Bringing Diversity of Experience Together: An Interview with Daniel O’Donnell

Para una traducción al español de una versión editada de esta entrevista, picar aquí.
For a translation into Japanese provided by Dr. Nobuhiko Kikuchi, see this version.
Daniel O’Donnell
Daniel O’Donnell

Ernesto Priego: Please introduce yourself…

Daniel O’Donnell: I am a Digital Humanist and Anglo-Saxonist.

I was trained primarily as an Anglo-Saxon philologist. My B.A. (1989) is from St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto, where I studied English, Celtic Studies, and Medieval Latin. And my PhD (1996) is from Yale, where I wrote my dissertation on scribal variation among multiple copies of Old English poetry. Toronto and Yale both were very strong in what you might see as traditional medieval studies: heavy emphasis on language training and detailed reading primary sources.

And also traditional in the sense that they have always been willing to use technology, in the footsteps of Father Busa. While I was an undergraduate, I worked at the Dictionary of Old English, primarily indexing semantic studies. The DOE was the first dictionary to be based on a completely computerised corpus, a decision that was made when the project was first set up in 1972.

At Yale, my dissertation was in essence a giant database: it contained an annotated discussion of every single textual variant in the corpus; I wrote most of it using a database programme at the time (something called Notebuilder, if I remember correctly). Initially my supervisor, Fred C. Robinson, and I thought about trying to hand in the database as my dissertation. We decided in the end that it probably wasn’t worth the fight, however. And to be honest, we also thought that it would be a better dissertation if the data was surrounded by an analytic narrative.

I kicked around a few places while working on my dissertation, most of which I actually wrote living beside a market in Amsterdam. I had a job for a year at Louisiana State University (1994-1995) and then again at the University of York (1996-1997). And then I moved to the University of Lethbridge in 1997, where I’ve been ever since.

I think the most interesting thing for me in my career thus far has been in fact my transition from somebody who defined himself primarily as an Anglo-Saxonist to somebody who defines himself primarily as a Digital Humanist. After my dissertation, I began editing the Old English poem Cædmon’s Hymn with the intention of publishing it as an electronic text. I chose Cædmon’s Hymn at the time (this would be in 1998) because it was very short but relatively complicated: this was a time when a lot of very large digital editions were being set up, usually of quite complicated texts (especially Piers Plowman and The Canterbury Tales Project).

It was anticipated at the time that these editions would all take decades to complete (and indeed, neither Piers Plowman nor the Canterbury Tales Project is finished yet). My idea was to take a “short and fat” text like Cædmon’s Hymn and run it through the entire editorial process so we could get an idea about how a finished electronic edition might look. It still took a while–I published the final text with the Medieval Academy and Boydell and Brewer in 2005. But it turned out to be an interesting experiment.

At that point, I was actually planning to go back to being an Anglo-Saxonist and put digital stuff away–I used to complain that publishing the edition digitally had easily added another 5 years to the project. But just as the project was finishing, I got involved in a couple of other digital projects: in the period 2004-2006 I worked on setting up Digital Medievalist with a number of digitally active medievalists (initially Peter Baker, Elizabeth Solopova, Murry McGillivray, and Martin Foys, and then James Cummings, Roberto Rosselli Del Turco, and Dot Porter as well); and in 2005 I was then elected to the board of the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) and subsequently became its chair.

The result of these two experiences was that the scholars with whom I worked were increasingly not Anglo-Saxonists, but connected to me through our common paradisciplinary interests: sinologists, slavicists, classicists, modernists, and so on. Most recently, I’ve found this self-definition as Digital Humanist is even beginning to trump my self of identity as a textual scholar: I recently attended the VAST Virtual Archaeology conference in Brighton, followed immediately by the European Society for Textual Scholarship conference in Amsterdam. I’d never attended VAST before, and have long considered the ESTS to be a “home.” Surprisingly, however, it was at VAST this time that I seemed to have the most to contribute.

EP: Please do tell us about Global Outlook DH. What is it and how did the idea take shape?

DO: Global Outlook :: Digital Humanities is in essence a global Community of Practice or Identity for researchers and students who use digital technology in the research and study of the humanities, cultural heritage, and arts. Its primary goal is to provide a means for addressing what was a relatively complete lack of communication between researchers in High Income Economies vs. those in Mid- and Low Income Economies.

The primary impetus for my involvement came from my growing sense of the Digital Humanities as a paradiscipline, a sense that was evolving, as I mentioned earlier, as a result of the ever closer collaborations I was having with DH researchers who did not have a background in Medieval Studies.

What gradually became striking to me was the fact that although the range of background disciplines among my collaborators was quite diverse, their geographic locations were not. On the whole, I worked with people in laterally contingent regions: Japan, North America, Western Europe, occasionally Eastern Europe, and of course, the great “left-right” exceptions, Australia and New Zealand.

What I didn’t have were contacts who lived outside of this band: nobody in Africa, Latin America or the Caribbean, South Asia, South East Asia, and so on. Moreover, as Melissa Terras’s excellent infographic on the state of Digital Humanities demonstrated, this was also true of the discipline as a whole: despite its extraordinary growth in recent years, DH was more or less as tightly associated with the same laterally contingent regions as I was. All constituent organisations in ADHO were from these regions, as were almost all of the associations’ individual members. With the exception (at the time) of a single centre in Brazil and another in South Africa, Terras listed no DH centres outside of the usual Northern countries and Australia and New Zealand.

I wasn’t the only person thinking this at the time: most of the Constituent Organisations making up ADHO, for example, had a person assigned to look into “Globalisation,” “North-South,” or “Outreach”  issues. At the Canadian Society for Digital Humanities/Société canadienne des humanités numériques (CSDN-SCHN). Ray Siemens and I were leading the Canadian efforts: me, in part because Digital Studies/Le champ numérique (the journal I edit) had decided it would like to focus on internationalisation and global DH as part of its mandate, and Ray in part because he was in the process of working very closely with Digital Humanities researchers in Cuba as part of the Implementing New Knowledge Environments (INKE) project.

Three events really precipitated the rise of Global Outlook::Digital Humanities as it now is. The first was some discussions I had in Hamburg at DH 2012 with Jieh Hsiang, Marcus Bingenheimer, Christian Wittern, Peter Bol, Neil Fraistat, Harold Short, and Ray about opportunities and challenges for working with DH researchers in China and Taiwan; this led to the formation of the original mailing list ( and the development of a small GO::DH organisation led by Marcus and myself. The second was when Neil put me in touch with Alex Gil, who was just beginning his superb “Around DH in 80 Days” project. And the third was the INKE organised Birds of a Feather meeting in Havana in December 2012.

The Havana meeting was so important both because it built on the ideas that were being developed by the other two events and because it helped widen the group’s membership. Before our meeting in Havana, the GO::DH membership for the most part lived and worked in the same High Income Economies identified in Terras’s infographic.

What we’d been finding it difficult to do was expand our membership outside this regional block. The major DH mailing lists and organisations to which we belonged had the same problem suffered by DH more globally: they didn’t have many members from outside the usual regions, meaning we were finding it difficult to contact potential participants. Meeting with Cuban researchers introduced us to entirely new networks in Latin America and provided a model for others interested in the network’s concept.

But perhaps most importantly, the Cuban researchers helped us correct some key flaws in our original concept. If you compare the (mostly pre-Cuba) proposal to ADHO for the formation of a Special Interest Group with the description of the project on its current website, you’ll see a major difference in emphasis. The original document is primarily about “us” and “them”: it wonders why people in Mid and Low Income Economies are not part of the Digital Humanities as practiced in the High Income Economies, and asks the question from a High Income Economy perspective (as was appropriate since it was addressed to an organisation that consisted at the time almost entirely of researchers working in High Income Economies).

The current project description, however, is far more focused on “us”: it is explicit that a global network is not about aid but instead recognising how much we have to share with, teach, and learn from each other (I should add that the version of the original proposal to ADHO does reflect some of this change in emphasis).

This is a direct result of workshops held in Cuba as part of the INKE organised meeting. One of the most important things to come out of the workshops we held there was the recognition that our experiences were very symbiotic: we shared many problems and approaches, and, where our experiences and opportunities differed, we were richer for the discovery.

An example of how this works is the GO::DH working group on “minimalist computing.” This is a group that has developed a very interesting research topic out of what most of us (Cuban as well as participants at the meeting from High Income Economies) saw initially and primarily as simple deficits in the Cuban infrastructure: e.g. lack of bandwidth and older computer hardware.

In discussion, however, we began to realise that these infrastructure issues provided lessons that were globally beneficial to the DH community: lessons on how to ensure the broadest possible access to digital cultural work. In other words, Digital Humanists in places like North America and Western Europe are far too willing to work on the assumption that audiences have access to the latest technology and the the most powerful infrastructure.

In doing so, we not only forget that this is not true of other types of economies, but also, even, of many of the typical audience for cultural research in High Income Economies (for example, I have been recently working with 3D imaging of an Anglo-Saxon stone cross from a parish in rural Scotland: while some of the parishoners in this case do have access to the most sophisticated computing equipment, others either do not own a computer or have an old one lying around from the late 1990s).

I hasten to add that I don’t think this means that lack of access infrastructure is something to be celebrated: it is clear that researchers in High Income Economies, for example, can do more to share access to basic tools and support projects in regions that have a harder time accessing the latest technology. But it does indicate how being able to share our different experiences enriches all our research agendas.

ADHO logo

EP: Please allow me to follow that up with a question that might be difficult, as money is a key issue that it’s still hard to talk about across cultures. Where does the funding for GO::DH come from? Often just sharing experiences requires a particular privileged setting which can be taken for granted, the time to do it, the right tools no matter how basic. How can we ensure collaborations in the near future remain sustainable when there is great financial and contextual disparity between collaborators?

DO: GO::DH is funded, to the extent it is funded at all, in two ways.

The first and most obvious is a small amount provided by the office of the University of Lethbridge’s Vice  President Research. After the meeting at DH 2012 in Hamburg, I emailed our University President (Mike Mahon), Vice President Research (Dan Weeks), Associate VPR Lesley Brown), and our interim Dean for Internationalisation (Alison Nussbaumer) telling them about the excitement I’d seen and proposing a meeting with them about the project.

President Mahon is relatively new to the University of Lethbridge and has made internationalisation a major institutional goal. And we are always looking for ways to increase the profile of the humanities. So I thought this might be a project that interested them. I gave Dean Nussbaumer a description of what we were up to and some possible costs, and she, VP Weeks and Associate Vice President Research Lesley Brown were able to find a small amount of money (about $5,000) from institutional funds supplied to us by the Canadian Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).

In many ways, however, the more sustainable funding comes from volunteer effort. This is something I think we often underestimate the value of in the Digital Humanities. Although the University of Lethbridge initially gave me the $5,000 to fund the administration of GO::DH, that money is in practice either too little or too much for what we need. It is too little if our idea is that we seriously intend to pay for somebody to run the organisation on a day-to-day basis; and it is too much if we intend for people like the current officers and members to do it on a volunteer basis: if we aren’t actually paying salaries (which we couldn’t afford), what would we spend the money on administratively?

It is the tremendous enthusiasm and willingness of others to pitch in that actually keeps GO::DH afloat. And I say this is an undervalued resource in DH because I have seen it play a role time and time again. The Text Encoding Initiative (TEI), for example, has a budget of between $80 and $100,000/year to pay for accountants, systems support, travel, and the like.

But the real meat of their activity is the work of the council, conference organisation team, and editors of the Journal of the TEI. And that is work of a value you couldn’t possibly buy with “only” $100k/year. When I was TEI chair, I used to say that even at educational rates, the council was worth several hundred thousand in cash at the very least in terms of their expertise and the hours they put in (In the run up to the publication of the P5 version of the Guidelines, a year in which the council did an extraordinary amount of work, it was probably considerably more).

Other organisations show this as well. Digital Medievalist received a grant of about $25,000 to set itself up at the very beginning. Since then, however, it has run on a budget of $0/year. The people who work on it do it because they think the project is important and because they think it is in their interest to do so. Digital Classicist works much the same way.

The real key with such organisations is to exploit the inherent value they contain: that is to say the in-kind value they can release that makes it mutually beneficial to both the volunteer and the organisation to work together. This can be by turning the activity into publications; providing leadership or other experience that is useful on a CV; or creating opportunities for people to become known and/or have an impact on their field.

The same is true with partner organisations. Often such organisations find it intrinsically valuable to provide in-kind of financial support: because it allows them to count your activity as an output, or show their own impact in the broader field, or simply help set agendas.

When things work out, as I think they have so far for GO::DH, this hidden funding leaves you enough space to do creative things with the actual cash you are able to find. So in this case, because we don’t actually need money to run things, we have been able to turn the University of Lethbridge money to support what I hope will be an innovative research bursary programme.

The details still need to be worked out, but the basic idea is that instead of paying for secretarial work, we will instead set up to competitive calls for proposals for research projects looking at some aspect of DH in the context of a global community; we will then use the Lethbridge money to pay the winning proposals to prepare the final projects for us.

In the end, I think we will probably need more money than this. But as long as we can run most of our operations on the basis of enthusiasm and the in-kind value they generate, we will be able to concentrate actual dollars and cents on paying for the things you normally don’t get as a donation: travel, running colloquia, and the like.

To pick up the last part of your question: practicality and disparity of opportunity. This too is a fundamental recognition at the heart of GO::DH: that access to money is also a differential experience. Even among High Income Economies, funding opportunities vary widely. But access to funding is not simply a province of those in those countries: there are many funding opportunities, especially in the international and private philanthropic sectors, that are restricted to or require participation by researchers in Mid and Low Income Economies.

One of my goals for this first year at GO::DH is to create the mechanisms by which we can begin to discover and access this funding. And once again, this is a question of bringing diversity of experience together to build something that is bigger than we are on our own. I am hoping, for example, to build a working group on funding that will include people with records of success and experience with various types of funders: the national funding agencies, UN and other International groups, and the many foundations interested in international exchanges. It is my belief that we can end up really helping each other by looking for ways to collaborate across regional and economic boundaries–both on our actual research and in our search for funding.

EP: All the best of luck; the project deserves it. It seems to me that sustainability should be a key issue: it is a shame when valuable projects disappear and the resources they created suffer digital rot after the funding runs out! A final question: how do you personally see the role of the global digital humanities in the advocacy for the humanities? In other words, what can DH initiatives around the world do to communicate the importance of the Humanities as a general field of knowledge?

DO: It is interesting that you ask this because, in a certain sense, the thinking that led to my role in developing Global Outlook Digital Humanities comes actually from the larger question.

For many years, my department has received an annual list of titles of literary criticism from India for consideration for purchase by our library. I can’t remember now if this is from a specific publisher in India or a publishers’ consortium, but the important thing is that these are not (especially) books about literature in India, or post-colonial approaches to literature, or anything that represents something we might consider to be an Indian “speciality” (i.e. in the same way we might expect books on Canadian literature to be a speciality of Canadian Universities). Instead these are books on the full range of literary studies: Indian literature, African literature, Victorian literature, medieval literature, and so on.

What has always been striking to me is how few (if any) of these books my colleagues and I order from this list and, in the areas for which I have some disciplinary knowledge, how few of the scholars producing these books I have actually heard of. In fact, I have long suspected that the same kind of gap between networks that I mentioned above as being true of Global DH is also true of more traditional humanities subjects. My sense was that North American scholars were not engaging with this immense production of Indian scholarship because we were not plugged into the same networks, conferences, and journals as our Indian colleagues (and, of course, vice versa).

The Digital Humanities, to my mind, offers a way of addressing this gap, because it emphasises the paradisciplinary skills that people share over the disciplinary skills and networks that keep people apart. That is to say that I’ve always felt it might be easier to get people to share aspects of their lives as researchers, teachers, and students if we could first introduce them to each other through the extra-disciplinary skills and interests they share. Or in this case, that we may find that the potential Canadian impact of Indian scholarship on let’s say Trollope will be increased the more Canadians get to know Indian scholars through organisations like GO::DH (I hasten to add that I am phrasing things this way because I am speaking as a Canadian living in a High Income Economy: I would hope that increased contact will have a similar effect on, for example, the visibility of Canadian Trollope scholars in India).

One early model for how this works is, once again, Digital Medievalist. In medieval studies, the cause of the network gap is not income (primarily) but the breadth of the “discipline”: a field of study that covers about a millenium throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Northern Africa, across numerous languages, and involves often very narrowly defined research specialisations is simply going to have large groups of people that never talk. As an Anglo-Saxon textual scholar, for example, I am simply not going to have much opportunities for meeting specialists in late medieval Georgian numismatics, even though we might have much to learn from each other in terms of techniques and approaches to common paradisciplinary problems.

Digital Medievalist was established as a way of bridging this gap by focusing on the paradisciplinary interests that are shared by medievalists who used technology rather than the disciplinary specialisations as medievalists that drove them apart. The result is a community where many of the people who work most closely together in the executive and at the journal belong to disciplines that, in traditional medieval studies, might never come into contact with each other: Hispanists working with Germanists working with Anglo-Saxonists, and so on.

So far I’ve been talking about how the Digital Humanities can help the traditional humanities surmount barriers of discipline, geography, and language. And I think this is a necessary first step to any advocacy that we do, since humanities disciplines seem to me to have a centrifugal force, born of their emphasis on the culturally, historically, and linguistically specific, that leave them at a disadvantage in terms of advocacy compared to many natural and social sciences.

But I also think, as you question suggests, that the Digital Humanities has an extremely important role to play in simply advocating for the value of the humanities. As I’ve argued before, the advent of the digital in humanistic study has been what ensures our disciplines’ continued relevance: computers are the humanities killer app.

This is not necessarily because computers change the nature of humanistic study in any particular way–although I think computers are introducing new approaches and questions to our disciplines, it is also important to note that they are equally important in supporting traditional research questions and approaches. Instead, it is because they give humanists both an opportunity to answer pressing societal questions in ways no other disciplines can and allow our students to apply the skills they acquire in the course of their traditional study in ways that make sense in contemporary society.

As I often point out, the Internet in general, and the social Web in particular, is far less about cutting-edge engineering than cutting-edge humanities and social sciences: the really interesting thing behind it is not the underlying infrastructure–most of which is relatively stable technology–but the new ways of communicating, organising ourselves, and disseminating culture it is allowing. How teenage social networks have been affected by Facebook is a question for sociologists, not engineers; how blogging and texting is affecting writing is a question for rhetoricians, linguists, and literary historians more than it is computer scientists; how social media is affecting gatekeeping mechanisms in scholarly and scientific communications is primarily a question for historians of science and information scientists.

Likewise, our students’ much vaunted ability to think critically and express themselves well is of no more than intrinsic value if we do not also teach them how to use this training in the real, networked and computerised world. Courses in the Digital Humanities, especially those that offer hands on technical experience, offer an obvious route towards ensuring that humanities graduates are able to participate fully in economic and social life after they graduate–whether we mean this in terms of their ability to find meaningful employment or their ability to act as engaged citizens.

So in the end, I think the Digital Humanities will play a crucial role in advocating for the humanities–both because it is increasingly the paradiscipline that ties together what is otherwise a very fractured collection of relatively narrow and isolated cultural and historical disciplines and because it brings to the humanities an obvious practicality and extensibility that allows us to make the case more strongly for the societal relevance of what the public (by-and-large) pay for us to teach and research.

About Ernesto Priego

Researcher at the Centre for Human-Computer Interaction Design, City, University of London. Editor in chief of The Comics Grid: Journal of Comics Scholarship. Affiliated member of the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities.

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