Cultures of Scale: Disciplines, Data, and Labor

Joshua Ortiz Baco, Jim Casey, Benjamin Charles Germain Lee, Sarah H. Salter, Editors

Deadline for 500-word abstracts: May 15, 2024

Part of the Debates in the Digital Humanities Series
A book series from the University of Minnesota Press
Matthew K. Gold and Lauren F. Klein, Series Editors


The scale of things is changing in the digital humanities. The ongoing outbreak of large-language models and widening access to AI products has unsettled long-running dialogues between close and distant reading, between big and small data, and between critique and craft. If this latest wave of predictive models for text and image has been cause for alarm in our institutions, it is perhaps because these shifts in resources and capital have clarified how much our digital work on culture, history, language, identity, and other humanistic concerns now exceed even the interdisciplinary model of digital humanities.

And yet we are not bereft. In part, we seek a longer, wider view. People and teams in the digital humanities (DH) and within cultural heritage (CH) organizations have long developed locally attuned frameworks for conceptualizing differing scales of knowledge production. These frameworks, designed to address the challenges of stewarding and providing diverse forms of access to historical artifacts, open up larger questions of historical value, the mobility and mutability of data, the ethics of access and circulation, and many others. Yet, those frameworks and ongoing debates remain scattered across a wide number of disciplines, fields, and professions. Our parallel conversations in cultural heritage, digital humanities, and related arenas remain siloed and separate, preventing us from recognizing our shared concerns and practices. Bridging those conversations might enable us to spark emergent communities of practice to contend with the changing contexts of our work, both in the digital humanities and in cultural heritage. Much depends, in other words, on our debates about scale.

We seek accounts of how DH and CH communities have reconfigured their modes of knowledge production in the recent or distant past to accommodate the challenges and affordances of scale and to convey their collective histories and values to other audiences. Mapping the frameworks and debates already established and embedded within the digital humanities and cultural heritage is a vital step towards moving beyond the norms being imposed by Big Tech. Pushing back against our present moment’s zeal for scale is less an evasive maneuver than an opportunity to imagine new kinds of exchange between frequently disparate disciplines, a process for finding new paths within and beyond the current realities of our besieged and imperfect institutions, especially those that preserve and activate cultural heritage. Cross-cutting and comparative approaches to scale, we hold, may even help us envision new, multidisciplinary modes for digital humanities teaching, stewardship, and scholarship capable of providing for free, just, and joyful futures.

Potential Contributors

This volume is designed for a wide array of perspectives. We have much to gain from the complex and critical debates on scale within rapidly growing fields such as Black DH, Indigenous DH and digital Knowledge Making, Latinx DH, Queer DH, and multilingual DH. Along with these and other disciplines represented in digital humanities and cultural heritage, we invite contributions from creative writers, visual artists, educators, students, computer scientists, and information professionals and knowledge creators, particularly those whose work has moved them beyond formal disciplinary training. Contributors should help map distinct and overlapping communities of practice around scale in digital humanities and across galleries, libraries, archives, and museums (GLAMs). Delving into scale offers an opportunity to consider and articulate the cultures, contexts, and conditions of our work that other people may not understand. We are especially interested in learning about the tasks, analyses, projects, or processes that have become so conventional as to be unremarkable as ingrained professional norms. Quotidian practices for managing or encountering scale embody a vast store of critical ideas, particularly if we attend to the myriad forms in which these ideas evolve and circulate. Among others, examples may derive from the communities of practice around computational periodicals, born-digital archives, and other forms of cultural heritage or historical data that confound our conventional ideas about scale.

Forms of Contributions

We envision this volume’s sections as spaces for debate between librarians and computer scientists, data artists and preservationists, grant officers and literary theorists, visual artists and institutional administrators, vendors and community archivists, and any number of other unexpected combinations, including and especially those without fixed institutional affiliations.

To facilitate a range of cross-profession and multidisciplinary submissions, we invite essays (4-6,000 words including citations) along with a wider variety of contributions appropriate to the forms in which knowledge about scale circulates in different disciplines and fields. We also invite contributions of short sample documents (e.g. excerpts from manuals, usage guides, project charters, best practices) with critical analyses or reflections (1500-2500 words including citations) that help readers from other fields grasp the arguments embedded within those documents. Additionally, we invite critical arguments about the pedagogy of scale, especially in contributions that can speak to both the conceptual and practical aspects of ongoing or new efforts to bring these conversations to classrooms and informal learning spaces alike. Please indicate what planned length your contribution will be.

Topics of Contributions

Fundamental Debates about Scale

● What are your professional community’s touchstones or evolving norms related to data, and what formal/informal mechanisms enforce the scale and sensibilities of those norms in your work in computational methods, cultural life, and/or community outreach?

● What scales are privileged in specific cultural heritage communities, with what implications?

● What kinds of alternative genres/models are available for managing scale in digital settings?

● What are your local strategies for managing unruly data at differing scales?

Cultures and Communities at Scale

● How has the growing scale of machine learning models remade the past decade’s debates about close and distant reading? How can small datasets build towards larger cultural understandings? Should they?

● Where does the scale of language models encourage or discourage our engagements with multilingual DH, particularly with low-resource and/or endangered languages?

● How do machine learning models allow us to develop more diverse visions for cultural analytics?

● How can new computational, collaborative, or exploratory models bridge the diverging visions and objectives of cultural analytics/computational research and the rapidly growing fields of Black DH, Latinx DH, Indigenous DH, postcolonial DH, and other community-focused DH collectives?

Collaborations, Collectives, and Conflicts around Scale

● How do we create intentional spaces for exchange between disparate scales in distinct professional communities that can lead towards multidisciplinary collectives and blended communities of practice?

● How can those exchanges help us clarify the uses and limits of machine learning generalizations and generative AI within humanistic analyses of history, culture, and community?

● What terms, technologies, and values do we use to describe our labors, operations, and maintenance? What ideas about scale seek common ground across professional values?

● What does it mean to move from interdisciplinary combinations of our research into multilateral approaches that engage with the salient debates in multiple fields?

● How can we reconceptualize crowdsourcing, human-AI interaction, and other areas of practice in ways that leverage new affordances and bend towards justice?

DH, CH, and Big Tech: Cooperation and Its Discontents

● How does the fetishization of scale in Big Tech impact the work of cultural heritage organizations?

● How does the corporate capture and/or privatization of STEM research in higher ed influence understandings about scale in cultural heritage or GLAM institutions?

● What does it mean for large language models to be trained on born-digital archives, web derivatives, and copyrightable materials?

Archival Scales: Computational Periodicals, Born-Digital Archives, and More

We anticipate one cluster of essays in this volume will focus on the growing sub-field of computational periodicals. Many of the world’s largest digital collections derive from the archives of historical newspapers and magazines. We encourage contributions that address the debates around these digitized archives, including but not limited to the following topics:

● Stewarding and maintaining serials and periodicals collections as data

● Representing, mediating, or analyzing the multimodal data of historical communities represented in periodical archives

● Managing the diversities of scale across print and born-digital newspaper or ephemera collections

● Imagining difficulties and resistances in archives, including web archives, as an invitation to toggle between scales

● Encountering scale as a factor in social constructions of race, gender, sexuality, language, and ability in digitized and born-digital collections

Diversity and Inclusion

Beyond commitment to a diverse range of historical, contemporary, linguistic, and embodied communities, this volume will speak from and to a wide assortment of professional practices and knowledges. Our editors seek proposals from writers, readers, coders, designers, engineers, managers, administrators, independent researchers, and others whose professional labor has been devalued as not academic or not “research.” We are delighted to consult about your ideas, answer your questions, and otherwise support your contribution. This volume particularly welcomes contributions from those who have not previously published in the Debates series.

Deadlines and Logistics

Please email with a 500-word abstract by May 15, 2024

CFP (abstracts due): May 15, 2024
Accepted Abstracts: June 15, 2024
Essay Submission: Aug 15, 2024
Peer-to-Peer Review: Sept 16, 2024 – Oct 7, 2024
Editor's Review of Peer Review/Summary Letter: Nov 4, 2024
Revision Due: Dec 2, 2024

Editors: Joshua Ortiz Baco, Jim Casey, Benjamin Charles Germain Lee, Sarah H. Salter