Oct 21 2011

Dinghies and Ocean Liners – DH projects of different sizes

DH activity, especially when it is based on creation or manipulation of digital materials, usually takes the form of a project – whether it is a dissertation, a grant, or a digital publication. Until recently, projects tended to be large and expensive, and to seek justification in words like “long term,” “sustainable,” “generalizable,” “infrastructure.” Such projects are intended for public use, and want to be many things to many people. In some cases, the shaping and presentation of the digital resources seem to have displaced the research questions that provided the initial impetus. The Index Thomisticus, which arguably started us all down this path, may even be the first example of this. These are the ocean liners – beautifully detailed, massive, able to cross the ocean – but they require a crew to sail and maintain them.

There are other DH projects, however, which have a more ephemeral quality; they may be more private in scope, less generalizable, and rough around the edges. These are originate as experiments and explorations, and are focussed on a research question, either firmly within a traditional discipline or at the intersection of a discipline and the use of technology. Examples may be the many data sets and visualizations we find in ManyEyes, or an individual research database. These are the dinghies – small, light and easy to sail, but not designed for long voyages.

The two types of project I have described above are not as distinct as I make out. What starts out as a dinghy of a research projects morphs into a ocean liner along the way, as the researchers needs and ambitions grow, or as their colleagues start to express interest. Large ocean liner projects become more useful if they can also behave like dinghies, allowing individuals to manouevre them where they need.

I’d like to discuss how projects take shape, how think about size, audience, and life-cycle. Should they all be engineered like ocean liners? How much detail and classificatory “purity” do digital materials need? When does it matter? Does it matter? Am I perhaps expressing a problem that pits researchers against librarians? What are the commonalities across types of project?

About the author

Elli Mylonas

Senior Digital Humanities Librarian and former classicist, and in the Center for Digital Scholarship where I work on digital humanities projects. Generally a text-based life form, but flirts with spatial and visual symbolic representations.

Permanent link to this article: http://newengland2011.thatcamp.org/10/21/dinghies-and-ocean-liners-dh-projects-of-different-sizes/


  1. Amanda Rust

    I think there’s interesting overlap with a session I proposed here, only you articulated better than I the concerns about locking oneself into only an ad hoc or only a programmatic approach. I’d definitely enjoy taking part in a discussion around these issues, in whichever session they appear.

  2. Elli Mylonas



    I saw your session, and I agree that we are circling around a similar issue. You are are investigating how projects originate and where they live, which is both organizational and strategic. I am looking at how projects are developed. The two are related, since where something originates will affect how it is designed and implemented. And there are the opposing forces of efficiency and creativity (which sometimes involves wasting time) and inertia/agility which can be found at different times in both models.

    But I’m having a conversation with myself, so looking forward to having one with more people at THATCamp.

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