How should we treat data? Like we were Humanists

broken relationships


It strikes me how we (digital humanists) have a very different relationship with structured data compared to the one we have with text and literature. This seems to me to be reflected in the way that we treat data. While many different initiatives around the world attempt to bring data from cultural organisations together, we seem intent on accepting a narrow view about the possibilities of data, computers and the interaction of people, and as a result are happy to ignore the possibilities and benefits of capturing the context (and meaning) attached to data by the experts (people) who produced it and who continually update and develop it. If humanist researchers digitise a book to learn more about it, isn’t the objective to discover more, to discover the hidden relationships and meanings and make connections with other evidence that we have? Do we seek to exclude the elements of it that would give us this insight and throw them away? If not, then why do we accept this situation with cultural data?

Many cultural information systems were designed as closed systems to be used internally in union with the knowledge of the institution and its experts. The original data schemas were often produced to create a functional inventory or reference, and as an internal system they offer a valuable resource – but they are used in combination with other internal knowledge about the data (a knowledge built up over time). If you separate data from its institutional knowledge and context then you lose this essential part of the overall ‘information system’. This is why, when we represent data it should not be just a technical process. It should involve and add institutional knowledge to ensure that the data carries with it as much of this additional and valuable local meaning as possible. Data providers, the institutions themselves, could be providing data that is far more expressive and far more likely to help people (researchers, teachers, ‘the public’ and the institutions themselves) understand their relationship with the past – the type of representations that we take for granted when working on digital literature projects.

“…what would we be without memory? We would not be capable of ordering even the simplest thoughts, the most sensitive heart would lose the ability to show affection, our existence would be a mere never-ending chain of meaningless moments, and there would not be the faintest trace of a past.”   Max Sebald (The Rings of Saturn)

Let’s not make data meaningless and technical, devoid of memory and perspective. Let’s treat it in such a way that it can also evoke meaningful and long lasting memories, and let’s allow it to make connections between different memories (perhaps ones separated by time and place) many of which have been long since forgotten and locked away in our knowledge/memory silos. Let’s use data to produce powerful narratives about history – like we do with literature. Let’s treat data like we were humanists.

For a more formal version of this blog see: 


*By Kathy Kimpel (Flickr: IMG_0327) [CC-BY-2.0 (]