Oct 102011

The nice folk at the  Center for History and New Media at George Mason University  awarded me a  Mellon THATcamp fellowship to help toward my attendance at the Bootcamp part of THATCampCanberra . In return, they asked for  my reflections on what I learned at THATcamp bootcamp and unconference sessions and how I may apply it in the future.

This is a bit longer and ramblier than than my usual posts.

tl:dr version – Chutzpah and determination rather than technical knowledge is more likely to make one a digital humanities expert


Attending bootcamp clarified my thinking around how I can best learn about and apply technological tools in the humanities. To get the most out of any learning event like this, I now realise I need to spend time shortly before or after trying to build or make something with the tools featured. I now feel much more confident about my ability to do this.

While the theoretical information in the bootcamp sessions was useful, I could find out this from researching and reading. What was invaluable was hearing about the creative process of project design and configuring and building the tools, which approaches had been tried and rejected, self-critiques of decisions made and how things could have been done differently – plus hearing the questions asked by others in the session. It was clear that people were not coming to projects as fully-fledged experts, but spent much time researching and problem-solving – and in some cases chutzpah and determination were much more useful qualities than initial technical knowledge. The second was ultimately gained through the first.

I think I pull back from trying these kinds of projects because I feel that I need to already know about the tools, standards and data structures I will need before I even begin. I have spent the last 18 months trying to convince my students that they can be competent learners in unfamiliar technologies if they have confidence and know how to look things up or seek support – something I obviously need to internalise a little more.

To learn, I need to contextualise new tools with what I already know. Sounds obvious, but it was not until I was trying to quietly build my own copy of a LibX toolbar for the National Library in the middle of the session about the NLA Party Infrastructure that I realised how essential this contextualisation is. I thought I was losing focus and was doing the equivalent of doodling. Then I realised that specifying the contextual searches in the LibX toolbar is a way of interrogating and outputting an enquiry to a public API without having to know about much more than how to format the enquiry string. Basil Dewhurst was explaining the query structure for the NLA Party APIs, so this was a quick and dirty way for me to understand how this worked. It also clarified for me that I should go off and play with Yahoo Pipes or equivalent to play with enquiring and outputting from the NLA Party Infrastructure.

During the bootcamp sessions, I became more mindful that some of my questions were about fitting new tools and skills into what I already knew. I understood better why I was asking “how does this relate to…” or “could your use this to…” or “did you think about doing …” I think I will be much more understanding when students go off on what seem to be tangents, or ask questions that I think I had just answered – as they are probably trying to fit new knowledge to a personal context, rather than seeking information.

I attended four sessions at Bootcamp:

Introducing the NLA party Infrastructure: http://thatcampcanberra.org/bootcamp/bootcamp-introducing-the-nla-party-infrastructure/

Mining Trove newspapers http://thatcampcanberra.org/bootcamp/bootcamp-mining-trove-newspapers/

Using the Literature Object Re-Use and Exchange http://thatcampcanberra.org/bootcamp/bootcamp-using-lore/

Using Google Refine for Humanities Datasets http://thatcampcanberra.org/bootcamp/bootcamp-google-refine-for-humanities-datasets/


There are several posts dated 30 September to 10 October  about the subject matter of sessions that I attended, links pushed out and events that happened during THATcamp.

I have a few points to think about and maybe develop further.

  1. Events like THATcamp and the Digital Public Sphere work better for me than reading journal articles or attending formal conferences  as a way to understand the knowledge, attitudes, challenges, failure and humour of practitioners and theorists in my research area.
  2. I still have not really settled on a research area, but the last few days have crystallised research interests I would like explore… I could observe what really interested me, where I already knew things and the tools and techniques that I was excited to find out about. I just need to sleep on it and do a bit more journalling and drawing to work out exactly what they are.
  3. I think I would rather be an educator/maker/builder/person who helps other people  than what my job currently requires me to be – which is an educator/researcher/person who helps other people. I guess I need to find a way for making/building to be classed as research…
  4. Why do so many people re-invent beautiful and useful wheels? Seems almost like it is harder to understand what each other are doing than to create from ground up.

I have spent all day sitting under the beautiful windows of the National Library of Australia. Time to catch a flight…

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  4 Responses to “How to become an expert in technology tools for the humanities”

  1. Making as research: yes. You could add this point/emphasis to the digital culture public sphere?!

  2. […] How to become an expert in technology tools for the humanities […]

  3. You should seriously consider attending the Digital Humanities Summer Institute here at University of Victoria: http://www.dhsi.org/ Not only is it very awesome in every way, but it’s engaging for everyone, even librarians. I’ve been several times and am attending again this year. It’s organized really well – there’s a speaker at the opening and close of every day, social events and lunches, and in between you learn practical Digital Humanities things. Often you bring a project and work on it as you learn, but you don’t have to. I never have, and I still get quite a lot out of it. My most useful session to date was Digital Project Management. I use that stuff constantly in my work.

    And we could organize something wherein you have coffee (or tea) with lots of our librarians, who would love to discuss their views on the priorities and future directions of our profession.

  4. 🙂 Tina.That looks marvellous. If I wasn’t going to break my bank travelling over Christmas, I would absolutely come for a coffee and more 🙂 I will keep it on the cards for 2013 though 🙂 🙂

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