By Josh Cowls on March 16, 2017
Welcome to h+d Portraits, a new series of interviews with scholars and practitioners of the Digital Humanities. In this series, we aim to explore what the label Digital Humanities means in practice – by assembling a diverse set of perspectives from those engaged in this still-emerging field.
We kick off the series with our conversation with Ece Turnator. Ece recently joined MIT Libraries as a Humanities and Digital Scholarship Librarian. She completed her PhD in Byzantine History at Harvard, before joining the University of Texas Libraries to conduct postdoctoral work in medieval data curation. In our interview, Ece offered her perspective on the intersection between traditional historical research and the use of new methods, resources, and ways of thinking.
Ece, tell us about your academic background prior to joining MIT. How did you become involved in Digital Humanities?
For my PhD, I worked on the economy of the Byzantine empire during and after the 13th century – specifically before and after the Latin conquest of Constantinople. I looked at how it impacted the economy, in what ways, and what the state of the economy was before they arrived in that area in 1204 AD. I used textual data, but I also used textile analyses, evidence from numismatics, and ceramics, altogether.
So those were my three main sources of data, and I put them all into Excel, and tried to create maps out of them to understand what exactly was going on with the data that I had collected. The more I looked at them, the more it helped me understand the context, so that was my introduction to doing humanities with the help of digital tools.
I then worked at UT with a professor in the English department, and at UT Libraries my office was in the IT Unit of the Libraries. Essentially our goal was to design a medieval project that would be updated and sustained with the help of the Libraries. I worked on that for two years – it was a great learning experience. I think the libraries learnt a lot from the experience of working with a humanities project, and trying to understand what goes in and out of creating a DH project. I think it also benefited the faculty member, and clearly it did benefit me – now I’m here at MIT Libraries.
What does your work at MIT Libraries involve, and what has been the reaction to your efforts in the MIT community more broadly?
Here at MIT, I’m working with Doug O’Reagan, who’s a SHASS postdoctoral fellow doing very similar things here to what I did at UT – so we’re kind of joined forces in that regard, working towards understanding what DH means at MIT. It’s a different kind of animal here, from what I understand so far. So as part of Doug and the Libraries’ efforts to understand what’s going on at MIT with respect to Digital Humanities, we meet with faculty in different departments, as well as graduate students.
So when Doug and I go round and meet faculty we ask them, “what does DH mean to you?”, “do you think there should be a center for DH?, and “how should the training be done in your specific departments?”. We get different kinds of answers and focuses. Sometimes the emphasis, interestingly, is on training in social statistics and computation, and how to integrate these into humanities. But when you talk to the folks who are trained inside of the humanities department they ask different kinds of questions, and often emphasize the need for more ethics, and more guidance on how to create resources which acknowledge the social and historical bearings of what it means to create a digital tool, resource, or machine. That kind of tension here exists that I had not noticed at other places that I have been. This could be creative, or it could lead to other directions, and I can’t tell at this point in time. But it is interesting – and I think it is MIT-specific, that tension.
What, in your view, are the key questions around the push towards open access in the humanities?
We have to appreciate that it’s a big cultural change, for especially humanities departments but also other departments as well: what does it mean to be open access, is it actually doable, and how to do we get to that ideal? Those are all challenges that are posed by the systems that we created in the post-second world war world, and now we’re trying to rewind the calendar back a little bit, to get to the time before the locking down of resources. So now the question is – how do we move back to earlier ideals, and create a knowledge commons such that information is not locked down, but is available for whoever wants to actually use it.
How do you see libraries changing in the future?
I think a lot of the future development is going to incorporate formalized training of students. So far what has happened is students have to gather computational skills on their own, with not a lot of help that’s recognized – transcribable recognition, that we prioritize. We prioritize other aspects of their training, but we don’t prioritize training around how we create data that’s shareable, how we create data that’s usable by others, and how we think about who is going to access that data once we create it.
Specifically thinking about humanities fields, this has not so far been explicitly taught in our fields across the board. But maybe the trend is going to be towards trying to incorporate that big cultural change into humanities, and work toward integrating those values and skills – not just skills on their own, but values and skills – into the training of humanities students at large.