Digital Humanities in Italy and their role in DARIAH research infrastructure

[this is the text of the keynote I gave at the IV DARIAH VCC meeting in Roma, on 17 September 2014]

Dear friends, firstly I would like to thank the organizers of this meeting and our local guests Iliesi Institute for the invitation. It’s my pleasure to open this important event and I would also like to congratulate with DARIAH for the recent formal approval as ERIC.

The title of this opening session is “Digital Arts and Humanities in Italy: a showcase”. I am aware that is an ambitious topic that will be difficult to fully describe only in an hour. The panorama of the Italian digital humanities and cultural heritage is indeed very rich of projects and includes a variety of academic and institutional activities. We will present some of those experiences – and remarkable examples of what our country can provide as a contribution for the construction of a European digital infrastructure for the research in the humanities and cultural heritage. 

Along with me the domain of Digital humanities strictu sensu, will be represented by Emiliano Degli Innocenti (from Franceschini Foundation) active for a long time in this field in particular within the medieval studies; Rossella Caffo, director of ICCU, the Institute for the Union Catalogue of Italian Ministry of Culture, which represents the world of libraries and cultural heritage institutions; and Prof. Franco Niccolucci, a leading expert in the application of digital technologies to the Archaeological Heritage.

I would like to underline that I’m not here to present my own research in the Digital Humanities (although I have considerably contributed to the community for almost twenty years) but I will mainly represent this community from an institutional point of view. In fact, I am a member of the Council of the Italian Association for Humanities Computing and Digital Cultures (AIUCD), and of the Executive Board of the European Association for Digital Humanities (EADH). On their behalf I bring my greetings and best wishes to all the participants to the organizers and DARIAH staff.

As many of you already know EADH – one of the fundamental institutions for the DH community at European and international level that has been active since 1973 with its previous name ALLC –, I will not talk about this well-known organization. Whilst I would like to say a few words about AIUCD.

First of all, the reason why the organization was established comes from a theoretical point of view: as we all know, it is difficult to define the DH as a discipline according to the traditional canons (based on the sharing of methods and objects of scholarly research) since it has become over the years so broad and multifaceted. It is not the case, nor my intention, to go back to the venerable problem of the disciplinary definition. However, I think that quite this dispersion and eclectic nature makes even more pressing the need for places and institutions of mutual exchange and recognition.

Hence, after several unsuccessful attempts made since the 90s of last century, in 2011 a large group of Italian scholars and researchers decided to found the Association for the Humanities Computing and Digital Culture (AIUCD). The aim of the organisation is “to promote the methodological and theoretical reflection, the scientific collaboration and the development of practical tools and shared resources in the field of humanities computing and the use of digital applications in all areas of the humanities”.

Despite some peculiar concerns and difficulties of the research in DH (and not only) in our country, AIUCD has achieved excellent results (for instance, the organization of TEI Conference 2013 in Rome). It has been the first of the diverse national DH associations established recently in several European countries — a further evidence of this need for coordination — and from this year is an associated organization to the EADH. Among its many activities, AIUCD regularly organizes an annual conference. The third edition will be held tomorrow in Bologna (and because of this overlapping I will not able to participate for the all sessions of this meeting); the program will offer a high level of papers and project presentations and also a high expectation of participation. This is just a demonstration of the vitality of the Italian landscape in the field.

As it is clear from the constitutional goals of the organization with its explicit reference to the scientific collaboration and the development of shared practices, resources and tools, one of the major concern that have driven the work of the organization is exactly the infrastructure that support the research. It is natural, therefore, that the community we represent has seen with great satisfaction the entry of Italy in DARIAH. AIUCD wishes to make itself available in all possible ways so that the Italian contribution to the project be of great significance both in terms of quantity and, above all, in terms of quality and can exploit the vast amount of research products that our community has been producing for at least 40 years.

The title of this session, as I said, calls us to describe the situation in the Italian digital research infrastructure for the humanities and cultural heritage.

Firstly we must say that the “tradition of the digital” in humanities and social sciences actually consists of two branches that had systematic intersections only in recent times:

  1. the tradition of research and experimentations in Humanities Computing (in linguistic, literary, historical and artistic studies), which have taken place in research and higher education institutions;
  2. the tradition of a huge range of digital activities led by the institutions for the management and conservation of cultural heritage such as libraries, archives and museums and the related coordinating institutions at local and central level.

The former, usually, have been academic research oriented, but as is typical of this world, especially in Italy, have suffered a greater dispersion and lack of coordination (with the result of reducing their reach and visibility and of replicating methodological mistakes and bad implementation choices).

The latter on the other hand, have been more often service oriented, aimed at a more socially extended and not necessarily professional community of users. From the very beginning, they assigned great importance to the cooperation and to the need to produce shared resources and services. To cite only the most relevant: SBN project – the union catalogue of Italian Libraries, and the more recent projects of portals for the digitization and dissemination of bibliographic and cultural heritage as Internet Culturale and Culturaitalia. The following speakers will talk better than me about those projects and their future developments, also in the context of DARIAH.

Going back to the domain of Digital Humanities, it is not possible to draw an exhaustive picture of this crowded and lively field. Therefore my point of view will be partial and necessarily bound to my personal experience.

Let’s start with a first observation: Italian tradition in Humanities Computing (or as we prefer now Digital Humanities) has been developed for long time (leaving aside the reference to Father Busa, founder of this subject); and within this tradition the ante litteram attention to what we call today infrastructure has always played a central role. Take for instance the broader definition of research infrastructure given by ESFRI Strategy Report and Roadmap:

Research Infrastructures are facilities, resources or services of a unique nature that have been identified by European research communities to conduct top-level activities in all fields.

This definition of Research Infrastructures, including the associated human resources,covers major equipment or sets of instruments, in addition to knowledge-containing resources such as collections, archives and data banks. Research Infrastructures may be “single-sited”, “distributed”, or “virtual” (the service being provided electronically). They often require structured information systems related to data management, enabling information and communication. These include technology-based infrastructures such as Grid, computing, software and middleware.

Well, in our country we can find several projects (some of those with a long and prestigious history) that perfectly fit this broad definition. I would like just to mention two examples, which are part of my personal experience.

Since the Eighties of the last century University of Rome Sapienza has been the most important Italian center of studies in the field of Digital Humanities thanks to the work of Professor Tito Orlandi, one of pioneers and international scholars of this discipline. He is not only the author of fundamental scientific publications, which had great impact both at the theoretical and methodological level on the Digital Humanities, but he is also the founder, in 1991, of CISADU (Centro Interdipartimentale di Servizi per l’Automazione nelle Discipline Umanistiche) which is probably the first proper DH center in Italy.

In the group of scholars that grew up with Orlandi, there was Giuseppe Gigliozzi – who left us prematurely in 2001 – who in turn founded in the late 90s the CRILET (Centro Ricerche Informatica e Letteratura). There he gathered a group of young researchers (I was one of those) which started to digitalize and encode literary text using formalisms and standards like Text Encoding Initiative and SGML/XML, and to use computational methods for text analysis.

We have led a cultural struggle for the dissemination of TEI, and it was a difficult and hindered one. The translation of the TEI Lite Guidelines dates back to that time and few years ago was published in a volume that I edited. At the end we achieved many results: many initiatives and digitization programs adopted or converted to XML and TEI, adopting therefore our point of view and methodology. I can say without fear of contradiction that thanks to our commitment, TEI and the idea of markup as the basic element for the study of digital texts has spread throughout Italy and that thanks to our contributions and teachings many young scholars have been trained and some of them had a brilliant scientific careers both nationally and internationally.

In the same years professor Pasquale Stoppelli created LIZ (Letteratura Italiana Zanichelli) a CDROM based corpus of Italian literature texts supported by a textual analyzer. The corpus was later extended by CIBIT (Centro Interuniversitario Biblioteca italiana Telematica), headed by Amedeo Quondam, and made available through the site of BibIT Biblioteca Italiana (http://www.bibliotecaitaliana.it/) after the conversion of the texts into TEI/XML.

This long time tradition of activities in the DH field in 2012 produced lately the DigiLab, an interdepartmental center of research and services, fostered and directed by Professor Giovanni Ragone. DigiLab takes advantage of technical personnel and various research facilities, as well as of the scientific work of scholars and researchers from many different disciplines, which are developing projects regarding

  • knowledge and communication of cultural heritage contents in a digital environment
  • digital archives and digital libraries
  •  human computer interaction and computer graphics
  •  digital cultures analysis.

Among various projects I must cite the participation in the international network DiXiT (Digital Scholarly Editions Initial Training Network) and in many in FP6 and FP7 projects like DELOS, ECLAP-The E-Library of Performing Arts, Linked Heritage, and EAGLE -Electronic Archive of Greek and Latin Epigraph. Perhaps the most relevant achievement of DigiLab in our context has been the development of Sapienza Digital Library. SDL is a typical digital infrastructure tool and service, a Digital Library Management System based on OAIS reference model offered as a service to the academic community to create manage and disseminate digital collection. Quite nowadays we can see new round of developments of the system , that will bring new functionalities as the capability of managing searching and displaying XML encoded textual resources and the addition of semantic processing and Linked Data tools and facilities.

My second example is about our host, ILIESI and CNR. The CNR has a solid tradition of research in the field of Digital Humanities. It dates to the sixties and to the pioneering work of Antonio Zampolli, at first animator of the CNUCE’s Linguistics Section, then founder and Director of the Institute of Computational Linguistics of CNR (Pisa). In the following years, the ILC quickly became a reference point of excellence for the automatic processing of language at an international level.

In close connection with the experiences of the ILC, the Center of Study for the European Intellectual Lexicon (that in 2001 became ILIESI – Institute for the European Intellectual Lexicon and History of Ideas), since the seventies has devoted many activities and research projects to the development of linguistic and textual data with specific reference to the area of the history of ideas of the early modern age. The preparation of indexes, concordances and lexicons of philosophical and scientific texts was for several years one of the main aspects that distinguished the Institute. In the eighties, the creation of a large database was added, containing dozens of classics of modern philosophical-scientific in various languages. It remained for years an ‘unicum’ in this field in an international scholarly level of research.

Over the years, many other textual archives, more specific and sectorial, have been added to this initial data base. More recently, the ILIESI is strongly engaged in a lot of activities in partnership with other European Institutions, thanks to Research projects funded by the EC. In particular, thanks to the Discovery and Agora Projects, the Institute has set up a portal called Daphnet which includes a platform of texts of Greek Classical philosophy (Ancient Philosophy), a platform about philosophy of early modern European (Modern Philosophy), as well as a platform dedicated to secondary sources (The Daphnet Digital Library). In all of those platforms, texts are encoded according to the TEI-XML standard. Moreover, the Institute has developed systems for semantic annotations link to an explicitly elaborated ontological domain.

These are just the first two examples. A third important one, the Franceschini Foundation, will be introduced by Emiliano degli Innocenti in a few minutes. I could keep going on with a long list of works, mentioning many other activities and centers, some of them not any longer active, some still working and carrying excellent scholarly research and fundamental digital resources creation.

The overall picture of such experiences has produced a significant amount of primary and secondary digital resources, of computational tools and methods, of scientific and theoretical elaboration.

Even if we cannot access an amount of funding as in US or even other EU countries, Italian DHers have been able to create:

  • a number of scholarly projects and service centers with high level human and technological resources
  • some huge and mid text and document archives in XML/TEI with search facilities like:
  • state of the art services and platforms for digital asset management and digital libraries and archives systems
  • a lot of language resources and corpora, NLP and text mining tools

What are we missing then? Or: why DARIAH is such a big chance to fill the gaps of this landscape picture I have so roughly depicted?

Well, the very first thing missing is the coordination between these experiences and projects. As I have already pointed out, for anthropological, cultural, social, institutional, and economic reasons, those research initiatives have rarely had the ability to coordinate, to share tools approaches and knowledge, except in rare cases and on the basis of personal liaison. One of the primary goals of the nascent DARIAH-IT must be building a network of people, or we could say an infrastructure, that can work in a team for common aims and goals. This will surely bring out a large amount of resources and expertise that the Italian community can make available to the European network, our “in kind” contribution as they say.

The second main issue is… funding, of course. In the economic phase Europe and our country in particular is experiencing, the investment in research funding is undergoing drastic downsizing. The only way to continue developing high-quality research is network building, pooling resources and technologies, on the one hand and supporting researchers and research institutions to access the few available funding sources. I refer of course to the program H2020, for which DARIAH will be a critical support, but also to the local and regional level funding (for instance right now I’m involved in an application for a big regional grant in cultural heritage and technology sector). Creating a virtual reference and counseling service in this area could really be a strategic infrastructure.

So, bottom-up coordination and network building. What next? I think there are dozens of polls and surveys (many promoted within DARIAH itself) that tries to identify emerging needs of the research communities and their expectations towards a shared research infrastructure. Often in these investigations, some complex questions come up. Yet not always complex answers, ambitious platforms which pre-determine methodologies, methods and tools of research, get the desired results. I think in general it is much better to focus on low level enabling technologies and basic resources that scholars can adapt to their needs and preferences.

Starting from the bottom level and from the feasible achievements let me indicate at least two priorities that rise from the specific Italian situation, although I’m sure they can be common to the entire DARIAH community.

The first is the need of a common infrastructure for scientific publishing, based on the principles of open content and open access, without excluding anyway profit business models for some particular products or services. Actually, some platforms that comply with these requirements are already in activity, the most famous of which is Open Edition (which has recently opened a branch in Italy). I think it would be appropriate to foster the encounter between this emerging reality and the dispersed landscape of University Press and academic publishers.

A parallel, though not less important aspect of scientific communication is the multilingualism. We are all aware that English has become the lingua franca of scientific communication, and it would be pointless and anachronistic to resist this trend. And yet, especially in the humanities, subtracting a scholar the full control of the rhetorical, linguistic and argumentative tools of its native language is likely to result in a threat to the quality of its research papers. I hope that DARIAH can support the experimentation of scientific communication frameworks and workflows that seriously take into account multilingualism.

The second is the need of a common platform for the assessment of digital products. Gathering and long term preservation are also central issues strictly connected with it. But I really think that the actual acceptance of digital methods and products within the larger community of scholars in the humanities (with all the consequences it can have) must cope with the problem of evaluation.

When I talk about digital research products obviously I’m not referring to the classic article or monograph (although in digital form). Anyone who has really been involved in a research project in Digital Humanities knows that most of the research work consists in the modeling and creation of the data sets, computational analysis methods, tools and frameworks. If the goal of a research project is the creation of an archive of documents, a digital scholarly edition or a visualization tools to display historical data, those are the real products of research, not the articles describing them (often tedious and report style). The assessment of Digital Humanities research must apply to these objects.

The creation of a platform of this kind requires:

  • an ontology of the roles and functions performed by the researchers involved in a project;

  • a set of minimum quality requirements (standards compliance, interoperability, scientific control, coverage of the domain, etc.) to assign a digital resource the status of research product;

  • a metric based on these requirements to enable its evaluation.

On this basis it would be possible to build an assessment platform based on peer review (be it classic and/or open) that would have a dual function:

1) provide a repertoire of research-quality digital products certified by the community of scholars, where every researcher can have access and find resources and tools for new projects;

2) provide a set of data for the assessment of individual researchers involved in Digital Humanities and help their recruitment and career progression in academic and research institutions.

Some building bricks and approximations to this system are already there: I’m referring to projects such as DIRT, DH Commons and NINES. It is time to start the creation of this platform and I think that DARIAH is the appropriate environment where this can happen.

In the end, I hope I’ve been able to convey few key points from my speech: we have ideas, we have resources we have intelligences and skills. I trust that this meeting, that welcomes the entrance of Italy in the Fellowship of DARIAH, will be the starting point of an Unexpected but fruitful Journey.


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