Editors' note on the January 2021 issue of Reviews in Digital Humanities
Roopika Risam and Jennifer Guiliano
Welcome to our second year of Reviews in Digital Humanities! Since the announcement of our first call for projects and the publication of our first issue in January 2020, we have conceived of the journal as a pilot — an experiment in whether we could design a model for peer review of digital scholarship that addresses the challenges that have befallen similar initiatives in the past. We sought to build up the capacity of digital humanists to offer peer reviews that blend humanistic and technical inquiry. We were particularly interested in supporting ongoing digital scholarship and community-building in Latinx studies, African diaspora studies, Indigenous studies, and postcolonial studies, among others.
While issues drawn from our open call regularly feature digital scholarship from these areas of study, our special issues have played an essential role in bringing together guest editors, project directors, and project reviewers to share their expertise. This month’s special issue on Jewish Digital Humanities, guest edited by Amalia S. Levi and Michelle Chesner, does just that. It offers insight on the breadth of interventions thriving at the intersections of Judaica studies and digital methodologies. While playing a critical role in the representation of Jewish cultural heritage, Jewish Digital Humanities, as this issue suggests, holds insights for digital methodologies in other areas of humanistic inquiry: language preservation, mapping, metadata, linked open data, and crowdsourcing.
As editors, we have designed a special issue workflow that allows guest editors to share their expertise while we take care of the details. Guest editors propose a topic, provide a list of projects and potential reviewers, and write an introduction. We solicit overviews and reviews and take care of the editorial workflow, with the help of our editorial assistant. Guest editors are welcome to participate in the editing of overviews and reviews, though are not required.
Our special issues are not limited to academic disciplines or interdisciplines. In addition to upcoming issues on Black Atlantic Digital Humanities and Digital Indigenous and Native American Studies, we have methodologically-oriented issues in the pipeline on sound studies and digital pedagogy. This year, we’ll also be publishing special issues based on our first Reviews in Digital Humanities pedagogical experiment, where we worked with a faculty member and her graduate students as they participated in peer review in the classroom. The results of that classroom learning will be featured in two issues this spring. We always welcome suggestions for special issues, so if you’d like to see an issue on a topic of interest, please get in touch!
We hope you’ll join us on the Reviews in Digital Humanities journey during 2021! Submit a project for review, nominate a project you admire, volunteer for our reviewer pool, and tell your colleagues and students about the journal.
Amalia S. Levi and Michelle Chesner
In 2011, the Center for Jewish History hosted a conference, titled “From Access to Integration: Digital Technologies and the Study of Jewish History.” It was, quite possibly, the first convening to address “digital humanities” in conjunction with the field of Jewish Studies. Nine years later, digital projects in Jewish Studies (#dhjewish) abound. A planned conference on the topic in January of 2021 has over 60 presentations that address different aspects of digital scholarship, covering a broad swath of Jewish Studies.
This special issue of Reviews in Digital Humanities addresses five projects, encompassing approaches that include network analysis, digital mapping, linked open data, machine learning, and crowdsourcing among others. Some, like the Scribes of the Cairo Geniza, are part of a larger program of digital humanities and Jewish Studies, while others, like Mapping Modern Jewish Cultures, derive from a single scholarly monograph.
A common thread running through these projects is that place corresponds to and is defined by the dispersion — and interconnectedness — of Jewish languages and cultures throughout the globe. This dispersion is compounded by selective digitization of particular materials, which can result in unequal access: for example, material held in well-funded institutions in the “North” get prioritized for digitization to fit scholarly trends, while originating communities, usually in the “Global South,” might have no access or no knowledge about what has been digitized. Thus, a second common thread is the imperative for infrastructural interventions that make possible the comprehensive, reliable findability of — and access to — dispersed digitized sources, and the need to expand these interventions to be more inclusive of all users.
Projects reviewed in this special issue strive to:
Reconstruct the movement of multilingual diasporic communities across several continents by using the network of Jewish café culture as a proxy (Mapping Modern Jewish Cultures);
Tame “unruly” Holocaust-era geographic data complicated by the creation and re-creation of national borders in Europe and the dispersion of sources and scholarship (EHRI Ghettos);
Unearth the multitude of cultures contained by a seemingly singular, overarching “Jewish” identity circumscribed in a specific urban center (Mapping Jewish LA);
Reclaim the nearly-extinct solitreo script used for centuries by Sephardic Jews in places like Turkey, the Balkans, and North Africa (Documenting Judeo-Spanish); and
Engage the public in classifying and transcribing fragments that reveal aspects of everyday and religious life of medieval Jewish communities in the Mediterranean world (Scribes of the Cairo Geniza).
These projects show how digital methods allow expansion of traditional humanities scholarship to provide a richer picture of the past by contextualizing and adding upon extant sources, reconstructing what is missing, and inferring what might be implied.
As is the case with most digital humanities projects, the ones reviewed in this issue are the result of collaboration by diverse teams of humanities scholars, computer scientists, technical staff, administrators, and undergraduate or graduate students. The role of funding, not only for human resources but also for infrastructure, is a focal point in all reviews, and reviewers emphasized the level of scholarship that can be achieved when a project has full funding, strong infrastructure, and broad support. Funding and ongoing maintenance proves important in the long-run, especially for long-term projects, which might otherwise end up having issues or not-functioning elements.
Reviewers note the need for robust editorial oversight and clearer collaboration — particularly when employing large, diverse teams, using many technologies, and bringing together dispersed material. Doing so can improve user experience and result in more coherent projects. Clearer collaboration and definitions of expectations is needed, since most of the teams involved in these projects are multidisciplinary and interdependent. Often, “more tech” might not be the best solution for approaching humanities questions — and might inadvertently undermine a project’s scholarly aims.
Another focal point of these projects is their public history focus. Rather than targeting only an academic audience, the reviewed projects aim to provide the public with opportunities to engage with people, places, and resources of the past in novel ways. This illustrates that digital humanities projects can serve as bridges between memory institutions and the public, exemplifying what can be achieved when institutions make available their material in open-access ways. Digital tools provide the scaffold and methods for creating projects. They also provide scholars, students, and enthusiasts multiple creative “pathways” through which they can engage with the material. Several projects offer the datasets they have used in open-access, machine-readable formats. Ensuring that these datasets remain authoritative and reliable, hosted and managed by the institutions vested in their integrity and long-term usability, is crucial to the long term growth of Jewish Studies.
We hope that the reviews in this issue will be useful not only for digital humanists at-large or Jewish Studies scholars, but also for colleagues working in other global areas that undoubtedly grapple with the same issues and deal within common cultural and geographical vectors.