Written by Heather Wacha

Documenting DH is a project from the Digital Humanities Research Network (DHRN).  It consists of a series of audio interviews with various humanities scholars and students around the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. Each interviewee is given a chance to talk about how they view data, work with data, manage data, or teach data to others.  In March, we interviewed Brianna Marshall, Digital Curation Coordinator and lead of Research Data Services (RDS) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. As part of this position, she promotes and supports digital humanties scholarship across the university. DHRN feels very fortunate to be able to record Brianna’s experiences and insights before she leaves the University of Wisconsin at the end of March to enter into a new position as Director of Research Services at the University of California, Riverside. Her interview is now accessible on the DHRN website.

How do you define data?

When talking about data, Brianna likes to keep it simple: Data is the “digital stuff” humanist researchers use to do their research.  Data comes in all shapes and sizes, and Marshall encounters a wide diversity of data formats since she works with both STEM and humanist reseachers.  Basically almost anything that serves as a researcher’s methods, results, or evidence can be seen as data.

According to Marshall, there are two important fallacies that can create unnecessary barriers, especially for humanist scholars.  First, researchers may not always see their work as containing “data,” but as Marshall likes to point out, every researcher has “data,” whether it’s digital or not.  Second, with all the talk about “big data”, researchers who deal with small “data” may not see what they do as applicable to digital computation or analysis. As lead for RDS, Marshall sees her job as helping the university community understand that everyone works with data at some stage and that any data is open to using digital tools to help manage and analyze it. 

What do you recommend for humanists to manage their data?

“The first thing is to recognize that one has data,” states Marshall. “I love those lightbulb moments when I’m talking to someone about their digital stuff, and they realize that this digital stuff is really data that can be used for further digital analysis and inquiry.”

At that moment, Marshall uses her knowledge to talk about the variety of ways to work with data to make it more interesting and use for asking new questions.

Marshall is an expert in connecting researchers with organizations and individuals who can continue the conversation, with a view to deepening scholarship in new digital directions.

What do you find most interesting about working with data?

“It’s vexing! It’s messy! It’s frustrating.”  For Marshall, working with data is a two-edged activity.  At the initial stages it’s important to realize that it’s going to be a challenge and there will be a lot of trial and error.  Data can be overwhelming and isolating, but it’s everywhere, both in our personal live and in our professional lives.

But when we can share best practices, that makes the job more interesting and more rewarding. Marshall enjoys using her toolkit of best practices and adapting them to individual projects and individual challenges.  She mixes and remixes her tools to make them most effective for the context with which she is presented.

When the product is finished, the goals achieved, and the challenges overcome, that’s when the satisfaction can feel that much more rewarding.

How do you see RDS fitting into the wider Digital Humanities community?

Marshall freely admits that data can be a hard sell and outreach is an important component to working in any organization that offers services for dealing with data.  She is an avid advocate for digital humanities and helping the university community to create and use its data in efficient and interesting ways.

Marshall sees RDS as a trusted partner on campus and she sees her position, as the head of RDS, as someone who connects people and organizations. One of the main functions of RDS and any organization on campus that wants to promote and encourage best practices in data management and analysis, is to be a connector.  RDS offers a variety of services for anyone who wants to rethink the data they have – how to manage it and what to do with it to uncover new approaches and analyses.