I suppose that I perhaps have a longer connection to the digital humanities than many people because I have luckily been at the right place at the right time to gain early exposure and sometimes learn techniques before other people had the chance to do so. The application of those techniques are another matter, unfortunately.
My first exposure to the digital humanities occurred in 1999, when I helped build the Roland Marchand advertising collection site at UC Davis. The Department of History and the Area Three University of California-California Public School System Program that converted the late Prof. Marchand’s extensive collection of photographic slides of advertising materials into a digital format displayed them in a searchable website that also offered teachers lessons plans and supplementary materials to use the site. At the same time, the eminent Harvard Professor of East Asian Studies William G. Skinner had taken up a special post-retirement position at UC Davis , and after a meeting with him, he sent me to learn how to use GIS to build spatial analysis into my research on the construction of railroads by the French in colonial Vietnam and Cambodia. This was a catastrophe in the sense that the folks who did GIS at UC Davis worked out of a special building, a bunker really, with sophisticated cooling systems that made the building look like an alien spacecraft. When I showed up at the lab and explained that Prof. Skinner had sent me to learn how to use GIS, the specialists there were as gave me a shoulder as cold as the refrigerant enjoyed by the servers. I attempted to return to GIS in a slightly friendlier environment, at a CSISS workshop at UC Santa Barbara some years later, but I lacked the ability to continue my work in the positions I held at the time.
Thus, I came to Bucknell with a strong familiarity with the nascent digital humanities, and a strong desire to expand my ability to express my scholarship and teaching through the digital humanities, but I lacked the institutional support and colleagues through whom to learn the digital humanities.
When I walked in the door at Bucknell in 2004, some of the first people to greet me were Mike Weaver and Abby Clobridge. These two individuals embraced my desire to present in a digital format a diary from French Colonial Indochina on which I had worked at my previous institution in a rich and visually engaging manner. We all worked very hard between September 2004 and April 2005 to bring it about: http://www.departments.bucknell.edu/history/projects/BeaucarnotDiary/intro.shtml. At the same time, the then Dean of Arts and Sciences, Chris Zappe, promoted opportunities for faculty who wanted to learn about digital methods of teaching, presentation, and analysis. For me, this meant participating in a three-day workshop on GIS in which I finally began to understand the rudiments of spatial analysis and digital mapping. I began to vindicate my experience of some 15 years earlier at UC Davis when the high gods of GIS barred the gate to the neophyte spatial historian. Abby Clobridge and I had students engage with the critical nature of online presentation of archival material through my History 100 course but I taught concerning World War II. This was also an award-winning project, and the collection the students built still functions. Thus, in the first my first five years of Bucknell, I gained through hands-on experience the transformation of my ideas into realized projects a good basis in the digital humanities.
After this initial period, I will admit I didn’t advance very much for several years, mostly for personal reasons. Only when I took my post-tenure leave that I really resume expanding my knowledge of the digital humanities and their application in my scholarship and research. This first took the form of additional GIS lessons that an older library-administered funding program, the Advanced Computing grant enabled me to do. I took two week-long, instructor-led courses on aspects of GIS. This coincided with the hiring of Janine Glathar and her early involvement in connecting students with faculty projects. In terms my scholarship, this enhancement of the GIS program on campus resulted in the Nghe-Tinh Soviets GIS, which I’ve augmented and use today.
What really enabled me to expand my horizons in terms of my digital scholarship on campus was the combination of discussion of the digital humanities minor, request for and receiving of funding from the Mellon Foundation in support of the digital humanities, and the need for IP courses. Some years ago, before the Mellon grant had received consideration, I suggested that the University apply for an NSF Cybernetics Grant to improve training opportunities on campus, because it seemed to me many faculty had the desire to incorporate digital tools into their classrooms and research, lack the time and training resources to learn how to do so. Although that proposal did not receive favorable consideration, seeking and securing the Mellon grant, a process in which I was a participant, did. Faculty and staff and students now had an opportunity to develop or refine their DH skills. The IP courses offered a kind of unrestricted space in which a faculty member might discuss an experiment with digital tools, and teaching introduction to digital humanities course with Prof. John Hunter in a similar version with Prof. Jordi Comas helped me in this regard by forcing me to learn new techniques as well as become cognizant of the latest discourse about the digital humanities.
David Del Testa