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User Involvement

Second Baltic Summer School of Digital Humanities: Data cooks and carpenters: we are still hiring


Blog post by Anda Baklāne (National Library of Latvia, Head of Digital Research Services)


On July 23 – 26 2019, National Library of Latvia hosted the Second Baltic Summer School of Digital Humanities (BSSDH). For a second consecutive year, the school was organised by the National Library of Latvia in collaboration with the Institute of Literature, Folklore and Art of the University of Latvia, Faculty of Social Sciences and Faculty of Humanities of the University of Latvia.

BSSDH is an intensive 4-day summer school that aims to improve digital skills and increase the awareness of digital research infrastructures in the library, archive, and research communities. Among other things, the school seeks of to bring together the creators of digital heritage resources and services (such as libraries, archives, museums) and their users (researchers, educators, students). The insufficient dialogue and collaboration of content providers and users in the field of digital research has often been lamented both in the library and at digital humanities conferences. 

Over 50 students from 10 countries participated in the course this year, among them library specialists and researchers of language, literature, folklore, history, philosophy, social anthropology, media, public health, and public administration. It seemed apparent that in two years, the school had quickly outgrown its one-track format and was ready for parallel sessions and more hours to spend for learning each individual tool or method.

The programme was co-thought by 10 teachers from Latvia, Germany, Norway, Belgium, Estonia, Lithuania, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. This edition of the summer school offered four workshops, each dedicated to acquiring a particular skill-set, and five public lectures that showcase examples of usage of digital technology and methods in research or industry. The full programme can be explored on the BSSDH’s website: http://www.digitalhumanities.lv/bssdh/2019/Programme/.

The highlights of the course this year were an introduction to programming with Python, topic modeling with Python, and text encoding for digital scholarly editions. Citing the infamous on-line advertisement – “Python’s where it’s at. You can do almost anything with it.” No doubt, the willingness to learn programming and Python in particular has grown remarkably among researchers and specialists in fields that would not dream of having programming on their agenda just a few years ago. Is it really a necessity or just a fad, a fashion trend?

While arguing for organising digital skills’ training I have sometimes employed the cooking metaphor: if you do not know how to cook, you are bound to go to the restaurant or to buy ready meals at the mall all the time. If you can cook yourself, on the other hand, you are freer to use ingredients and methods of your choosing. When you want to make something particularly fancy and complicated, you just need to find a good recipe and follow it carefully. Most of the time, using digital tools in humanities and social sciences is following recipes. When humanities scholars are learning programming, they too learn reading code and applying it before can start to learn actual coding. 

At times, I ask myself whether it is fair to compare digital research to cooking. Maybe specific digital skills are not that universally useful and we should rather portray them as carpentry or sewing (there is a good reason why the widely known data literacy training platform is called “Data carpentry”). After all, in modern society not too many people need to know how to make couches or coats. Despite the never-ceasing popularity of the do-it-yourself sub-culture, most of us would still fully rely on the industries that fill the stores with furniture and garments of all shapes and sizes.

All metaphors have their limitations; nevertheless, it seems that models of cooking and carpentry both apply to digital research at least in one respect: there are few shopping malls for digital researchers crowded with either “digital heritage ready meals” or “web archive cabinets” of right shapes and sizes. We suspect that much of the good stuff is still kept in the storages… Even more, we still are not entirely certain what this line of services of “digital scholarship and innovation” is going to look like – what categories of products should be featured, how they will be packaged, how the services are going to be provided, by whom, etc. 

If you are a humanist or a librarian, one way how to approach this problem could be just to wait out - wait for the products and shops to arrive. However, it seems that there is still a lot to do to shape this emerging discipline. From the very beginning, the fields that employ digital methods in research have been moulded not only by data engineers but also by the scholars and specialists of respective fields, be it business, marketing, journalism, linguistics, or literary studies. 

No doubt, in practice, learning Python or graduating from a user of digital libraries into data scientist is not nearly as simple as it sounds. The learning curve is steep and there will be room for many training courses in the years to come. Interestingly enough, though, the experience of BSSDH have demonstrated that comprehensibility of a workshop or lecture often is not determined by the difficulty of the topic alone. Skilful and knowledgeable teachers can elucidate the most troublesome subjects. Regardless of how relevant the topics or how nice the rooms at the summer school’s venue are, the teachers are the key to success of the course.

In 2019, BSSDH was carried out with the support of CLARIN ERIC User Involvement Events programme, the State Culture Capital Foundation of Latvia, and the Nordic Council of Ministers’ Nordplus programme.

Image: Lars Johnsen and class / Photographer: Kristians Luhaers 


Image: Wout Dillen / Photographer: Kristians Luhaers 


Image: Christof Schöch and class Photographer: Kristians Luhaers 


Image: Class/ Photographer: Kristians Luhaers 

Image: Clemens Neudecker/ Photographer: Kristians Luhaers