Masterclass: Born-digital data in the humanities

Jane Winters led a discussion on a distinctive arts and humanities understanding of the potential of born-digital information, i.e. information such as websites or tweets created digitally and without an analogue form. Born-digital information refers here to historical reports in web archives, social media comments and reports on contemporary events, textual reports as well as multimedia items such as images and videos and finally also data tracked through the Internet of Things. Most of the work in the domain of born-digital information has up to now been the domain of computing research concerned with the conditions and use of born digital data; applied mathematics and statistics developing new kinds of modelling that helps describe quantifiable trends and properties of born-digital information as well as social sciences research using social and other new media to indirectly crowd-source opinions, sentiments, etc.

We wanted to investigate whether there can be a genuine humanities on born-digital data and how its corresponding methods that can take into account the critical traditions of humanities scholarship. It is urgent to develop these as the first significant archives and collections are currently released. Also, in history we need to deal with the emergence of born-datafied collections that cannot be dealt with anymore with traditional methods alone. Big data debates have taught us that digitisation is often not enough. In order to make digital use of objects they need to be datafied. The question is then how datafied collections enter humanties research, because beyond all interest in computational models that digital humanities have demonstrated to be useful, our foremost interest is how by connecting the dots in an infinite born-digital archive of contemporary and historical records we can develop a story out of material and develop a narrative. James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, summarizes the situation as following: “Whether or not we have a facility with numbers, we are good at asking questions and analyzing evidence that by its nature generates many variables at once. (…) we look for stories—for ways of synthesizing diverse strands into narrative themes (…).” (


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