“Isn’t there something wrong here?” Digitization and The Emerging Technologies to Enhance Humanities Scholarship and Teaching World-wide


The digital revolution has had an enormous impact on the advancement of humanities disciplines around the world.  Numerous advances within the field of African studies illustrate this process clearly.

For example, African historical cartography has proved itself to be one of the most puzzling yet rewarding enterprises in the digital humanities across the globe.  At its core is a paradox.  Africa was arguably the first continent to have been circumnavigated and mapped in world, yet those who mapped it were — by in large — not from Africa.  What kinds of distortions and misunderstandings then, might we expect to be “build in” to the largely “Euro-centric” development of African cartography?

Analyzing the maps of the slave trade is particularly challenging yet very rewarding for scholars of African history and culture.  New technologies and new techniques now make it possible to undertake research on a level of detail as well as across all disciplines and all cultural traditions.  Anyone equipped with a cell phone, an iPad or a computer with internet connections can now access and contribute to the collaborative and collective work of scholars on an international scale.

Some of this work is being undertaken by participants in “The Africa Map Circle:”

More work remains to be done by generation after generation of new scholars equipped and trained by digitally competent librarians who can help guide the research of scholars through university “digital laboratories,” like Yale’s “Digital Humanities Lab (DHLab)”


or Harvard’s History Design Studio (HDS):


Facilities like this are mushrooming on university campuses across the country and are rapidly becoming the nodal point both for elaborating new teaching techniques and for developing whole new research agenda in all of the fields of the humanities.

Beyond African Studies…. Enhancing Global Perspectives in the Humanities:

The potential to develop these technologies is by no means limited to African studies.  Even though the tools and techniques may have become the most advanced in this realm, there is no reason that they cannot be extended to a long-awaited study of many of the humanities disciplines across all historical periods, cultural communities and linguistic traditions.  

In addition the increasing contemporary usage of QR codes in museums and outdoor exhibits world-wide — from the UNESCO sponsored exhibits at archeological sites in Sicily, Italy through to museums like the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum in Boston, Massachusetts — demonstrates that the links between museum treasures, historical documentation and video guided itineraries of self-discovery have become globally dispersed and universally treasured as a means of exploring the humanities across all cultures. 


Other examples abound from the museums in Europe and those that have worked with the international treasures protected by UNESCO.  Consider, for example, the power of the open-air sign placed outside the Chiesa di Sanata Maria della Scale in the city of Ragusa in Sicily. 


It seems like a somewhat mundane church — as far as the magnificent cathedrals of Italy go — but for tourists, students and professional art historians, it is a precious point of pilgrimage for those drawn to the beauty of Italian art of the Renaissance, Baroque, and the Age of Enlightenment.  If you arrive to view it after the hours it customarily open you are may well glace at this sign posted outside the church, captured here in a snapshot taken with an iPhone at 11:00pm.  The sign is simple enough and doesn’t seem to convey a lot of information…. except….


… EXCEPT that it posts a QR code within itself.   Often it is high school or college students who notice this — rather than the adults who may be accompanying them.  The reason is that — to a surprising degree — nearly all students around the world now know what a QR code is and what it enable them to do.   If the QR code is “scanned” in on an iPhone, an iPad or even as a “picture” to be scanned later by an QR scanner of some sort anyone with access to this technology can can begin to learn about “linked” material. 

Here, for example, is an enlarged version of the QR code in the sign pictured above.  If you have an iPhone or iPad that can scan in this image, you can begin to learn a great deal more than just what the sign outside the church itself contains.   



This is clearly an imperfect image, derived as it is from an enlargement of a snapshot taken at 11:00pm under very low natural light at 11:00pm in Ragusa, Sicily.  Nonetheless, this code (when scanned) can yield great rewards for the curious.   If you can, scan the QR code with a iPhone or iPad please do.  Then wait until it resolves itself to view what it reveals.  Next, wait and watch until it is finished.

“Access” to virtual tours like this are available now from countless points in Italy and Europe.  Moreover, within museums and libraries, it is increasingly common to find links to individual items in the displayed collections, like this one, for example from the museum in Agrigento in Sicily:


In fact, individual “objects” like these displayed in “cases” or “under glass” can now be virtually scanned from all angles and “rendered” for viewing either within museums or anywhere around the world through “Virtual” and/or “Augmented Reality.”  Museums have learned how to adopt and adapt this technology perhaps more quickly than departments of history or art history in the standard academic setting.  See for example:

and the imaginative and creative work that has been undertaken by some museums to combine digital VR & AR technologies within the realm of the natural sciences.

In other respects digital technologies have afforded viewers opportunities to discover new aspacts of the creative history of the world’s most famous artists and reflect as well on the art’s skills to create a new understanding of the “familiar.”

While historians, artists, art historians and museum personnel have each contributed enormous talents to these endeavors, it is perhaps the digital librarians that deserve our particular thanks for the innovative manner in which they have responded to the “meta-data” challenges of relating art to history and art history to the world at large.


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