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Allgemein vDHd2021 Blogreihe

Public Humanities as Individualization of Research and Science Communication

The Science Council in Germany calls for transfer from science. While funding for basic research is primarily provided by the DFG, the BMBF is devoting more attention to projects in the field of Citizen Science and Public Humanities. However, due to this strategic embedding of communication with the public in funding programs, this public is often thought of as an anonymous collective, or addressed in terms of sociologically defined target groups.

Note: This is the English translation (automatically with DeepL). The German original written by Monika Barget (IEG Mainz / Maastricht University) can be found here.

Location determination

The Science Council in Germany calls for transfer from science. While funding for basic research is primarily provided by the DFG, the BMBF is devoting more attention to projects in the field of Citizen Science and Public Humanities. However, due to this strategic embedding of communication with the public in funding programs, this public is often thought of as an anonymous collective, or addressed in terms of sociologically defined target groups. Especially in large-scale or collaborative projects, the contribution that non-scientists can make to the projects is clearly delineated from the beginning, for example, when volunteers are needed for data collection or data evaluation. Public influence on the objectives or methods of research, on the other hand, challenges the standards of scientific research and our notion of scientific innovation by experts. For knowledge processes, especially in the cultural sciences and humanities, it is necessary to reflect theories about society as a whole in as many voices as possible. This can be achieved, among other things, through public humanities in the sense of a targeted individualization of research and science communication. Knowledge relevant to the humanities is often preserved in small or marginalized communities that cannot always be reached through media channels, but can sometimes only be won over to participate in scientific projects by addressing them personally in educational institutions, community centers, at cultural events or political gatherings.

My contribution is therefore a plea to understand Public Humanities as a multidirectional culture of science that not only connects more or less anonymous or merely imagined groups, but also brings individuals in research and the public into contact with each other. That the existence of certain (digital) communication channels does not itself imply transfer, and that staff time must be specifically allocated to work with the public, I would like to present using the example of our work in the Letters 1916-1923 project, an Irish „engaged research“ editions project started in 2013 by Prof. Susan Schreibman. The project collects correspondence from the years of the Easter Rising and World War I, Irish Independence, and the Irish Civil War. Between 2017 and 2018, I served as project manager, contributing to data collection, XML coding, and outreach, among other tasks. As the project relates to recent history and politically controversial events, we encountered ethical challenges related to debates about the „decolonization“ of scholarly work (cf. „Decolonising Study Skills and the role of Learning Development“ by Rattus Scholasticus, „Decolonising Academic Skilling“ by Cetshwayo Zindabazezwe Mabhena, and „Decolonising Research and Academic Skills“ by Sara Ewing) that affect not only this but also similar Digital Humanities projects.

Involvement of the „public“ – target groups, forms of communication and personal encounters

Letters 1916-1923, which received external funding until 2019, benefited in the long term from the individualization of communication with the public, because it enabled new access to the highly fragmented project data and their complex cultural, social, and political contexts. The Letters 1916-1923 project is a digital edition of Irish letters, postcards, and telegrams from the period of World War I, Irish Independence, and the Irish Civil War that digitizes, transcribes, and annotates individual letters from private collections in addition to large, closed collections from state archives, for example. The transcriptions are largely done by volunteers who can create anonymous user accounts. However, rather than merely communicating diffusely with potential audiences and volunteers through its own project website, social media, and mailing lists, Letters 1916-1923 has repeatedly sought contact with individuals. On the one hand, dedicated individuals in historical societies and history-related online forums were contacted to fill in gaps in our data and share our own findings. On the other hand, contact with individuals was repeatedly sought at cultural events, user testing, and through interview series to improve the project technically, expand its content, and open it to new contexts of use. Although we repeatedly had to leave the ground of academic certainties and engage in new (virtual) worlds, the individualization of both our research and our scholarly communication improved the quality of our research results in micro studies (e.g., in the field of genealogical research) in the long run, because we were able to integrate data into the project that were not recorded at all in public archives and state files.

The use of our social media channels (especially Twitter and Facebook) during the intensive main phase of the project also served not only to recruit as many volunteers as possible for the transcription. Rather, we encouraged personal research activities and individual feedback on the identification of signatures, the assignment of personal names, or on historical location information. For example, we received important feedback on (lesser-known) women from the correspondence network of Irish Republican activist Charlie Daly and from around the Irish War Hospital Supply Organization, which produced medical supplies for the British Army during World War I. Through research and chats on genealogy forums, Irish national history forums, or international collectors‘ forums where World War I postcards were exchanged, we were able to learn more about the correspondence of Irish prisoners of war in Germany, for example, and establish contact with distant relatives of IWHSO member Eleanor Pratt, who now live in Australia. The new findings were also shared on our social media channels, with personal mentions of those providing the information in our tweets and the more detailed blog posts. 

In the blog post about women in the Daly letters, for example, we thanked our Twitter follower Fiona Hughes for information about Charlie Daly’s sisters (Susan, Nora, Nancy, and Ellen) as well as Susan Healy, Lizzie Kelliher and May Daly.

Although the transcription of letters has remained the most important and frequent form of collaboration on the Letters 1916-1923 project, individual feedback on the distinction of persons or the transliteration of Irish place names has often been particularly helpful in answering research questions. In the case of the Daly Letters and the IWHSO network, we even chose to address these issues in scholarly publications. On GITHUB we already make some of the results publicly available.

At the same time, we are convinced that our volunteers, website users, workshop participants, and social media followers have also benefited from the intensive contact with us. For students, Letters 1916-1923 was a popular project for case studies and internships. However, personal contact can also reduce prejudices against academia as an elitist system, or critically reflect on quantitative surveys conducted by researchers on their own user groups and followers. Contact with individuals points out shades and sharpens the eye for minorities that may have been overlooked in abstract communication planning. In Letters 1916-1923, the team had different age groups and educational backgrounds in mind from the beginning and naturally wanted to address the different religious and political groups in Irish society. The specific work with individuals in the project also brought the role of expats, rural women, and migrants into sharper focus.

Our work on the letters themselves benefited from the approach of telling the story of the project as the story of the participants at the same time: we understood „making history“ as a shared, non-finite process. Our source criticism thus concerned both historical source data and digital forms of their representation, which we deepened in workshops with school classes, women’s groups, and registered volunteers. In these workshops and in close dialogue with experts in didactics, we created teaching materials and rather playful „digital treasure hunts“ that could be downloaded from the project website and adapted to learning objectives.

With the particular challenges posed to education and science by the Covid19 pandemic, the demand for such didactic resources will continue to grow, and multi-lateral knowledge transfer will (have to) play a role in more and more research projects.

Creating space for encounters – what research projects can do

At the beginning of any scientific project, even if it is not formally dedicated to the public humanities, there should be the creation of a communication plan that does not just name general communication channels or abstract target groups. Rather, the existing landscape of physical and virtual venues of people already interested in the relevant topics should be analyzed. Individuals who could act as multipliers* should be approached personally and informed about the project. Contacts with volunteers who support a research project must be maintained just as seriously and on an equal footing as contacts with colleagues in scientific institutions. Finally, this includes personal recognition of the contributors by naming them personally in digital and printed publications, as well as offering them the opportunity to have their say in the form of a blog post, a podcast episode, or a video interview (cf. „Letters 1916 Transcriber Tales“).

Even in times when face-to-face meetings are (again) possible, virtual spaces (such as Mozilla Hubs), if nothing else, can be used as exchange platforms, for example, to integrate people who are far away or not mobile. Unfortunately, not all universities yet see multi-lateral knowledge transfer as one of their fundamental tasks. Here, hopefully, the view of non-scientists will change in the long run, also in the reflection on the Corona crisis. People who share time, knowledge and data with us are our partners, not just temporary workers or data suppliers.

Note: For questions about the Letters 1916-1923 project, please contact letters1916.23 {at} gmail.com. Some of the issues discussed here stem from a roundtable on knowledge transfer that I had the pleasure of moderating at MAINZED Community Day 2019. I would like to thank Fabian Cremer, Thorsten Wübbena, Kai Bruhn and John Carter Wood for their input.

This article is licensed under the following license: CC-BY 4.0. When reusing, please include the attribute rel=“canonical“ in the link to the original post!

How to cite this Article: Barget, Monika (2021): „Public Humanities as Individualization of Research and Science Communication“. In: Kolodzie, Lisa, Schumacher, Mareike, Seltmann, Melanie and Brenn, Daniel (eds.): Public Humanities. https://publicdh.hypotheses.org/343.


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