Talking about Tools

This week I attended a THATCamp organised by the British Library Labs . THATCamp is a series of unconferences focussing on the Humanities and Technology.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the tools available to us in libraries and in the digital humanities recently. I’ve delivered training on OpenRefine and been following how it is being used. I’ve started training to become a Software Carpentry instructor. I’ve been following James Baker’s research in progress around the British Museum Catalogue of Satires, where he has documented his use of SPARQL, OpenRefine and AntConc. Finally as part of my preparation for an upcoming keynote for JIBS I’ve been reading about tools and technology and their importance to the development of homo sapiens and our modern society.

This may explain why, when I pitched a session for THATCamp, it ended up being about the tools being used by people working in the Digital Humanities.

What I pitched was a simple ‘show and tell’ session with an opportunity for attendees to say something about tools they’d found helpful (or unhelpful). I kicked off talking about OpenRefine and others talked about tools they’d used including Gephi, TileMill, AntConc, Juxta, as well as a mention of the DiRT Directory which provides an annotated list of digital research tools for scholarly use. As far as I was able to I tried to capture the details of the tools we discussed in the Etherpad for the event.

However, the discussion of specific tools turned out to be the least interesting part of the session, as thanks to the other participants discussion veered off into some different areas. By its nature and due to the number of participants the discussion wasn’t very focussed, and I’m not sure we drew any hard conclusions, but reflecting on it now I feel there were two overlapping strands to the discussion.

The first strand of the discussion was the question of having the knowledge and skills to use tools both appropriately and effectively. A couple of the participants who were teaching in the digital humanities noted how students didn’t necessarily have even the basic skills needed for the field.

Some of the skills covered were very basic – down to touchtyping and general keyboard skills (e.g. knowing and using simple keyboard shortcuts like Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V for cut and paste) to work more effectively. Some were more specialist computing skills (like programming and writing SQL), and some were more general skills that are needed in many disciplines (like statistics and algebra).

The first category of skills are needed just to get stuff done – although you might be able to get by without them, you’ll be less effective. This reminded me of the post on “command-line bullshittery” by Philip Guo .

The second category of skills are ones that you might not become expert but you want some level of competency (this very much echoes the aims of Software Carpentry – to get people to the level of competence, not to the level of expert). Have competence in these skills means you can use them yourself, but perhaps just as importantly, you know enough to be able to talk to experts about what you need and work with them to get appropriate software or queries written to serve your needs.

The third category of skills are perhaps ones that are core to (at least some aspects of) the digital humanities, and some of them are necessary to be able to apply tools sensibly. In this last area visualisation tools like Gephi and Tableau in particular came under discussion as being easy to apply in an inappropriate or unthinking way.

This last point is where the discussion of skills overlapped with the second strand of the discussion (as I saw it) which was the aesthetics of the tools. The way in which Gephi and Tableau make it easy to create beautiful looking visualisations gives them a plausible beauty – and what you produce has the feel of a finished product, rather than the output of a tool which requires further consideration, contextualisation and analysis.

On the otherhand tools like OpenRefine and AntConc are not pretty. They are perhaps more obvious with their mechanics and the outputs are more obviously in need of further work. They have ugly utility.

Another comment on the aesthetics of the tools was that some of the tools were ‘dull’ – this was specifically levelled at the command-line. I’m intrigued by the idea that some tools are less engaging than others. I’m also aware that apply aesthetic judgements to tools that I use – the example I gave in the discussion was feeling that Ruby was a more attractive programming language than Javascript.

It struck me during the discussion that the tools we have are (in general) designed by a small section of society – and perhaps favour particular methods and aesthetics. I wonder if there are other approaches to such tools that would favour different aesthetic sensibilities. This maybe a flight of fancy on my part 🙂

Finally the discussion finished with a reflection that much of the time the tools that already exist do almost, but not quite, what you want to do. I’m currently reading “How we got to Now” by Steve Johnson, recommended to me by @copystar. In the book Johnson relates how Charles Vernon Boys wanted to create a balance arm for a device to measure the effects of delicate physical forces on objects. In an attempt to create a very thin glass shard to use as the balance arm, Boys used a crossbow to fire bolts attached to molten glass across his lab – leaving trails of glass behind them – and so glass fibre was invented. While relating this story Johnson writes “New ways of measuring almost always imply new ways of making.” Perhaps we are in need new ways of both making and measuring for the humanities?

2 thoughts on “Talking about Tools

  1. Thanks for posting Owen. I’ve added a link to the MoPad.

    On ‘tools and technology and their importance to the development of homo sapiens and our modern society’ you may also find Turkel’s Spark from the Deep of interest If you read it with Bill’s blog in mind it seems to me that there is a clear argument going on about how humans have experimented with tools and how humanities researchers can benefit from engaging with that history.

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