Digital Humanities
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NYCDH Week’s Digital Art History in Practice: Digi Café, NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts, 2/11/16

On February 11th, I attended an event at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts with the theme “Digital Art History in Practice.” The “Digital Art History in Practice” event, a component of NYC Digital Humanities week, was partitioned into two sections: a lecture session (morning) and a workshop session (afternoon). I was unable to attend the morning session, as it had met its capacity of attendees, but I was able to attend the afternoon workshop, the “Digi Café” (which had been billed as a repeat of the morning session, since it had met capacity, but it turned out to be a workshop on what I can only assume was a more informal, hands-on version of the morning session). The event was free and open to all who were interested in attending.

Prior to attending the workshop, I installed all software that was to be discussed at the workshop on my laptop, as was recommended on the event page. All software is open source, which is an “Internet value” that “infuse[s]” the accessibility and openness values of the digital humanities discipline (Spiro, 2012; Presner, 2009).

The workshop was very casual—so casual, that I wasn’t quite sure what to do with myself when I arrived. At first, I sat off to the side, watching people mingle—almost everyone seemed to know each other—and set up their laptops. Several tables (or stations) were interspersed throughout the room with signs indicating a DH-friendly software/platform. My expectation had been that I’d watch a presentation and would follow-along with my laptop. Instead, this workshop seemed to embody the structure (or, rather, un-structure) of an “unconference” (e.g., THATCamp). An “unconference…promotes collaboration…[and] aims to be open…informal…non-hierarchical…[and] inter-professional” (Spiro, 2012). Once I noticed modest-sized audiences assembling at stations, I jumped in.

The first software I learned about was Zotero. Ralph Baylor, Assistant Librarian for Public Services at The Frick Art Reference Library, led the discussion. Zotero “offers users a variety of ways to capture, import, and archive item information and files…[it] collect[s] information on books, journal articles, and websites with a single click and then easily stores related PDFs, images, links, whole web pages” into your Zotero library (a verbatim description from a hand-out I was given at the workshop).  I asked Baylor if Zotero could be used for special collection finding aids since, from my experience, special collection finding aids sometimes are described at an item level; he explained that the Frick uses it for interlibrary loan. This tool creates a bibliography from the articles/books saved in your Zotero library using a reference style of choice. It ultimately cuts down an unnecessary amount of time spent on formatting references and allows a user to exert his/her brainpower more fully on his/her writing.

At the next station I visited, Louisa Wood Ruby, the Head of Photoarchive Research at the Frick Art Reference Library, was in the middle of explaining the development of an innovative, cross-institutional project—a project akin to a linked open data initiative.

The main purpose of the “PHAROS: An International Consortium of Photo Archives” project is to link similar images of art across institutions. John Resig, a developer at Khan Academy and the creator of jQuery JavaScript library, explains:

“The Frick…[is a] part of a larger photo archive consortium [of 14 institutions], called PHAROS, which has many other photo archives from all over the world. In total they’re likely going to have over 10 million photos of art once all of their collections are pooled.”

After the aggregation of images, metadata for each photograph of art can be compared and, as Wood Ruby noted in her discussion, can fill in the gaps for records that are missing particular attributes, allowing for a more richly described item.

The most favorable method for aggregating images, Wood Ruby explained, is to upload an image and have a page populate with all related images from various institutions in the PHAROS consortium (, Wood Ruby mentioned, developed by John Resig, is a website that does just this but with Japanese woodblock prints.). She showed us a beta software, Aries, which will allow for all institutions’ images to populate on a blank canvas, set to scale, and provides functionalities such as filters, a timeline to see how the art changed over time, and a geochart. All of these functionalities would allow for more in-depth comparisons of images.

Wood Ruby then emphasized her need for computer programmers and the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration. Interdisciplinary work and collaborative work are often cited as some of the tenets of the digital humanities (Spiro, 2012; Burdick et al., 2012). Presner (2009) describes this emphasis on collaboration as a reinvention of the “solitary, ‘eccentric’, even hermetic work” carried out by individuals connected to academic institutions—namely, the traditional approach to the humanities. However, when dealing with multi-disciplines, sometimes things can get lost in translation. Wood Ruby mentioned the need for programmers who have an interest in tackling humanities projects, in particular, and noted that it can sometimes be difficult to translate her needs and vision as a digital humanist to someone outside the field. To ease inter-disciplinary interactions, there is a need for “methodological transparency,” meaning the methodology used for a project should be clear to all involved (Reider & Röhle, 2012). There should also be some flexibility during the creation of an application so that feedback can be taken into consideration and applied to the application (Reider & Röhle, 2012).

My last stop was at the D3.js (Data Driven Documents) table. Jason Varone, an Artist and the Web & Electronic Media Manager at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts, spoke of his projects using D3.js, a JavaScript library used to produce visualizations in browsers. He started off by talking about “Mapping Video Art” a project that is “…an experiment in data visualization…[which] allows a user to see the movement of video art as it crossed continents and decades.” Information about video exhibitions can be viewed with a mouse-over, and movement is color-coded; there is also a timeline slider and a zoom in and out feature. Using data Varone collected on his own and by partnering with programmers, this project came to life. Varone spoke of how having a programmer was essential but being able to update the visualization by himself was also of importance; in the case of adding new exhibitions, Varone would simply need to download the .CSV connected to the visualization and add to it.

As I had some basic familiarity with WordPress and CartoDB, I didn’t stop at these stations. I had wanted to learn more about Cytoscape, an (“open source bioinformatics software platform for visualizing molecular interaction networks and integrating these interactions with gene expression profiles” (something that is admittedly niche, but interesting) but unfortunately the instructor hadn’t been able to make it to the workshop.

Overall, the workshop was a springboard for further delving into the mentioned DH-friendly software. I was introduced to software and projects I hadn’t been aware of before–I certainly would like to experiment with the software further and follow the progress of the projects. I also appreciated that the instructors were passionate about their projects and topics, were welcoming, and friendly–the non-discriminatory, “openness” fundamentals of the digital humanities discipline (or what needs to be solidified as the values of the discipline [Spiro, 2012]) really seemed to be at play.

Finally, as someone looking at the digital humanities from a library science perspective, it is valuable to have a basic understanding of DH software and to be aware of major projects in the field, as there is much crossover between the disciplines: librarians and digital humanists are similar in that they both support open access material, augmenting scholarly research, and collaboration.


Burdick, A., Drucker, J., Lunenfeld, P., Presner, T. & Schnapp, J. (2012). Digital humanities fundamentals. In Digital_Humanities. MIT. Retrieved from

Presner, T. (2009).  Digital humanities manifesto 2.0. Retrieved from

Reider, B., and RöhleT. (2012). Digital methodsFive challenges. In Understanding Digital Humanities, ed. D.M. Berry, 67–84. Houndmills: Palgrave McMillan.

Spiro, L. (2012). This is why we fight: Defining the values of digital humanities. In Debates in the Digital Humanities, ed. M. K. Gold. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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