Review: Sustainable data from digital research conference, Melbourne

A conference was held at the University of Melbourne in December 2011 with the theme ‘sustainable data from digital research’ organised by Dr Nick Thieberger and colleagues at the School of Languages and Linguistics with assistance from the Victorian eResearch Strategic Initiative (VeRSI) and the new Australasian Association for Digital Humanities (aaDH). The Keynote for the conference was Dr Stephen Ramsay, from the University of Nebraska Lincoln in the United States, author of the recently published book ‘Reading machines: towards algorithmic criticism’. The title of Dr Ramsay’s talk was ‘Found: Data, Textuality, and the Digital Humanities’ in which he discussed ‘lists’; lists of numbers, lists of words, lists of coordinates, lists of properties.  Ramsay explained that:

These lists are often transformed into other forms — visualisations, maps, information systems, software tools — but the list remains the fundamental data structure of computing, from which most other structures are derived.

Ramsay offered some meditations on the nature of lists, and suggested ways that they lend themselves to narrative and explanation.

Ramsay was particularly impressed by the volume of conference papers that was produced by the new Espresso Book Machine, a print on demand machine at the University Library that can produce a book in a matter of minutes.  The volume contains many excellent papers on subjects such as ‘fair use’ and copyright, collaborative tools for typological research, semantic annotation for 3D museum artefacts, and language archiving and documentation technologies. The conference’s core theme was focussed upon language documentation of endangered languages in the Asian-Pacific region; thus long-term preservation and reuse of these materials is of paramount importance to this research community. The .pdf version of the book and the presentations can be downloaded from and further printed copies can be ordered from the University of Melbourne Bookshop.

Also at the conference, the new Australasian Association for Digital Humanities (aaDH) held a reception in the beautiful Arts Hall in Old Arts at the University of Melbourne.  I as Secretary of the Association welcomed guests and explained that membership to the Association would be through LLC: the Journal of Digital Scholarship in the Humanities. Membership also came with numerous benefits such as a substantial discount to the Associations upcoming conference ‘Digital Humanities Australasia’ in Canberra in March 2012 and discounted entry to the international Digital Humanities Conference in Hamburg, Germany, July 2012.

Together the conference revealed how a specialised disciplinary group of scholars largely working on vial and urgent questions around the documentation and preservation of the recordings of endangered languages are engaging with a broader Digital Humanities community in Australia so that many of the computational methods used can be shared and applied in other disciplines. The Digital Humanities is a highly interdisciplinary endeavour party with the goal to provide a ‘methodological commons’ for the humanities to discover and use new computing methods. The more that we provide these interdisciplinary spaces, the greater the ‘technical capital’ of the humanities will grow thus opening up a more active engagement with the development of appropriate computing tools and methods to address specific humanities research questions.

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