Science & Tech

Fair shows progress of humanities in digital world

6 min read

Bill and Carrie meet in a Harvard College library you might know. The walls are reddish stone and in one corner a working fireplace blazes brightly.

They decide to go to another room to see an exhibit of ornate folios from medieval Islamic science.

To get there, Bill and Carrie walk through a wall.

Welcome to Second Life, a virtual world accessible through the Internet, and a place where Harvard owns an “island.”

Second Life is peopled with “avatars” — embodied personalities — like Bill and Carrie. “They jump, they fly, they go through walls,” said science historian, mathematician, and educator Elaheh Kheirandish, a fellow at Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies. She was curator of the exhibit to which Bill and Carrie paid a virtual visit.

Kheirandish was among more than 100 real live visitors to a Digital Humanities Fair this week (Dec. 16) in the Barker Center’s Thompson Room — a first-ever comprehensive display of Harvard’s digital resources for scholars and students of the humanities.

Those who stopped by included about 60 Harvard faculty members, said fair organizer Alexander F. Parker, director of research computing in the humanities. On hand were experts from 10 Harvard organizations, ready to demonstrate and discuss their digital projects and services.

“There are a surprising number of resources available” at Harvard in the digital realm, said Parker. “But there are so many, it can be overwhelming.”

He has been working with Harvard Dean of Arts and Humanities Diana Sorensen, sorting out what he called the “landscape” of digital resources in the humanities. It is already clear, said Parker, that “there is a small universe of opportunities.”

Bill and Carrie were part of a display by the Academic Technology Group (ATG) at Harvard, a resource for technology-enhanced teaching and learning tools. Those include virtual worlds and video, along with the clickers, wikis, and discussion boards used in collaborative learning environments.

The ATG, an arm of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) Information Technology group, creates course-specific multimedia Web sites, including a recent virtual world of 17th century Harvard for archaeology students.

The Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning had a display, pointing to, among other things, its courses and seminars on Web pedagogy.

Visitors took in a lesson on the Harvard University Library’s Visual Information Access, with its contributing collections of images on horticulture, Hellenic studies, medicine, business, law, zoology, and more.

The Harvard Division of Continuing Education had a table set up, with experts ready to talk to faculty about the experimental reach of its 120 online courses, and its longtime investment in distance education.

In some cases, digital resources at Harvard have been accelerated or expanded because of an FAS vote in February on open access to scholarly literature. It requires Harvard faculty members to submit an electronic version of scholarly articles to the Provost’s office for an online repository, where they will be available free.

In June, Harvard plans to “open the repository to the world,” said Amy Brand, program manager in the Harvard University Library’s new Office for Scholarly Communication. “The nice thing about a digital archive, as opposed to a physical archive, is that we can make it visible and accessible to the wider world.”

Her office’s DASH repository — as in, Digital Access to Scholarship at Harvard — is now only available to members of the Harvard community as a beta test, she said.

But by this summer, DASH will be accessible to anyone worldwide through Google Scholar and other online indexing services.

In May, Harvard Law School (HLS) instituted a parallel open-access requirement for its faculty scholarship.

Harvard University Press (HUP) is also exploring open access, said Daniel Lee, director of digital content development. Early next year it will publish the first online issue of the “Journal of Legal Analysis,” a peer-reviewed, open-access journal sponsored by HLS.

At the end of next year, the 2009 journal articles will be published in a print-on-demand volume, said Lee. Bringing digital tools to the humanities, he said, “is about changing modes of access to scholarly research.”

Nearby, Ben Lewis, a senior GIS specialist with Harvard’s Center for Geographic Analysis, tapped a few computer keys to call up a detailed map of Africa. To the north, it was dotted in red with the locations of 30,000 water wells.

Geographical information systems, or GIS, can provide a robust platform for humanities research, said Lewis. “This exact spot on the Earth,” he said, pointing down, is not just a coordinate — but the locus of “all kinds of human things.”

For example, his office’s AfricaMap project — launched just two weeks ago — can deepen a scholar’s understanding of an exact place by layering it with historical, environmental, and economic data, as well as links to recent research and even rich databases.

The content of AfricaMap is African, but the same layered, rich mapping framework — “geographic switchboards,” Lewis called them — “can be applied anywhere in the world.”

These kinds of maps, stacked with research and data from many different disciplines, allow researchers to see each other’s work, and invite intellectual interplay among fields as diverse as policy, health, the arts, history, and linguistics.

“It’s all about layers,” said Lewis of GIS tools for the humanities, “and it’s all about concurrence in actual space.”

The center, he added, plans a one-day training session for Harvard faculty members in March.

Many of the fair’s visitors took time to make Bill walk around with the up and down arrow keys on an Apple computer. (Carrie — in reality Caroline M. “Carrie” Kent, head of research services at Widener Library — was moving herself around from a remote location, and busy typing answers to interactive queries.)

The Islamic folios on display numbered only 12, but there is “no limit to the number of pages you can add,” typed Carrie, whose redheaded avatar moved around in a stylish black body stocking. It’s all about new opportunities for “contextualization,” she added. “You could put on display together manuscripts from around the world that you could never, in real life, see together.”

Carrie, the avatar, offered one guest a trip to a virtual Harvard College library. It was set whimsically in an open-air portico, where a waiting lounge chair pointed to a nearby faux sea.

“Hold on,” said Carrie, “and I will transport you.”