Jeffrey Schnapp of Harvard’s metaLab on Digital Humanities

On April 2, 2013 by Grad Forum

“Imagine a world where scholarship lives in the streets not just in the stacks,” said Jeffrey Schnapp in a lecture on March 7th. A romance languages and literature professor at Harvard University, Schnapp discussed how the digital humanities provides new methods for humanistic inquiry and for sharing scholarly knowledge.

Schnapp, who taught in Dartmouth’s French and Italian Department from 1983 to 1985, collaborated with the Dartmouth Dante Project, an effort to cull Dante criticism into a single database. Schnapp is now the director of Harvard’s metaLab, a research and teaching unit at Harvard University that focuses on exploring and expanding the borders of networked culture in the arts and humanities.

A recent metaLab project enables audiences to visualize the dissemination of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations across time, space, and languages. Schnapp explained that integrating digital media into one’s work does not need to affect the rigor and precision proper to scholarship. Digital media allows scholars to “build big pictures out of research questions,” which in turn, makes the relevance and value of their scholarship more visible to the world beyond the borders of their discipline and of academia. 

In 2012, Schnapp, along with leading experts from University of California, Los Angeles and Art Center College of Design, co-wrote and published Digital_Humanities. The book argues that the digital humanities has the potential to revitalize the liberal arts and discusses different methods it offers for humanistic inquiry such as visualization, data mining, critical curation, and geospatial analysis.

metaLab recently helped design and implement the Reischauer Institute’s Digital Archive of Japan’s 2011 Disasters, which records the events of the 2011 tsunami and its aftermath. This archive encourages a wider range of participation than digital copies of print records. It is also unlike the traditional archive, which is often in a library vault and can only be accessed by a few. Public citizens can upload materials, such as photos, and it contains a record of people’s reactions to the events in the moment they happened. While enabling average citizens to contribute to the recording of history, the archives also involve the experts, such as historians.

metaLab is also involved in work on multimedia library collections. The Zeega project is a multimedia platform that allows people to create interactive stories through collecting, mixing, and curating film, photography, text, and audio.

Books will still exist but they need other mediums to complement them, argued Schnapp, explaining that the way we take in knowledge has changed, so the humanities needs to change the way it conveys its knowledge.

by Shirley Anghel

photo by Jin Lee


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