Nordic Digital Resources and Practices: Guest Editorial

With the rapid expansion of digital humanities initiatives in the Nordic countries, it is easy to forget that Nordic digital resources and practices have a long history. Rather than a relatively new phenomenon first consolidated in an Anglo-American context, digital humanities may be regarded as strategic label to bring together ongoing research activities in a variety of fields in different parts of the world. Digital humanities activities in the Nordic countries have a history dating back to the computational humanities and language technology of the 1980s, and as Mats Dahlström points out in this issue, ‘each of these Nordic countries of course also has a DH history and infrastructure of its own, adding their dialects to the collective DH thesaurus’.


This is an interesting metaphor and indeed not only a metaphor. The question of language is an important one for the Nordic countries and for other regions with a peripheral position in the academic world and the field of digital infrastructure. Yes, English is spoken at many of the large digital humanities conferences (even the annual Nordic one), and articles are mainly published in English in international academic journals. Still, it is a simplification to regard digital humanities as an international field of research practised uniformly all over the world. Geopolitical and cultural-linguistic inequalities are perhaps more conspicuous in the digital humanities than in many other research fields. It depends not only on access to research funding, but also on the digitization of cultural heritage materials (including texts in different languages) and institutional initiatives such as digital humanities centres or labs. Methods are also applied somewhat differently due to these conditions. While the recent turn towards big data in the digital humanities is logical from the point of view of an English language cultural heritage, which has already been largely digitized, there are fewer large text corpuses in Swedish. Some large-scale methods may therefore be less applicable.


The formation of the Association of Digital Humanities in the Nordic countries in 2015 and its annual conferences can be seen as a way of staking out the specific needs of Nordic digital humanities. The conferences held in Oslo 2016, Gothenburg 2017, Helsinki 2018, and Copenhagen 2019 brought together scholars in history, linguistics, literature, philosophy, cultural heritage, and library and information science and have contributed to cross-disciplinary communication and cooperation. The conferences have also called for and attracted contributions on both historical materials and contemporary digital cultures as well as on textual sources and visual and multisensory representations.


Under the theme of ‘Nordic digital resources and practices’, the contributions to this issue of Human IT also reflect some of this breadth, albeit with a focus on historical resources and computer-assisted analysis. A common denominator of four of the articles is the rediscovery of historical material with the help of computational methods. Peter M. Broadwell and Timothy Tangherlini put the Nordic countries in focus in their exploration of the boundaries of the Modern Breakthrough through a computational model of similarities in a collection of digitized literary texts, and they prove that interesting findings are possible even with a limited corpus. Similarly, Ida Storm and Timothy Tangherlini apply text mining to a relatively small corpus and combine it with historical geographic information systems to examine the practices of 19th and early 20th century folklore collection. Lasse Mårtensson, Ekta Vats, Anders Hast, and Alicia Fornés describe how the identification of different scribes in handwritten medieval manuscripts can be facilitated by computer-assisted spotting of select letters. Considering the National Library of Finland’s growing digital archive of historical press, Agata Dominowska, Elsi Hyttinen, Peter Ivanics, Mikko Koho, Ilona Pikkanen, and Risto J. Turunen address the question of how digital methods can help re-write literary history through the detection of poetry published in historical newspapers – material that was widely read, but rarely considered part of the national literary canon.


Studies of historical material in the Nordic countries using computational methods have often had to deal with the technical and methodological challenges of small collections or with collections that pose technical challenges, for example handwritten manuscripts or materials such as historical newspapers with many errors in optical character recognition. The article by Julia Pennlert and Gustaf Nelhans instead addresses the question of how the excess data produced by contemporary digital culture can be utilized for research, suggesting distant reading approaches for studying topical discourse and reading practices. They also discuss the potential synergies of data-driven quantitative methods and hermeneutical perspectives in an analysis of a Swedish social media poetry platform.


Alda Terracciano’s article about ‘Trading Faces’, an online exhibition exploring the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade, can be seen as a way of challenging established digital humanities practices from the point of view of African storytelling. This contribution indeed points to the significance of languages: spoken, written, and encoded.


Finally, in his review of the Swedish anthology Digital humaniora – humaniora i en digital tid (Digital Humanities – Humanities in a Digital Age), Mats Dahlström reflects on the emergence of digital humanities in Sweden. He remarks that the anthology’s focus on small-scale, qualitative, and critical analysis does not account for the history of data-driven research in Sweden, especially within computational linguistics. It might also, however, be read as a ’corrective’ to today’s focus on big data in the digital humanities.

July 2019
Jenny Bergenmar, Guest Editor
University of Gothenburg