THATCamp HSS 2017

By Charles H. Pence (Louisiana State University)

For the fourth time, the annual HSS meeting (in Toronto in November 2017) included an opportunity for scholars interested in digital approaches to the history of science to meet up, collaborate, and learn from one another. The 2017 version of THATCamp HSS was organized by Kate Sheppard (Missouri University of Science and Technology), Danielle Picard (Vanderbilt University), and Stephen Weldon (University of Oklahoma). “The Humanities and Technology Camp,” or THATCamp for short, is a unique variety of conference—an “unconference,” as the moniker goes—in which no agenda is set in advance and participants work together to craft sessions based on demand and interest. The focus of these meetings, found worldwide, is collaborative learning, with free-form discussion, idea sharing, and problem solving. Attendees with experience in particular technologies or techniques might lead a small working group to improve or enhance them, or form a breakout session for others interested in hearing about their work. Or the group as a whole might discover that we all have a shared interest or problem to solve and focus on it together.

The Toronto Camp saw three major topics of interest quickly rise to the surface. First, while many of us had research interests in digital approaches to history of science, finding a way in which to incorporate these methods into pedagogy is a persistently difficult problem for many of us to solve. To offer us one example, Kate described a solution she used for one of her classes. The educational arm of Wikipedia, the Wiki Education Foundation, has built an assignment aimed at using university students to edit Wikipedia articles. Kate used this assignment in one of her courses: the history of science in Latin America. The benefits are significant and numerous. Students learn how to write, cite, and avoid plagiarism, and are integrated into a broader community of Wikipedia editors, in part by taking a series of training courses on editing that has already been designed by the Wiki Education Foundation. Students select an article with a sizable “content gap,” and fill it by adding three to five hundred words of new material, as a large portion of their final grade.

We then transitioned into an open discussion, focused on other ways in which one might duplicate Wiki-style websites at your own institution, particularly with an eye toward providers that offer hosting for educational computing resources.

Our second main topic embraced the role of Linked Data in digital history research. Linked Data is a collection of technologies that can allow resources on the web—of practically any sort, from bibliographic entries, to descriptions of topic or content areas, to databases of correspondence or collections in museums or libraries—to be connected together. For example, in an ideal world, one might be able to query a list of concepts pertaining to the history of nineteenth-century botany from Wikipedia, cross-reference those concepts through a collection of scientific correspondence to determine a set of letters that make reference to botany in that time period, and then filter that list of letters using a biographical database to determine which authors or recipients were women working in continental Europe.

Of course, we live fairly far from this ideal world, and a number of us were interested in sharing current problems, hurdles, and future directions for Linked Data in digital history of science. Stephen, who in addition to being one of our organizers is editor of the Isis Current Bibliography (IsisCB), described the ways in which his project has worked to deploy Linked Data. The biggest challenge is in figuring out how we can connect multiple systems—a problem reinforced by Alison Pearn (Cambridge, Darwin Correspondence Project), who is currently working on a team developing a new project, called ∑PSILON designed to unify and allow for comprehensive research across the disparate collections of nineteenth-century scientific correspondence that are currently being published (such as those of Darwin, Henslow, Hooker, Faraday, and Tyndall). This requires, for example, that we be able to pick out authors and identify them as the same person across multiple letters, in multiple databases, prepared by multiple curators: are all of these “Henslow”s the same Henslow? This is precisely the kind of challenge that Linked Data should be able to help us solve, if we can manage the technical complexities involved.

We then broke for lunch, which came with two brief keynote presentations. I gave the first one. Since THATCamps tend to focus on digital tools and applications, I tried to encourage the group to think more holistically about the ways in which digital methods can form part of our traditional scholarship—both being driven by and driving our research questions. Digital analyses work best when the need for them arises organically from your current research program—focus on that first, and let the tools and data follow.

The second keynote was by John Stewart (University of Oklahoma), who discussed his work on open note-taking, inspired by work on open laboratory notebooks in chemistry. Shared archival notes, transcriptions, wikis, or blog posts can have an impact not only on our own work, but can assist other scholars and garner credit for work that does not merit formal publication. John has even had success engaging undergraduates in creating open notes, by publishing a website on which they contribute textual annotations on their primary source course materials to a database visible by the entire class, allowing the group to learn collaboratively.

After lunch, one small group broke away to learn about building WordPress sites to encourage public collaboration, while the bulk of the group continued with the theme of John’s keynote, discussing ways in which we might manage the voluminous notes that most of us seem to accrue in the digital age. This discussion primarily focused on inventorying tools that one might use to solve different kinds of note-taking problems. Reference managers such as Zotero can be incredibly helpful, as can (for larger projects like archival collections) library/museum online exhibit software, the most popular of which is Omeka. A newer project, Hypothesis, allows any page on the web to be annotated, commented upon, and discussed, publicly or privately. Finally, more traditional note-taking systems such as Evernote or DEVONthink can powerfully organize notes, documents, and research projects.

Of course, while these were our topics of discussion at this year’s THATCamp, the beauty of the unconference format is that any one of these might or might not make another appearance next year! If spending a day discussing digital technologies in the history of science sounds like something you are interested in, we encourage you to be on the lookout for next year’s THATCamp HSS. Session proposals are welcomed when you register—so if you have an idea for something that you’ve done that you would like to share, or something that you know nothing about that you’d like to understand better, float the idea as a proposal and others might have the same interest. On behalf of the organizers, we hope to see many of you next year in Seattle!

Until then, see, follow us on Twitter: @THATCampHSS, and look out for registration for THATCamp Seattle when you register for the HSS general meeting next year.