculty of Arts. The University of Groningen is investing in the Groningen Centre via the Investment Agenda, a fund that rewards new initiatives contributing to innovative and excellent teaching and research. Initiatives must be unique within Dutch academia and exclusive to the University of Groningen.

This interview with Prof. Marcel Broersma is the first article in a series of 4, explaining the potential and benefits of Digital Humanities for the University of Groningen from different perspectives. In the coming issues you will find interviews with respectively Prof Mladen Popovic, Faculty Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies and Prof. Lambert Schomaker, Professor of Artificial Intelligence at the University of Groningen.

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Last modified:13 June 2019 11.28 a.m.