Introduction to Digital Humanities
Digital Humanities is born of the encounter between traditional humanities and computational methods. With the migration of cultural materials into networked environments, questions regarding the production, availability, validity and stewardship of these materials present new challenges and opportunities for humanists.Burdick, Anne et al Digital Humanities (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2012), page 3
The Joan Jonas Knowledge Base is based on the Artist Archives Initiative approach to focus equally on the content of the resource and the software technology used to house the information. To this end we have developed project goals and made technology systems to best support our humanities research in a supporting digital environment.
Project Goals and Technology
Our project goals reflect our grounding in Digital Humanities. These include:
- Building a narrative that captures our art historical, curatorial and conservation research on Joan Jonas’s works in a readable essay format while integrated with media such as images, video, audio recordings of interviews and other supporting materials.
- Building a dataset that captures both the facts about and the connections among the artist’s works and exhibitions, as well as the individuals and institutions that she collaborated with.
- Sharing our resource and rendering the results of our research discoverable across institutional boundaries as well as across cultural and national boundaries.
- Documenting our approach so that other small arts organizations such as artist foundations and small collections can use this project as a model and contribute to research on contemporary art.
- Ensuring the long-term preservation of this resource.
The Database Challenge
One of the challenges that we face in building a database to track works of contemporary art in general and performance art in particular is that highly structured databases which are widely used for collections in museums, galleries and archival institutions for traditional, physical works of art do not provide the flexibility that we need to capture the variability, iterations and complexity of works of performance art.
Competing to make meaning out of the world, database and narrative produce endless hybrids. It is hard to find a pure encyclopedia without any traces of a narrative in it and vice versa.Lev Manovich, “Database as Symbolic Form,” in Database Aesthetics, ed. Victoria Vesna (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), page 51.
Both narrative and datasets are needed to best capture our scholarship on Joan Jonas’s work for art historians, curators and conservators. The “narrative” side of this project presents our reader with essays along with images, audio, video and additional written information through the transcripts of our interviews, the annotated bibliographies, and more. The “data” side of this project uses a linked open data format for further study through data presentation and data visualization. We have uploaded our datasets onto Wikidata, an international open source and freely available knowledge base, in order to ensure that the datasets that we have researched are accessible and discoverable. Our website provides users with data summaries and visualizations based on queries run against the Wikidata implementation.
Technology Choices and Implementation
In order to realize our project goals, we derived the following guidelines with respect to our usage of technology:
- We made a commitment to use open source software both to save on cost and as an expression of commitment to open source software and to making cultural heritage research and resources accessible to all.
- We selected WordPress as an open source, widely used, and widely supported open source CMS [Content Management system] to host the narrative results of our work. We believe this environment will support long-term preservation of the site as well as to support our scholarly goals.
- We elected to use linked open data for our dataset in order to capture the relationships among the entities in the data and the facts represented by the data in an open source and internationally recognized format. We further decided to use Wikidata to host our linked open dataset in order to support cross-institutional and international discoverability for research purposes. We selected Wikidata over an implementation of Wikibase to host the linked data as Wikibase requires resources and technical support that would likely not be affordable or available to many small arts organizations.
- As part of our workflow, we integrated OpenRefine into our data editing and verification process. OpenRefine is an open source popular data preparation tool which is widely used by Digital Humanities practitioners in general and by scholars, researchers and other professionals in the fine arts in particular. OpenRefine aids in the data integration process with Wikidata through verification and feedback on datasets prior to uploading them into Wikidata.
- By using Wikidata, we are able to take advantage of SPARQL, a query language for working with linked open data. We have integrated sample SPARQL queries running at the Wikidata SPARQL endpoint into our resource in order to present relevant data visualizations, and to guide and inspire our users to explore our dataset on Joan Jonas and her works.
- We have documented how such queries may be written and provided users with suggestions and resources for users who wish to build their own SPARQL queries to research Joan Jonas’s works.
We are grateful to New York University for hosting this project through the Digital Scholarship Services at the Bobst Library.