Lecture by Joëlle Weis: Data Disillusionment: Confessions of a Project Leader

Datafication in the Historical Humanities: Reconsidering Traditional Understandings of Sources and Data

Dr. Joelle Weis


04.06.2022 bis 04.06.2022


a hybrid event an Washington




Dr. Joëlle Weis
Lecture by Joëlle Weis „Data Disillusionment: Confessions of a Project Leader“ in the context of the conference „Datafication in the Historical Humanities: Reconsidering Traditional Understandings of Sources and Data“.

Many of us know the excitement that comes with proposal rhetoric where (almost) everything suddenly seems possible. We set out to develop common standards for our research area, design reusable data models and create sustainable data to revolutionize our field. However, once we are lucky enough to have won funding, reality brings us back down to earth all too often. This paper wants to analyze this phenomenon I call “data disillusionment” by asking the fundamental question: Why did things not turn out as initially planned?

This question does not stand in a vacuum as the past years have brought increased attention to the concept of failure in Digital Humanities. As a community, we realized that talking about things that did not work out can be productive. The fact that we increasingly employ metaphors of experimentation and laboratories is one sign of this significant epistemological shift. But even though, in theory, failing can have a productive quality, our superiors and funding bodies still want to see research results. Admitting mistakes can be a solution for ongoing projects to take countermeasures and still produce the best possible outcomes.

This paper is an example of identifying and observing failure in the making and an invitation to scrutinize our own data practices self-critically. As an example, I present a project I have worked on as principal investigator for the past two years and which will run another three. Together with an interdisciplinary team of historians, DH-experts, literary scholars and art historians, we want to set new standards in digital collection studies, both by building up infrastructures and creating best practice case studies. My sub-project is concerned with the reconstruction of Early Modern libraries and an analysis of their epistemic functions. As a framework for my testimonial, I use the three stages from Johann Gustav Droysen’s historical method (heuristic, criticism, interpretation) and contrast them with three steps of datafication (models, formats, processing). I want to identify the challenges that datafication represents for each of these work steps by reconstructing the paths of our decision making concerning historical sources and data. I will reflect on the implications these decisions had, which in the end led to the data disillusionment mentioned above. Finally, I want to get back to the question of productive failure. I will discuss lessons learned and propose a method of failure anticipation for the optimization of our decision-making in historical research projects.

Dombrowski, Q. (2019). Towards a Taxonomy of Failure. http://quinndombrowski.com/blog/2019/01/30/towards-taxonomy-failure Kemman, M. (2019). DH Failures vs Findings. https://www.maxkemman.nl/2019/02/dh-failures-vs-findings/
Kirby, J. S. (2019). How NOT to create a digital media scholarship platform: the history of the Sophie 2.0 project. IASSIST Quarterly, 42(4).
Pawlicka-Deger, U. (2020). The Laboratory Turn: Exploring Discourses, Landscapes, and Models of Humanities Labs. Digital Humanities Quarterly, 14(3).

Keywords: Dissemination and Community Building in the DH, Sammlungen