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Digital Humanities or Hypercolonial Studies?

Amelia Sanz
Complutense University (Spain)

In the humanities domain, the very conditions of our intellectual lives are changing. Printed books are no longer the main channel of circulation for either scientific communication or literatures. This is a matter of fact, and of this we are convinced:  literatures will be digital or they will not exist.

For much of their lives, scholars have been reading, writing and speaking “digital” prose without knowing it. The use of e-mail, e-learning platforms and e-libraries makes us all digital humanists. Not only are the conditions of our intellectual lives changing but also the social practices associated with them. If, for example, we can no longer distinguish between Astrophysics and Digital Astrophysics, why should Academia differentiate between the Humanities and Digital Humanities? Because scarcely fifteen years have passed since the first digital libraries were deployed. We are indeed experiencing the early days of a digital revolution and we do not yet know how vast the amount of documents and how strong the scale of connectedness will be, or what questions humanists will be able to ask and answer with this data. This is the reason why scholars are so apprehensive: Are the Digital Humanities windmills or giants?

Technologies become transparent by the constant repetition of movements, and the winds of progress never blow in one and the same direction. As scholars and as humanists, we consider we are in the right place at the right time  to identify the colours of innovation, the addressees for devices and techniques, and the possible consequences of technical decisions, that is, with respect to political, ideological and moral commitments.

As a starting point, let us consider a few words I exchanged during an important meeting on Digital Humanities in The Hague several months ago with the representative of a prestigious digital library located in an English city, whose name I do not care to remember (subalterns cannot afford it!). My first question to him was whether they had an Advisory Board for scholars. His reply was: “No, we haven’t”. Did they have any feed-back on the number of users of their services? “Not really”, he answered. “And what about a programme for primary or secondary schools to spread the use of their library services?”, I asked. “There aren’t any”, he said. This implied that they do not consider users, e-skills and creative experiences to be so important; they are not needed. Perhaps it is time to consider a kind of digital humanism and I am in a good position to do so, drawing on my own experience as a researcher who has spent the last ten years working on the Digital Humanities in southern Europe.

The first question that should be asked is: Is there really a significant corpus of digital content available for scholarly research? The answer is yes. The amount of literary material available online is undergoing rapid growth; there are machine-readable texts from libraries, collections and e-book stores, as well as “live” literature, such as e-zines, blogs or self-published e-books. In the very near future, our virtual libraries will be the European Library, Google Books, Hathi Trust, the Open Library and the Gutenberg Project, mostly in English.  This could be of immense value, because all the old texts hidden in our national libraries would become available and researchers all over the world would be able to download them, read them, study them and re-write them. As a result, invisible bundles of writers, readers and works would become visible, in the same way Australian citizens broke the White Anglo-Saxon national model[1], or European Women Writers emerged to break the canon[2]. As our South American colleagues have pointed out to me, even if these important virtual libraries have not opened up all their materials, scholars who previously had no access to any document at all can nowadays count on digitized collections available online to empower them[3].

But let us take a closer look: suppose I were to launch a research project on 18th century cultures (for example, for a PhD or a contribution to a workshop), I would need to have access to EEBO and WWP, the ARTL Project database, material from the Voltaire Foundation, and, of course, the Eighteenth Century Journal Portal[4]. However, as all these sites are available under subscription, it is very likely that my research would fail right from the start.

Another example: Let us say we want to work on forgotten Spanish authors from the 19th and 20th centuries, who have been overlooked in the official canon of Spanish literature because of their genre, aesthetic or ideological motives. Numerous works belonging to our period of study are included among the digitized collections of digital libraries in US universities, such as Google Books or Hathi Trust, because most of these forgotten authors form part of the Spanish diaspora following the Civil War (1936-39) and during the subsequent dictatorship (1939-1975). In fact, the requirements of European copyright legislation are such that Google can only digitize works prior to 1870 in Spain.  Unfortunately for Spanish researchers, these works appear as “limited access”, due to the existing diffusion/circulation rights, but for researchers located in the United States they are available in “full text” mode.

It might be better to turn to the European Library[5]. But can we trust it? Not really, because every National Library has its own agenda and therefore its own funds for digitization, standardization and interoperability. Norway and Finland have been  able to digitize their entire heritage; Munich proposes to digitize a huge amount of European material, but what about the majority of National Libraries in smaller states? The digital divide is also growing within the continent itself: the Spanish National Library’s Newspaper Digitization Program is still pending.

The second question is: Are there enough infrastructures available (meaning servers and software, services and technicians) for researchers to apply new tools and new research methodologies? Several strategies in the Digital Humanities are being openly developed in the northern countries. I refer to the “north” bearing in mind the investment made by countries such as Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, Great Britain, the Scandinavian countries, Canada, and the United States, of course, in the creation of DH institutes, provided by scholars, developers and servers. We need only take a look at the universities hosting DH Annual Conferences in recent years and in forthcoming ones: DH 11 was in Stanford, DH 12 in Hamburg, DH 13 in Nebraska and DH 14 will be in Lausanne… We notice that three strategies are being developed world-wide, or at least on a continental level: mapping experiences, the provision of  data, and the delivery of services.

All these centres are extremely interested in mapping the activities of institutes, research teams, current projects and creative experiences, to address barriers that hinder communication and collaboration among researchers and leverage the complementary strengths of …etc., etc., etc[6]. However, we are not taken in by the search for needy users. Allow me to spare you the details of all the institutions, initiatives and seminars our research team has collaborated with in recent months in a subordinate role.

They also take a great interest in promoting standardization and interoperability, in collecting data and funding all kinds of initiatives, like the Digging into Data Challenge, if (and only if) project proposals include research funders and sponsors[7]. For DARIAH, the grand vision is to facilitate long-term access to all European Arts and Humanities digital research data; for CLARIN, it is to play a central role in Europe-wide infrastructure; for NEDIMAH, it is to bring together practitioners from the 14 European Science Foundation Member Countries[8].  Hopefully, these will provide open-source codes, distributed servers and mirrors, which should be a condition when  European public funding is used, and not become significant consortia for centralizing the data and web-services all of us need.. Otherwise we would all find ourselves excluded.

In any case, we wonder who will benefit from this the most. Let us focus on Europeana Newspapers[9], in particular on the results of their survey[10] on the extent of newspaper digitization in European libraries, which estimated (only 11 institutions responded) that only 26% of libraries have digitized more than 10% of their collection. But we know nothing about the selection criteria that were used to prioritize certain domains, historical periods or supports. Moreover, we question whether their investment in OLR/article segmentation and named entity recognition (NER) should really be a European priority, when less than 10% of the collections throughout Europe are digitized. What is certain is that it can be a good investment for companies (or  institutions) that are developing this software with European funding.

When I consult the Yemeni Manuscripts on the University of Oregon web pages, the Gascon Rolls as a digital resource at London King’s College, Averroes’ heritage on the Cologne University site, or the treasures of Caribbean cultures hosted not at Port-au-Prince but at the University of Florida[11], I should be aware that I am enjoying the fruits of empires, as if I were walking through the British Museum, the New York Public Library, or any Berlin gallery.

I use the term “hypercolonial” to describe these forms of technological practices and discourses framed by a relatively small Western-style, Western trained group of technicians, scholars and thinkers (stakeholders indeed), who mediate the trade in cultural commodities by means of the so-called Digital Humanities[12].

But where will all the digital natives go with the digital tools that empower them? Because technological innovations are not just a matter of devices and tools but mainly concern social practices; in other words, it is a matter of users and uses on a massive scale. Social innovation triumphs, for example, when a very traditional university currently manages to involve 80.000 students and 3.500 professors in a Learning Virtual Environment, which is the case of the Complutense University in Madrid. This very real and factual innovation is the result of (i) a top-down strategy to encourage (ii) a fruitful  bottom-up movement. It is true that it deals with a certain economic model, in the same way that invisible steps allowing disabled persons to board buses are a social innovation producing wealth that is objective and quantifiable, or global health programmes are considered by national agencies to be investments, not expenses.[13]

Bearing in mind the huge amount of data scholars will be able to handle in the near future, the Digital Humanities should not simply become the machinery to standardize knowledge as in a new positivist turn for the sake of the empire of hyper-reason as a universal structuring formation. Quite the contrary: more than ever, it is time for a new hermeneutical turn to locate different interdisciplinary, transcultural points of view on the Net. In fact, just as humanists are concerned with the telling and interpreting of stories and objects, the Digital Humanities also deal with giants and windmills.
[1] Invisible Australians. Living under the White Australia Policy [electronic source]  <> (retrieved March 2013).

[2] Women Writers Netsworks [electronic source] < http://www.womenwriters.nl> (retrieved March 2013).

[3]  I am quoting Alckmar Dos Santos head of  NUPILL, Literatura Digital. Biblioteca de Literaturas de Língua Portuguesa  [electronic source]   <  >(retrieved May 2013) and Claudia Kozak, head of Colectivo  Ludion  [electronic source] <> (retrieved May 2013).

[4] Early English Books on Line [electronic source] <> (retrieved  April 2013), Women Writers Project [electronic source] <> (retrieved April 2013), all the resources of The ARTFL Project [electronic source] <> (retrieved April 2013) and, of course,  The Voltaire Foundation [electronic source] <> (retrieved April 2013).

[5] The European Library [electronic source] <>   (retrieved May 2013).

[6]  I am quoting GO: DH on behalf of The Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations (ADHO) [electronic source] <> (retrieved  April 2013).

[7] This is the case, for example, of Digging into Data Challenge [electronic source] <> (retrieved  April 2013).

[8]  Digital Research Infrastructure for the Arts and Humanities- DARIAH, [electronic source] < > (retrieved  April 2013),   Common Language Resources and Technologies Infrastructure. CLARIN ERIC [electronic source]  <> (retrieved  April 2013),   Network for Digital Methods in the Arts and Humanities – NeDiMAH [electronic source] <> (retrieved  April 2013).

[9] Europeana Newspapers [electronic source]<> (retrieved  April 2013).

[10]  Alastair Dunning, The European Library/Europeana Foundation, European Newspaper Survey Report [electronic source] < >(retrieved  April 2013).

[11]  The Yemeni Manuscript Digitization Initiative [electronic source]  <> (retrieved  April 2013); The Gascon Rolls Project (1317-1468) [electronic source] < >(retrieved  April 2013); The Digital Averroes Research Environment [electronic source] < >(retrieved  April 2013);  The Digital Library of the Caribbean [electronic source]  <> (retrieved  April 2013).

[12]  I am adapting intentionally the definition of a “comprador intelligentsia” given by Kwame Anthony Appiah, “Is the Post- in Postmodernism the Post- in Postcolonial?” In Critical Inquiry, 17, winter 1991, pp. 336-57.

[13] The Fogarty International Center, Strategic Plan 2008-2012: Pathways to Global Health Research , in Fogarty International Center. Advancing Science for Global Health, [electronic source]  <> (retrieved  April 2013).


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