What is a Digital History Lab? Reflections from a trip to Lisbon

by Ian Marino and Demival Vasques Filho

Being part of a DH Lab involves questioning what constitutes this type of organism: who we are, what we do, how and why we do it. A recent workshop at the Digital Humanities Lab of the Universidade Nova de Lisboa has sparked a reflection regarding the question that entitles this blog post.1 The multiple nationalities and institutions of the researchers present there added ingredients that allowed such a question to cross European national borders and even the Atlantic Ocean.

Coming from a research-first institute at the IEG to meet labs with teaching as a chief concern may look like a mismatch. The language, the position of the labs within their main institutions, and the composition of the teams also present a situation in which it is easier to point out differences than similarities. However, the feeling of proximity spoke loudly. Why so? The answer to that may be in a combination of two seemingly out-of-place words: Digital History labs are marked by need and precariousness.

Such words make us think about materiality. Yes, many DH labs worldwide are precarious regarding physical space and hardware, not to mention the absence of stable funding for research and teaching. Such precariousness reflects global inequalities, which contribute to forging new layers of inequity in the development of knowledge within the Digital Humanities in general.2

That is one of the unfoldings of the “laboratorial turn” that defines the field’s recent growth in the last decades.3 As our host in Lisbon, Daniel Alves, defined well, the Digital Humanities are a “community of practices”: Increasingly, people are the labs, more than physical and institutionalized spaces.4

Nevertheless, we are making a different point here when we say that DH labs are marked by need and precariousness. Without proper training5, digital historians face the constant sensation of delayed understanding and following up in a continuously updating digital world.6 There is always new software, new methods, or updated versions of available tools (not to mention AI!). For example, after a workshop that presented Tropy – a new software for most of us which allows managing research photos in an unprecedented way – a conversation between the participants went more or less like this:

– We would love to know more about Omeka in our lab, but it is so hard to find time for it…
– Oh, we use it a lot here; maybe we can help you!
– Really? Thank you, that would be great!

DH labs function like mechanic workshops for cars that never stop moving. But these cars are digital, and they do not stop accelerating. DH Labs are collective ventures: We need partners and must learn from each other. That is what drove our meeting in Lisbon and drives the excitement and constant search for external collaborators in domestic events, like in the case of the IEG’s monthly event, 60 minutes of DH, for example.

There is a flipside to that. The time to catch on to the novelties is rarely available, which creates constant gaps of knowledge that lead, in turn, to the anxiety and sensation of delay that digital historians know so well. Once again, need and precariousness. The need for time, space, and funding to surpass institutional barriers and collaborate with external researchers. The precariousness of institutional structures and research agendas that do not acknowledge the need for such inter-labs partnerships.

What is a Digital History lab? In our return to the IEG, the question has stuck in our minds. The fact that we are both foreigners here and have a set date to leave only increases the perception that this issue is global. Maybe every DH researcher has similar questions and possibly different answers, which might travel around the world from lab to lab. Nevertheless, our stay in Lisbon has shown us that the possibility of interacting with peers can only increase the quality of the reflections regarding what we do, how we do it, who we are, and who we could be.

Cite this article as: Ian Marino and Demival Vasques Filho, "What is a Digital History Lab? Reflections from a trip to Lisbon," in Digital Humanities Lab, 20/04/2023, https://dhlab.hypotheses.org/3925.

Featured image: photo by Demival Vasques Filho, all rights reserved.

  1. We would like to thank to all the researchers of the DH labs that were part of this experience: the IEG’s Digital Historical Research Unit, the Centre for Contemporary and Digital History, the Digital Humanities Lab, and the Center of Digital Humanities-Unicamp. Particularly, we would like to thank the researchers Agatha Bloch, Anita Lucchesi, and Joana Paulino. Finally, an especial appreciation to Daniel Alves, who received us at the Nova University’s Digital Humanities Lab. []
  2. Barbara Göbel and Christoph Müller, “Transformação digital, arquivos e assimetrias do conhecimento,” in Desigualdades interdependentes e geopolítica do conhecimento: negociações, fluxos, assimetrias, ed. Eloísa Martín and Barbara Göbel (7Letras, 2018), 132–47. []
  3. Urszula Pawlicka-Deger, “The Laboratory Turn: Exploring Discourses, Landscapes, and Models of Humanities Labs,” Digital Humanities Quarterly 014, no. 3 (September 25, 2020), http://digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/14/3/000466/000466.html. []
  4. Daniel Alves, “As Humanidades Digitais como uma comunidade de práticas dentro do formalismo académico: dos exemplos internacionais ao caso português,” Ler História, no. 69 (December 30, 2016): 91–103, https://doi.org/10.4000/lerhistoria.2496. []
  5. Jane Winters, “Digital History,” in Debating New Approaches to History, ed. Marek Tamm and Peter Burke (New York ; London: Bloomsbury, 2019), 277–300. []
  6. Mateus Henrique de Faria Pereira and Valdei Lopes de Araujo, “Updatism: Pandemic and Historicities in the Never-Ending 2020,” Journal of Foreign Languages and Cultures 5, no. 2 (December 28, 2021): 090–102, https://doi.org/10.53397/hunnu.jflc.202102009. []

Imperial Commoners in Brazil and West Africa (1640–1822): A Global History from a Correspondence Network Perspective

By Agata Bloch and Demival Vasques Filho

After a couple of attempts, we have finally received the exciting news that our project has been recommended for funding by the Polish National Science Center! Over the next four years, we will study the communication patterns of imperial commoners (non-elite actors) who developed similar characteristics, narratives, and thought strategies in different areas of the vast Atlantic Portuguese Empire. We are interested not only in how these commoners generally behaved and displayed attitudes that transcended class and gender, but also in how imperial authorities responded to them. „Imperial Commoners in Brazil and West Africa (1640–1822): A Global History from a Correspondence Network Perspective“ weiterlesen

Introduction to historical (social) network analysis – Part 2

by Demival Vasques Filho

In the first part of this blog post, we discussed the first studies in graph theory and social network analysis. Then, we introduced several concepts: random networks, weak ties, two-mode networks, centrality measures, the focus theory, network visualization, and structural holes. Now, let us move on to some applications and yet new concepts!

„Introduction to historical (social) network analysis – Part 2“ weiterlesen

Introduction to historical (social) network analysis – Part I

by Demival Vasques Filho

Last September, as part of our seminar series, “60 minutes of DH”, at the IEG, I presented an introduction to historical (social) network analysis. In the talk, I gave an overview of the field’s history, discussing landmark papers, in my opinion. It was a mix of going through papers fundamental to shaping the discipline (a kind of consensus in the network science/social network analysis communities) and those that are important to me or I like. In the following, I will recount this biased – based on my opinion – talk about the evolution of networks research in this two-part post.

„Introduction to historical (social) network analysis – Part I“ weiterlesen

Diving into Reddit: authority networks in history forums

by Daniela Linkevicius de Andrade and Demival Vasques Filho

Writing history in the 21st century means considering the digital space as a significant space for the production of historical knowledge, especially since dichotomies such as “offline” and “online” fail to do justice to how “real” and “digital” intertwine. These elements, currently approached as complementary, imply that one of the challenges that historians now face is understanding how the digital is constituted as part of our experience, playing a great influence in the way we interpret and perceive the world. If the digital modify every aspect of our lives, it is plausible to ask what this would mean for the historical field, especially regarding standards of authority, which are the pillars of the discipline. For this purpose, our objective in this project is to identify and analyze what types of authority networks we can find in Reddit history forums. „Diving into Reddit: authority networks in history forums“ weiterlesen

Research visit in New Zealand: Modelling the spread of COVID-19 on higher-order networks

At the beginning of March, I went to New Zealand for a research visit with a planned duration of four weeks. This visit was part of a collaboration involving the IEG DH Lab and Te Pūnaha Matatini, a New Zealand centre of research excellence for complex systems and data science hosted by the University of Auckland’s Department of Physics.

The main goal of the visit was to further develop our research on the structure of higher-order networks, that is, networks which account for interactions between individuals stemming from their membership to groups. Higher-order networks are usually represented by either bipartite (two-mode) networks, or hypergraphs, or simplicial complexes. Our last publications on this topic can be seen in the Journal of Complex Networks and the Physical Review E (also available on arXiv, here and here).

I arrived about one week before New Zealand closed its borders to the world, allowing only citizens and long-term residents to enter into the country. „Research visit in New Zealand: Modelling the spread of COVID-19 on higher-order networks“ weiterlesen

IEG DH Lab at NetSciX 2020

by Demival Vasques Filho

I just returned from Japan, where I attended the NetSciX (the Winter edition of NetSci) conference. It was an enjoyable event, with inspiring presentations and discussions. Here, I will share with you some of my perceptions about it!

„IEG DH Lab at NetSciX 2020“ weiterlesen
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