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.  Most recently, we interviewed Martin Foys, Professor in the English Department, who discusses digital humanities with a depth of understanding that only comes from experience, including the incumbent successes and challenges of multiple and varied projects.  He still gets excited about humanist data and has reason to since he just released his most recent project, Digital Mappa (DM). You can learn more about DM at digitalmappa.org.

Can you describe the Digital Mappa project?

Digital Mappa is “an online resource that allows you to take collections of digital images and texts and begin to annotate them and link them together, specifically marking moments on these images and texts and then either creating links between these moments; or, for each individual moment creating any number of annotations you wish. [It then] allows the work you are doing to become this very navigable and granular and searchable scholarship that is instantly available the moment you begin to do it.” After years of development and thanks to several grant-issuing bodies, including a UW2020 Grant from the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education (VCRGE), DM is now available for faculty, staff, and student scholarship and publication in the University of Wisconsin-Madison community.  You can view showcase projects at digitalmappa.org.


What do you find exciting about your data?

Foys is almost giddy when talking about the humanist data he works with in the Digital Mappa project. He describes it not as the traditional data you might think about when you hear “data;” in other words, it’s not big data.  Instead it’s about what he likes to call “bespoke” data, which Foys describes as the traditional kind of data fundamental to humanist scholarship. DM is able to offer humanists a digital environment in which they can practice the same methodologies they always have – the interpreting, observing, and making claims based on analog data – but with DM, the data actually becomes digital data.

For Foys, what’s most exciting about digital data is its fluidity and its plasticity – you can take it and do things with it that it was never meant to do.  Foys notes a great tweet by Will Noel, Director of the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies, who states that “the value of a material object is what it is, the value of a digital object is what you can do with it.”


What do you see are the challenges working with humanist data?

Foys is quite clear about the challenges he has faced in all his digital projects. One of the biggest is the idea of persistence.  In his interview, he talks about his experience creating a digital edition of the Bayeux Tapestry in the 1990s.  The data was in CD-ROM format and was unusable six to seven years later because computers no longer came with CD drives.  Now computers no longer have DVD drives.  Luckily, Foys had an editor who was interested in making the data persistent so that it went through multiple media, from a Macromedia editor through to CD-ROM, and is now an online resource.

Foys notes that “the work you do has to be in a form that is going to have a life after the medium and the protocol you produce it in.  And that’s what we’re trying to do with Digital Mappa.  You still want to be able to get that data and use it and reuse it.  So portability, literally the ability to port data from one format to another is perhaps the largest challenge you face when developing data inside a digital structure.”


What advice can you give humanists wanting to manage their data effectively?

Much of the advice Foys has for digital humanists comes from his own experience and the challenges he has run into. Foys is the first to admit that “data management is not sexy. That’s for sure.”

On the surface it may seem like the digital offers an open easy environment for data. Matthew Kirschenbaum has called this the “cultural, material imagination of the data.”   It just seems to be out there in the ether, it’s immaterial.  But in reality, data is very material and has a host of hidden costs.  The more data, the more you have to spend, the more server space you have to buy, the more software upgrades you have to ensure for optimum access, and the more administrative staff you need for maintaining the digital environment.  Underneath the fun, ethereal imagination of data in the digital humanities are very real and problematic infrastructural costs that constantly have to be negotiated and understood before you move forward on your DH projects. Foys sums this up: “Real data costs real money.”

If you are interested in hearing more about Martin Foys’s experience with the Digital Humanities and the Digital Mappa project, you can go to his DHRN interview, hosted on the Digital Humanities Research Network’s website.