Envisioning Slavic DH: A Visual Culture Workshop at the CDH

Slavic Studies DH is having a moment. The energy has been building for some time: North American Slavists are joining the active DH affiliate group of our main professional organization (ASEEES), and DH initiatives are thriving across Russia. Slavic DHers from around the globe met at last summer’s major annual DH conference in Utrecht, speaking at the first-ever panel dedicated to issues specific to our field, and excitedly planning future collaborations.

Andy Janco teaches techniques in computer vision. Photo by Shelley Szwast.

This enthusiasm was felt in September at a workshop at Princeton. Focusing on the topic of DH and visual culture, the four-day event — “Digital Humanities and Visual Resources: The Material and Digital Lives of Eastern European and Russian Artifacts” — gathered thirty scholars from North America and Europe, all at different career stages and with various levels of DH experience. The event was organized by Princeton’s Slavic Digital Humanities Working Group along with partners from the Herder Institute for East Central European History in Marburg, Germany, Stanford University, and Haverford College. Interdisciplinary by design, the workshop gave participants an immersive experience with the practical, theoretical, organizational, and social aspects of digital humanities work.

Our goal was to investigate new opportunities for studying visual cultural heritage — images, paintings, photographs, etc. — from digital or computational angles. Experience working on Princeton’s Playing Soviet, a DH project by Katherine Reischl and Thomas Keenan on illustrated Soviet children’s books, taught us that studying the digital must start with engaging the analog. So our workshop kicked off with a trip to Princeton’s Special Collections to explore visually compelling Russian and Soviet periodicals and books from the early twentieth century. We probed our methodological assumptions and asked: how do we look beyond text? What visual literacy is required to read the artifacts, experiments, and artwork before us? What happens to the visual language of the object when it is translated onto the screen?

Examining Soviet children's books at Princeton's Special Collections. Photo by Shelley Szwast.

The opening keynote by Glen Worthey, formerly Digital Humanities Librarian at Stanford and now at HathiTrust, prompted our explorations further. In “Speaking Figuratively: What Does Text Have To Do With Image?”, Glen walked us through some of his favorite examples from the Russian Baroque, children’s literature, and 19th-century cartography that cross visual and textual boundaries. In this scholarly retrospective, Glen harkened back to his graduate-school investigations of Pushkin and showed us how visual methods — ranging from analog to digital “cut and paste” and color coding — helped him deconstruct Pushkin’s poetry and solve some of the text’s mysteries.

Understanding the interplay between tool, method, and argument was central to our hands-on sessions. Each day consisted of a series of workshops, expertly led by Quinn Dombrowski (Academic Technology Specialist, Stanford) and Andy Janco (Digital Scholarship Librarian, Haverford). Quinn and Andy showed us the broad landscape of Slavic DH, pointing out the wealth of projects and data available for our field. They also dove deep into strategies for metadata design for digital exhibits, platforms and tools such as Omeka, Tropy, and Palladio, and computer vision. Participants had ample time to experiment with tools and get individual guidance.

One of the week’s highlights was the lightning talks, where participants presented their individual research projects. The richness of material and expertise was inspiring. Projects ranged from the history of film screenings in 1920s Russia, to Soviet women photographers, to vexillology, to 20th-century religious iconography in emigration, to Uzbek communities in China. Hearing how scholars of history, literature, art history, and film approach visual material, and how they imagine visually conveying their arguments through digital means, generated true interdisciplinary conversations. Project summaries were recorded in the #SlavicDH hashtag on Twitter .

Throughout the sessions, speakers encouraged participants to step back and consider the broader implications of technology’s impact on our research and society. In a panel discussion on “Legal and Ethical Issues in Working with Digitized Visual Resources,” Peter Haslinger (Director of the Herder Institute), Holly Hatheway (Marquand Art Librarian at Princeton), and Toma Tasovac (DARIAH and Belgrade Center for Digital Humanities) discussed the thorny issues of copyright and intellectual property, and how new channels of information sharing are transforming scholarly labor.

Our closing keynote emphasized the responsibility of DH researchers to engage with technology humanistically. Speaking from the perspective of Europe’s main initiative for digital scholarship in the arts and humanities, DARIAH (Digital Research Infrastructure for the Arts and Humanities) director Toma Tasovac’s talk was titled “Thinking Infrastructurally.” The power of infrastructures, he reminded us, is that when they are invisible, they not only provide structure but can also inscribe and enforce existing inequities and bias. Toma argued for radically surfacing our digital scholarship infrastructures: critiquing the tools and methods, sharing workflows and data, providing documentation, and sharing resources openly. The digital can be used to recontextualize — not replace — the analog. Bringing us back to the Slavic Studies context, Toma discussed his project Raskovnik, a research platform in Serbian lexicography, as an example of an infrastructural approach where historical, literary, and cultural heritage is made accessible, reusable, and open to creative computational interventions.

Recognizing that Slavic DH has found a certain momentum, we kept returning to the question of next steps. How and where can we best channel our energy; how can we be of most service to our colleagues and our field? How can we best advocate for the support, visibility, and recognition of DH work? What can we learn from the other disciplines that have engaged DH, and what can Slavic Studies give back to the broader DH community? These are open questions that we will continue to address in upcoming conferences, meetings, and conversations.

Luckily, we’ve got quite a few options for where to connect and cultivate Slavic DH. In the next few weeks, many of us will attend the DH panels and pre-conference workshop at ASEEES in San Francisco. Some will meet at the DARIAH Annual Event in Zagreb in May, or at DH2020 in Ottawa this summer. And perhaps most exciting is that the larger DH community will have a chance to experience Russian DH firsthand: it was recently announced that next year’s European Association for DH (EADH) Conference will be in Krasnoyarsk in September 2020.

Group photo. Photo by Shelley Szwast.
Workshop organizers & speakers. Photo by Shelley Szwast.

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