Peter Haber Five Years After

Yesterday I was honored to take part in a digital history seminar that gave its participants an opportunity to reflect on the life and accomplishments of our friend and colleague Peter Haber who died more than five years ago. Peter and I (along with Jan Hodel) were collaborators on an experimental digital history project and through that (and other) work, became friends as well as colleagues.

I’ve already written an obituary for Peter, so I won’t rehash what I wrote in 2013, but you can read it here. For a historian, Peter was always looking forward, so instead of revisiting his life, I’ll summarize instead what I said in the seminar. That the speakers were located in Basel (with the audience), Innsbruck, and here in Fairfax would, I think, have made Peter very happy. My task was to say something about what has happened in digital history over the past five years and to peek a bit into the future, so here’s what I said, more or less.

To begin with, I think it’s important to recognize what hasn’t changed in the past five years. The short answer is, a lot hasn’t changed, but the two big issues that we still haven’t dealt with successfully are deciding how to credit the work of digital historians in academia. Promotion committees still struggle with digital history, largely because they want to find ways to make the work we do fit into categories they already understand, like “book” or “article.” Digital history doesn’t work that way and will never fit into those categories. As long as we keep trying to fit the square peg in the round hole, we’ll be stuck where we are. The second thing that hasn’t changed is that granting agencies (generally) don’t like to fund the sustainability of digital projects. Funding new projects is great and I’m very thankful to all the funding agencies who have supported my and my colleagues’ work over the past two decades. But it remains very difficult to find funds to keep those projects updated and online.

On the good side of the ledger, I would argue that the two most positive developments of the past five years are the mushrooming amount of linked open data available to digital humanists, and the increasingly blurry boundaries between the history, library science, geography, linguistics, computer science, and other disciplines.

The more linked open data we have, and the better our tools get for working with that data, the more interesting will be the results coming from the analysis of these vast corpora of texts, images, numbers, sounds, and other forms of humanistic content. Both of the other speakers in the seminar mentioned AI and machine learning as critical to what’s happening, but call me a cautious optimist on that front. Thus far, the results I’ve seen from machine analysis of these data sets hasn’t really resulted in any big insights that have made historians sit up and say, “Wow!”. I expect that to happen one of these days, maybe soon. But right now I think the most interesting results coming from the analysis of linked open data is coming from the minds of humans rather than from machines.

I am also gratified by the blurring of those disciplinary lines I just mentioned. Geospatial humanities projects are excellent examples of that blurring, but I’m also encouraged by the growing sophistication of conversations between historians and librarians and archivists around information architecture. Digital historians and digital archaeologists are also starting to find interesting common ground. Our students will live lives that slide back and forth across and through disciplinary boundaries, so why shouldn’t we? Not long ago I had an incredibly energizing conversation with Cristina Wood about her work in data sonification. I think Peter would be very happy to see the increasing levels of collaboration across these boundaries and the entrepreneurial work graduate students like Cristina are doing.

My peek into the future included a prediction: future historians will spend an inordinate amount of time trying to preserve cultural resources around the world that are vanishing as a result of climate change — especially those that will submerge into the oceans and seas as a result of the melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. Digital historians are going to be called upon to help preserve these historic sites and other resources, so the time is already here when we should be preparing our students for this work.

Finally, I pointed out that the digital humanities starts to look and feel more like a discipline, a growing number of scholars are trying to draw lines around what is and what isn’t “digital humanities.” It’s only natural that they might, because it is through the setting of boundaries that we know what we are and aren’t doing. The problem, of course, is that creation of boundaries leads inevitably to “You’re doing it wrong!”

I like to think Peter Haber would have, in his gentle yet firm way, pushed back against the notion that there were right and wrong ways to do digital humanities. Fortunately, as yesterday’s seminar demonstrates, his legacy lives on through his colleagues, his students, and his family.