Abby Westmark was awarded a bursary to attend the Digital Humanities Oxford Summer School in 2023, on the Humanities Data strand. To find out more about this year's bursaries see here. To join the mailing list and learn about the next summer school sign up here.
I’m not unfamiliar with data management principles; before returning to academic life as postgraduate at Oxford, I worked as a project manager in process improvement, shepherding a growing manufacturing company through the growing pains of software implementation and data standardisation. I had tried to apply principles from my working life to my research with varying degrees of success - although my data was neat and orderly, I was spending more time trying to adapt commercial solutions to my needs as a researcher than I was actually using the data I had painstakingly gathered.
Where enterprise data is standard, codified, and comprehensive, historical data is not. Simple problems that are easy to parse in small quantities – date ranges instead of dates, incomplete records, and anonymous creators - all wreaked havoc on my systems. I had shared these concerns with a fellow mature student historian who brought the DHOxSS programme to my attention. An application later, I was the proud holder of a DHOxSS23 bursary for the Humanities Data strand.
As I walked into Keble college on day one of the course, I didn’t know what to expect. Mingling with other attendees over coffee, I realised that we came from a full rainbow of backgrounds: undergraduates to postdocs, volunteers to directors, local Oxford commuters to travellers all the way from Japan. We represented a wide variety of disciplines across the humanities, with the Humanities Data strand sporting researchers, librarians, museum professionals, and heritage coordinators. We all had different problems that needed different solutions, with one key thing in common: we all had data, but we didn’t know what to do with it.
The week whipped by in a whirlwind of ideas and acronyms, our vocabularies expanding at record pace. My hands cramped from frantic note-taking as I tried to record every word from the stellar line-up of presenters; if a useful snippet triggers a lightbulb moment, the week was an all-out festival of laser beams. Lunch, taken with fellow attendees in Keble’s dining hall, provided no respite; as we chattered among ourselves, synthesising the tidal wave of information we’d just been bathed in, friendships and working partnerships formed and concepts coagulated into concrete action points.
Over post-conference pints, fellow attendees and I picked apart the snarls of our data maps using strategies gleaned from the days’ seminars. Work mingled with play; as we discussed our lives and projects, I saw the sparks of joy that had led each of us to our subjects reignited. I am privileged, as an Oxford student, to spend my research time surrounded by passionate intellectuals, but I often find disconnect when discussing the systems and strategies I use for my work. Not at DHOxSS – I found myself surrounded by people that were not just enthusiastic about their subject, but were genuinely excited about the ways that technology can enhance the humanities.
Exhausted, exhilarated, and brimming with more ideas than I could imagine, I stumbled home after the week to consolidate and implement the things I had learned. Over the following month as I reviewed my notes, diving in detail into the systems and solutions presented, I found myself working and re-working my data plan. My tangled research approach is now slowly resolving into a manageable and useable body of data that has dramatically changed since the beginning of the summer.
My doctoral project proposal has been similarly impacted, as I have chosen to focus on a technology-driven approach I hadn’t even known was possible before DHOxSS. The Humanities Data programme has given me the tools to approach my research in a connected, sustainable way, and I’m looking forward to returning to Oxford for this coming academic year armed with a fresh arsenal of techniques to share with my fellow researchers, excited about the work I’m doing in history, and hopeful for a connected, digital, humanities future.