Handwritten letters from a loved one. Super 8 reels filled with Christmas images. A cassette mix tape curated by your cool older brother in high school.
These nostalgic items are found in attics and basements around the world today, providing evidence of the past that can be seen, touched and preserved, if desired.
As society increasingly embraces digital communication tools, such as email, social media and video posts, some worry such vestiges of our current lives will be lost to future historians, storytellers and researchers.
“One huge advantage of digital materials in the arts and humanities has been an exponential increase in access to images, movies, music and literary texts,” said North Carolina Central University Professor of Language and Literature Kathryn Wymer, who has received the Humanities Unbounded Fellowship at Duke University for the 2021-2022 academic year.
“However, as personal and even academic libraries move away from owning physical copies of media, it leads to the question of how lasting access [to this information] might be.”
In 2012, Wymer became one of the first NCCU faculty to participate in the Digital Humanities Fellowship program at Duke’s John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute. She serves as the Digital Humanities Lab coordinator at NCCU and is active in the Digital Humanities Collaborative of North Carolina. As part of the Humanities Unbounded appointment, she will conduct research while working with her counterparts to learn more about using and preserving digital material.
“There are always choices we must make in how we do our work,” she said.
“We always have to remember that the increase in access to digital media is reliant upon computing technology and internet connections, and not everyone – whether we are thinking locally about North Carolina or more globally – has the needed software, hardware or connections.
“The advantages are likely to outweigh disadvantages, but we must always keep access at the forefront of our discussions.”
One area she is eager to study is “ephemerality and loss” in digital projects. This refers to the potential loss of information due to technological changes, as well as day-to-day actions, such as cleaning out your email in-box or deleting those smart phone photos.
Use of digital information in the humanities goes back to the 1940s with efforts to automate such tasks as word search and sorting. Today, most professors are proficient users of technology for tasks such as remote teaching and Blackboard class management, Wymer said.
But the concept of digital humanities goes a bit further.
“When we think about the research aspect of digital humanities, we are exploring how technology can transform how we interact with the arts, literature, and performance,” she said.
“For instance, could we use artificial intelligence to teach a computer how to interpret poetry? Can we use GIS mapping software to visualize historical events and the locations of the art and architecture of historical periods?”
Wymer plans to leverage her learning over the next year at Duke to provide greater opportunities for NCCU students and faculty members as they increasingly integrate digital information in their work.
“Digital humanities work is very much a team effort,” Wymer said. “NCCU has been wonderful in this respect. Colleagues from across the university have been collaborating with the strong support of the administration.
“The insights and efforts of our IT and library staff have been integral to our efforts. When I'm working on my fellowship, I will be thinking about how these teams work together to create sustainable projects, work on preservation efforts, and accommodate the changing nature of how we interact with arts, literature and performance.”
Wymer is also author of Introduction to Digital Humanities: Enhancing Scholarship with the Use of Technology, a book released earlier this year by Routledge Press.