Space and Narrative in the Digital Humanities: A Research Network

Lead Research Organisation: Lancaster University
Department Name: History

Abstract

Interacting with computer-based maps has made many tasks, such as navigating from one place to another, significantly simpler for many users. The technology behind these developments, however, depends on being able to pin-point roads, buildings, paths, and other features in a precise way. The space of the world people move around in day by day is not the only kind of space which it is important to represent on computers. For example, historical documents can describe where buildings were, or where events happened. Writings about journeys made in the past, can help us today understand our own environment and how it was shaped and is still being shaped by the ways it has been perceived and described. Narratives of journeys are significant too in imagined worlds whether created in literature, or through media such as film. Studying such journeys, as well as other kinds of imagined spaces in literature, also helps us understand the ways in which people tell stories as a way of communicating with each other.

The digital humanities includes the study of history, literature, and many other aspects of human experience, through digital technology. Ths technology may be used to process large amounts of information, which might come from historical documents or literary texts for example. This enables scholars to find patterns in the information, through techniques including visualisation of the data. These patterns can generate new questions or new perspectives on the world from which the data came. The digital humanities has successfully used Geographical Information Systems (GIS) for the study of data using computer-based maps. However, what can be done if all that we know is that the church is next to the house, or that the path went through the forest, or that the flood covered most of the town? These examples all include qualitative spatial relations: 'next to', 'through', 'covered most of'. These kinds of relations have been studied in computer science because, although they do not give enough information by themselves to plot things on a map, they can be represented computationally using logic. One motivation for the study of Qualitative Spatial Representation (QSR) in computer science is that humans often don't use very detailed spatial information. We might say ''move the chair next to the window'' instead of having to calculate the exact distances and angles involved. This kind of flexibility when dealing with locations is very similar to the need in the digital humanities to handle events, objects, journeys, and so on that cannot be pin-pointed on a map.

Thus, the digital humanities needs more flexible computer-based ways of representing spatial information, and computer science has extensive research on QSR. These two areas of study have had almost no interaction before now. This network brings together experts from the humanities in areas including history, literature, and archaeology, with experts from computer science in areas including artificial intelligence and geographical information systems. The network will focus on how the digital humanities can use adaptations of the ways qualitative spatial relations are used in computer science. Two workshops will explore detailed case studies based on documents and other resources from the participants' areas of expertise. A third workshop will encourage the formation of a cross-disciplinary community centred on spatial information in the digital humanities. This workshop will report on the case study explorations. It will also allow researchers, and organisations who make archives and other historical records accessible to the public, to plan together the work needed to build digital tools that will help people handle spatial information in the humanities which is qualitative, metaphorical, vague, uncertain or ambiguous .

Planned Impact

The main area for potential impact lies with organisations which make archive data and museum collections available to the general public as well as to academic researchers. Archive data can include references to places and locations which are vague or imprecise. This makes linking different documents relating to the same place challenging and also can make it difficult for users, especially the public, to find documents relevant to them. Beyond merely locating sources, the ability to enrich records of historic buildings, landscapes, or places with digital representations of personal narratives is one way that techniques for qualitative spatial representation are likely to have an impact on individuals and community groups interacting with information about localities of significance to them.

The project has four specific partner organisations who will all participate in some of the activities of the network including the concluding Outreach Workshop, which will also be open to representatives from other organisations working in related areas. Three of our partner organisations are; The National Archives, Historic England, and Leeds Museums and Galleries. The impact of the network for these organisations will initially be in introducing an awareness of techniques for dealing with qualitative spatial information. Access to expertise in computational representation of qualitative space. Beyond the lifetime of the network, this is expected to lead in the longer term to specific systems that will allow individuals improved ways of accessing vaguely located qualitative information.

The impact of the understanding of spatial information can extend beyond the digital humanities. Our fourth partner organisation, is the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL), which sees potential impact in its need to understand spatial information present in sources such as text messages, phone conversations, emails, and other written and spoken means of communication. The relevance of the network here lies in the likelihood that qualitative spatial constructions appearing in historical narratives will, although culturally dependent, relate partly to ways that humans move and experience their environment. The involvement of DSTL could also help contribute to impact for the other organisations through providing a view of issues in a scientific context and bringing an awareness of a wider range of spatial information technologies.

Publications

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