Understanding value in digital humanities: a case study from a community oral history archive

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Johnston, Penny
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University College Cork
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This thesis investigates concepts of value and the ways in which it is assessed in the digital humanities. It does this by examining digital cultural heritage projects created by a community oral history archive. Pressures such as increased oversight, funding cuts and changing audience expectations make it necessary for digital humanists to demonstrate the value of their projects. While both quantitative and qualitative methods can be used, long-form qualitative approaches are rarely applied. My research makes an original contribution to the scholarly literature by using a long-form qualitative methodology (participant observation) to study digital projects in context, within the organisations in which they are created. By looking at the “behind the scenes” processes, I have constructed an account of value for my digital project work that concentrates on meaning rather than on measurement. This approach examines criteria such as distinctiveness, the ability to challenge expectations, usefulness, the contribution to fulfilment, whether the material is worth it for its own sake and the contribution that a project can make to public engagement. I argue that, rather than solely examining value through the actions of the end user, value also accrues through making, the process of creation. This thesis also examines the sensitivities and ethical conundrums that emerge when material collected from living subjects is disseminated online. Digital humanists generally endorse open access. In contrast, oral historians frequently adopt a curated approach to online dissemination (because of concerns about ethics and privacy). Drawing on empirical data collected during my digital practice, I argue that it is important to eschew dogmatic and binary positions (curated versus open), and instead adopt reflective approaches to the material that we disseminate online. The ethics debate in digital dissemination is not resolved or over, it part of a cycle of engagement that is nuanced, ongoing and relational.
Digital humanities , Oral history , Digital cultural heritage , Archive , Community , Value , Living subjects , Ethical issues , Meaning , Qualitative , Reflective
Johnston, P. 2018. Understanding value in digital humanities: a case study from a community oral history archive. PhD Thesis, University College Cork.
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