It used to be known as HRI Digital, now it is called The Digital Humanities Institute. Michael Pidd, who leads the team at the University of Sheffield’s digital humanities centre, explains why.
On 17 January 2016, HRI Digital changed its name to The Digital Humanities Institute | Sheffield, thereby establishing digital humanities as a distinctive research domain within the University of Sheffield’s Faculty of Arts, alongside the Humanities Research Institute (HRI) and the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies (SIIBS). The change of name was celebrated with a launch event that included a provocation from a guest speaker, Tim Hitchcock, professor of digital history from the University of Sussex, and seven ‘lightning talks’ that showcased the depth and variety of digital humanities research in the faculty.
So why has HRI Digital changed its name?
1. Recognition of our achievements
First, the change of name is a recognition of the achievements of HRI Digital. Established in 1992, HRI Digital has been one of the UK’s leading centres for digital humanities and we have notched up an impressive record of collaborative research: over 100 research projects funded, from 37 sources of funding, and involving 111 external partners from universities and research organisations in the UK and worldwide.
HRI Digital has supported colleagues at Sheffield and externally in securing £9.6m of research funding since 2013, and we are presently supporting the technical R&D on 14 Research Councils UK (RCUK) projects. We currently host 56 publicly available websites that provide access to research resources, including Old Bailey Online, which receives more than seven million visitors per year.
Our first projects were the Hartlib Papers (1990–1996) and the Canterbury Tales Project (1994–2000). Our first websites went live in early 2003 (James Madison Carpenter Collection and Old Bailey Online v1.0), but before this we were producing CD-ROMs for publishers such as Cambridge University Press.
Although big budget projects tend to take the headlines, such as England’s Immigrants, Digital Panopticon, Linguistic DNA, and Intoxicants and Early Modernity, the majority of our work has been in supporting lower budget projects which often deliver comparable impact and value for money, such as the Sheffield Corpus of Chinese, Lane’s Masonic Records, and How Audiences Form. All our achievements have been thanks to a small team of digital humanities developers – specifically Jamie McLaughlin, Katherine Rogers and Matthew Groves – working in close collaboration with academics and researchers.
2. A strategic shift
Second, the change of name is intended to signal a strategic shift in the DHI’s mission and operations. We will continue to offer the digital humanities services that have been available through HRI Digital: supporting research conception and grant development in domains that combine innovative digital techniques with arts and humanities research questions; providing technical R&D and project management on funded research projects; hosting and maintaining the digital outputs of funded research for free, public access over the longer term.
We will continue to offer these services to our colleagues in Sheffield and beyond. Half of all DHI projects are led by principal investigators at external research organisations. However, we will also promote a broader culture of digital humanities research, becoming less of a ‘lab’ from which colleagues seek technical support for projects and more of a research ecosystem driven by digital innovation, in which colleagues from all disciplines contribute to and participate in digital humanities research (ie research about digital methods and techniques within the context of humanities questions and sources) rather than simply using existing digital methods as a means to an end.
In practice this will mean the DHI facilitating and encouraging bottom-up approaches to research development, with the ambition of growing our reputation for distinctive ‘Sheffield themes’ in the field of digital humanities research.
Emergent themes already include: Concept Modelling within the domain of computational linguistics (the ability to trace the evolution of human concepts through language using computational methods); Historical Record Linkage within the domain of digital history and digitised archives (the ability to trace entities such as people across multiple, diverse record sets using computational methods); Automatic Multimodal Analysis within the domain of visual and mixed-media culture (the ability to retrieve semantically meaningful information from multiple, non-textual as well as textual sources using computational methods).
3. We are not the HRI, but the HRI continues to flourish
Finally, the change of name is intended to clarify that we are not the Humanities Research Institute (HRI). Although HRI Digital has existed as a part of the HRI since its inception, colleagues sometimes forget that the HRI is a larger institute with a broader mission.
So just as the change of name from HRI Digital to The Digital Humanities Institute signals recognition and a step-change in our strategic objectives, it is also intended to give the HRI the freedom to grow and develop its own identity and services as an institute that supports cross-disciplinary collaborative research within the University of Sheffield’s Faculty of Arts and Humanities. These include running workshops and networking events, supporting research centres, hosting visiting fellows, and providing a venue for conferences and seminars.
The DHI and HRI will work closely on numerous ventures, but the HRI is not necessarily concerned with the digital. As the Faculty’s chief research institute, the HRI embraces research in all its forms. Its director is Professor Nikki Dibben.
Michael Pidd is director of The Digital Humanities Institute at the University of Sheffield. His role includes providing strategic direction in developing its research base through partnerships with the research community in public and commercial organisations, initiating knowledge exchange opportunities on behalf of the faculty, and overseeing product/system design, build and delivery by the technical team.