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Comments on the Digital Humanities Institute Events, Beirut, 2-7 March 2015

I was invited by Dr. David Wrisley to attend the DH Institute workshops and the first ThatCamp in the Arab world held at the American University of Beirut from 2 to 7 March 2015. It was a great moment for me not only because I could perceive the level of awareness that DH attained in the Middle-East, but mainly for the dynamics that this event is supposed to generate regionally. In fact, one of the outstanding results of these events is the provisional planning for further Thatcamps in other Arab countries proposed by outsider participants, one in Cairo by September 2015 and another in Tunis by October 2015. That is one key element which I can consider very original and innovative, compared to other DH events I attended hitherto. This particular aspect of geographic openness copes with digital humanities philosophy as a worldwide community of practice that should remain as open and diversified as possible. My participation to the DHI events in Beirut is the result of such a process initiated during the TEI Consortium meeting in Rome in October 2012 where I met Elisabeth Bur from Germany who invited me and David Wrisley (separately) to the German Francoromanists conference in Munster on October 2013. I met there David Wrisley who invited me to attend DHI events in Beirut on March 2015. I will manage to invite people I knew in Beirut to any future event I might organize. Humanities might become digital, however they maintain their philanthropic background and values.

thatcamp

Elsewhere, many DH events, probably for their informal organization process or for economic reasons, remain local and constrained to on-site participants of one community or one country. Though limited to fewer number of participants than formal conferences, geographic openness ensures transborder impact and resonance, and I predict that DHI workshops and ThatCamp will confirm this principle.

I was one of those outsiders coming from other countries, with different experiences and different expectations that might have interested some local participants. And I guess they did, considering the large number of questions that I had to answer after my keynote presentation about the challenge of building multilingual digital corpora in the Maghreb region or during the debate I coordinated about Digital humanities and professional territoriality. But I can confirm, in the opposite way, that I learned a lot of newly discovered things from other participants related to their DH projects and experiences. That’s one of the core objectives of organizing and attending DH events.

As for my remarks concerning the participants, I noticed a constant interest of all participants to all presented materials. This might be relevant of a preliminary selection of subscribers, but I got confirmation that participation was based on “first come first served”. My indicators of the constant interest of the audience to the presentations are the tense questioning and debating moments following each presentation and the constant intervention of the coordinators to remind the next items in the agenda. This shows that at Beirut, a very promising DH community is emerging, not only for the ability of questioning crucial issues related to DH, but also in the kind of digital projects and applications they can manage and procure. The projects exposed during the workshops were of high quality standard and acquired a particular flavor when combining two or more linguistic and cultural values, for instance when using English as a communication language to comment Arabic research material, or when applying digital techniques on different religious resources (Islamic and catholic): a good example of ideological intelligence that DH should convey in sensitive contexts like the Middle-East. AUB DH events helped tightening distances between researchers and teams working on very close subjects in very small geographic space. I guess (and hope) that this emerging community could be endorsed and reinforced through further DH activities and projects that will reinforce in turn the feeling of pertaining to a DH community of practice. I also hope that such an experience will remain open to regional and international contributions and experiences to strengthen local awareness about other aspects of DH concerns than those expressed by participants through their own experiences. I noticed during that week that a significant part of DH projects are directed towards digitizing manuscripts and ancient books. It could be logic and normal for the whole Arabic world disposing of a large patrimony of “threatened” cultural heritage, but it is recommended that researchers explore other related concerns within the general DH landscape: data visualization, cultural data analytics, open access publishing, crowdsourcing, Scaffolding HD Project, etc. DHI workshops succeeded to direct participants’ attention towards such diversity of topics (Mapping, TEI, Digital projects and exhibits, etc.). DHI announces further diversification for 2016 DH events.

One slight weakness observed during the week’s activities is the relatively passive contribution of the participants in taking notes and leaving tracks of their comments and ideas. Non-conferences are normally based on collaborative work and shared participation to produce “non-proceedings” (if called so). Very useful tools (pads/Etherpad, Framapad, etc.) are easy tools to produce common notes that can be revised later and edited as “non-proceedings of the non-conference. Such an exercise should be emphasized within a DH community of practice. It goes under the skill of sharing DH tools that ThatCampers need appropriate and use instead of conventional paper materials: its “minimum computing”, a new concept I learned from Alex Gil form Columbia University who intensively participated to the DHI events that week.

Mokhtar Ben Henda