Analyzing abundance


When I was asked to share my perspective on the question of how digital humanities and media studies interrelate, my thoughts turned to how scholars access and make meaning of large digital repositories. My response centers on access: what is accessible, what is inaccessible, and how we can resolve the gap. Media studies and its suite of theoretical approaches seem to be well suited for analysis of not only the data itself but the institutional structures and power dynamics that lead to accessible digital artifacts. 

Efforts such as the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) and the digital presence of the Prelinger Archive and the Internet Archive, among others, aim to provide online access to digital and digitized collections. While these projects significantly advance the capabilities of digital humanists, the work of libraries and cultural repositories has just begun. As these collections move online--and as websites and other "born-digital" collections are acquired by groups like the Archive Team--what is acquired and made accessible is as significant as how these materials are made accessible. Metadata--the descriptors of these digital or digitized materials--becomes vital to the process of analyzing cultural artifacts (digital and non-digital). Increasingly, organizations providing access to public domain materials or materials made public must consider how their digital collections can be accessed through APIs (application programming interfaces) as a way to build bridges between collections and map data across organizations and existing metadata schema. These APIs are likely to be incomplete, particularly those from private organizations who seek to profit from back catalogs and libraries of commercial media. 

As a field, digital humanities grapples with the complexities of building systems that best represent culture and make sense of the material artifacts of cultures -- their texts, their art, their expression. The media studies discipline represents a set of theoretical approaches to data accumulated and linked through these systems. Humanists must not mistake accessible data as representative data, and must work to build interoperable systems that allow for solid comparative analysis. Scholarly inquiry in the digital humanities can leverage the cross-disciplinary approach of media studies to analyze complex systems through application of a variety of theoretical frameworks. In turn, media scholars must draw from the strengths of digital humanities, which leverage storytelling through maps, interactive visualizations, audio, video, and traditional scholarship.

Archives like those linked through the DPLA and the Internet Archive capture a mere fraction of the sum of human creativity and omit the types of communicative practice occurring through walled garden environments. We must continue to question what's missing from our datasets and how those missing artifacts can be made not only digital but accessible for analysis.

Image on front page by Cea and available on Flickr.


You point out what might be a future concern for the labor force: what type of manpower will be required to build these massive networks of knowledge? In the university, it's easy to take for granted the considerable tagging and hyperlinking that each article undergoes. When you compare to corporate or state/federal agency data stores, it becomes difficult to locate resources because maintaining a sound framework of metadata is not considered a priority. This, along with the issues of ownership/transparency, makes it difficult to genuinely access these valuable resources. 

I look forward to the time when, not only are these information networks more structurally solid, but are so much so that gaps and conflicts are much more pronounced as easy to identify. 

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