The Web & Digital Humanities: What about Semantics?

Friday 20th of April, 11:00am to 12:30 am

Moderator : Yannick Maignien

Y. Maignien recently led (2007-2010) the TGE ADONIS French project of digital infrastructure for the humanities and social sciences. This has realised the ISIDORE platform, with companies Antidot, Mondeca and Sword, using data formats and languages RDF & SKOS. ISIDORE, from a research module could become a platform of integrated services to reuse linked data in the humanities and social sciences. Previously, Y. Maignien was in charge of the digital collections (Gallica) at the BNF (1992-1997)

Humanities, and the more qualitative aspects of the social sciences, are often seen as fields in which Semantic Web applications are problematic. The complex, highly contextualized nature of its source material raises considerable challenges for machine readability and automated processes. Some early accomplishments of Digital Humanities projects show that these are not necessarily insurmountable obstacle, however. In data aggregation and discovery the RDF data model can be very effective for linking online data and documents from extremely heterogeneous contexts. Knowledge Organization vocabularies such as SKOS and meta-ontologies like OWL have proved very useful for large-scale conceptual sightings and data-mining. Even the FOAF vocabulary can be helpful for expressing the complexity of academic and authorship graphs relations, both globally and across disciplines.

Yet the unique demands of the Humanities and Social Sciences must not be ignored and form the principle topic of this panel. The issue of re-use of data, of collectively building new research projects, must be refined and discussed. Will the Semantic Web provoke new innovation beyond discovery and presentation and give rise to new problems from new hypotheses, eventually generating new heuristics? The status of logical inference (or description) will be a crucial issue in this context: is the underlying first order logic sufficiently powerful to deal with the more than often non-deterministic reasoning scenarios in the Humanities? Are there means to extend the signification modes of RDF and RDFS beyond mere denotation in such a way as to deal with connotation, ambiguity, similarity and the like? Will Semantic Web technologies permit functionality beyond semantic annotation? And to what extent will it be possible to ontologically model what has been discussed in the literature as “scholarly primitives” (Unsworth, 2000 and Blanke/Hedges, 2011)?

In addition to the technical challenges are the social ones: How do we encourage participation amongst a Humanities community that historically has low technical literacy and limited interested in complex data modelling? To what extent does the Semantic Web require and/or benefit from open access and decentralisation and how well will that fit with the expectations and rewards structures based on traditional modes of Humanities publication and dissemination? Are Semantic technologies the ultimate digital divide – powerful tools for those who can make use of them but computational voodoo to everyone else? Finally, what might the Humanities themselves have to say about this new medium and what light does it shed on the way humans communicate and interact?


Tobias Blanke

**Tobias Blanke** is a Senior Lecturer in the Centre for e-Research, Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College London. His academic background is in philosophy and computer science. Tobias heads the Centre’s teaching strategy and is the co-director of the MA in Digital Asset Management. His principal research interests lie in the development and research of digital libraries and archives as well as infrastructures for research, particularly in the arts and humanities. He is one of the transition directors of the Digital Research Infrastructure for Arts and Humanities (DARIAH), a European ESFRI project to create an integrated research infrastructure for arts, humanities and cultural heritage data. He also leads the joint research work for EHRI, a pan-European consortium to build a European Holocaust Research Infrastructure.

Stefan Gradmann

**Stefan Gradmann** is Professor of Library and Information Science at Humboldt-University in Berlin. His academic background is in Literary Theory and Semiology with studies done in Paris and Freiburg (Brsg.) Besides his regular teaching and research in the Digital Humanities and in Information Science the fundamental question motivating his work is: how do we constitute ‘meaning’ and ‘understanding’ on the web and how could we push its current simple, mostly denotation based “semantic” information models into more complex and challenging modes of signification. He also has been involved in building Europeana from the very beginning of the endeavour and is responsible for semantic interoperability of Europeana. Before joining Humboldt he was co-directing the computing center of Hamburg University as well as working in libraries and the library automation industry in various positions. He is leading the DM2E project which has recently kicked off and which includes a work package (WP 3) on building, analysing and modelling large scholarly semantic graphs on RDF and RDFS.

Leif Isaksen

**Leif Isaksen** is a Lecturer in Digital Humanities at the University of Southampton with an academic background in Philosophy, Archaeology and Computer Science. His interests cover a wide range of digital applications in the past-oriented Humanities (Archaeology, Classics, History, Art History) with a particular emphasis on Linked Data and spatial technologies. He is Investigator on the Google Ancient Places (GAP) and Pelagios projects, utilizing semantic technologies to connect digital resources across a wide variety of domains. His involvement with the Roman Port Networks and Virtual Lightbox for Museums and Archives (VLMA) projects also used RDF as a means to integrate heterogeneous heritage data. In addition to his interests in digital semantics, Leif leads the ESF-funded NeDiMAH Working Group on Space and Time in the Digital Humanities.

Selected Literature:

  • John Unsworth (2000): Scholarly Primitives. What methods do humanities researchers have in common, and how might our tools reflect this? In the seminar on Humanities Computing, King’s College, London.

  • Tobias Blanke, Mark Hedges (2011): Scholarly primitives. Building institutional infrastructure for humanities e-Science. Future Generation Computer Systems, Available online 13 July 2011.

  • Milad Doueihi (2011) Pour un humanisme numérique, Seuil .