Conference “(Retro)Digitalisate – Kommentarkultur – Big Data” 8-9 October

In this blog post I highlight a few aspects which were of particular interest for me during the conference (Retro)Digitalisate – Kommentarkultur – Big Data: Zum Stand des Digitalen in den Geisteswissenschaften. The concept behind the conference was quite intrigueing: No classical paper presentations as an attempt to stop people from saying what they always say. Instead the organizers opted for a combination of panel discussions and keynotes. The conference’s subtitle describes the angle: “The state of Digital in the Humanities”. I was invited to talk about tools and the (re-)use of digital materials and would like to thank the organizers Lilian Landes and Norbert Kunz for the invitation.


As far as I could tell, the conference brought together people from very diverse fields of work (libraries, publishing, humanities research, IT, lexicology…) who mixed together in four panels with the topics “Digital publishing”, “Tools”, “Communication” and “Post-publications”. In the end however, the issues which were really up for debate found their way in all of them: What counts as Digital Humanities? Which consequences does this have for the humanities? Are the rapid changes we are experiencing changes for the worse, better or are they just changes?

The four panels made it very clear that “digital” is changing the humanities and makes me agree even more with Mareike König who calls the humanities digital already. But following the discussions also made it very clear that at this stage, old models of publications, career planning, self-identification are in a state of profound transformation which is experienced in a positive way by some and in a negative way by others. At this stage there is no way to predict where this transformation will lead the humanities and continued cuts in funding in- and outside the universities are reasons to be concerned. This is also reflected in one common angle in all of the keynotes and panelists: Sitting it out is not an option.

Conference “Europa baut auf Biographien”, Vienna 6-8 October 2015

This blog posts highlights just a few aspects from the conference “Europa baut auf Biographien”, especially those which are particularly close to my field. I was there to talk about networks.

National Library of Vienna

National Biography projects are seen as trusted repositories for information on selected personalities in a nation’s history. In most cases, three conditions need to be met in order to be considered for an entry: significant accomplishments, death and – since these projects typically ran/run for very long periods of time and move alphabetically: having a surname which starts with the right letter. This procedure is of course pragmatic in the pre-digital world but it also meant that Konrad Bloch, a biochemist and nobel prize winner who died in the year 2000, never made it to the German national biography.

Apart from these selection biases and sometimes outdated information the biographies remain a valuable resource for scholars and the public. It was great to see how keen national and regional biographies projects in Germany, Austria and Switzerland were to interlink their entries by means of VIAF and GND ids.

Growth and enrichment of national biographies were of particular interest: Paul Arthur’s keynote referred to a recent change in biography-scholarship: A move towards a biography understood as a network of intersecting lives and activities. His own efforts in this domain for example seeks to aggregate biographical data from different parts of the population, all branded similarly: there is Indigenous Australia, Obituaries Australia, People Australia, Indigenous Australia, Women Australia, Labour Australia as well as a crowd-based project HuNI which lets the public add relations between objects from Australia’s cultural heritage.

Piek Vossen presented their work in BiographyNet and focused on the automated extraction of additional metadata by means of text analysis. Their accomplishments are impressive and a short video on the site describes the project in detail.

In my interpretation and tightly knit to the current wave of networking thinking, a number of talks circled around the idea that biographies should no longer be thought of as isolated depictions of the great but reinterpreted as collective, explicitly European efforts. This is a big, great and most of all: fundable idea.