Reflections on the meeting of the Advisory Board and Unlocking the Past in the Digital Age seminar

This past week was an exciting one for the project, as weeks of preparation culminated on Wednesday at the Advisory Board meeting of the Constellations of Correspondence consortium project. We had the honour of hosting two Advisory Board members, Prof. dr. Charles van den Heuvel (Hyugens Institute for History and Culture of the Netherlands & University of Amsterdam), and Dr. Dirk van Miert (Hyugens Institute for History and Culture of the Netherlands & University of Utrecht) here in Helsinki. The hybrid format also allowed other Advisory Board members to take part via Zoom, and we thank Dr. Johanna Lilja (The National Library of Finland), Dr. Claire Lemercier (CSO, Sciences Po; CNRS, Paris) and Prof. Ruth Ahnert (the Queen Mary University, London) for their participation and perseverance in attending a Zoom meeting for nearly five hours! Not an easy task even for the most experienced academic. We extend our sincerest gratitude to the whole Advisory Board for their active participation and the inspiring and insightful discussions we had. 

The Advisory Board meeting gave the CoCo team members an opportunity to present the progress of the project, such as the test version of our semantic portal, as well as discuss future prospects, challenges, and ideas with experts of the field. The discussion was lively and truly inspiring, and five hours in the dark and cold November afternoon practically flew by. The Advisory Board offered inspiring and insightful new perspectives, challenged our team members and presented a “fresh” look at our methods, data and current progress. Despite my time as a research assistant in the project shortly coming to an end, I believe this Advisory Board meeting gave our team fresh ideas and invaluable feedback to take the CoCo portal and its potential to new heights. It was exciting and inspiring, and I am truly grateful I had the opportunity to help with organising and attending such an important milestone of the project. The long Wednesday afternoon culminated in a lovely dinner with our guests, where everyone enjoyed great food, drink, and most importantly, lively and inspiring discussions and laughter with colleagues. 

As we had reserved two days for the meeting to take place in, we decided to host an open seminar on Thursday morning for all interested researchers of the digital humanities. Our seminar, titled “Unlocking the Past in the Digital Age: Research Questions, Methods, and Best Practices”, had the honour of hosting speeches by Prof. dr. van den Heuvel and Dr. van Miert, as well as other inspiring speakers from institutions such as the University of Jyväskylä, the Finnish Literature Society, Aalto University and the University of Eastern Finland. Again, we extend our sincere gratitude to all speakers for the wonderful presentations! It was an educational morning for all those in attendance. The presentations were thought-provoking and engaging, and inspired animated discussion and debate in the audience. 

We heard of the progress and challenges in creating correspondence databases and lasting infrastructure in (digital) humanities by Dr. van Miert, who discussed important factors in creating durable and reusable infrastructure in the field, such as policies of funding bodies, developing international agreements on standards of data and infrastructures, and the active involvement of communities in methods of data collection and cleaning. The presentation inspired good discussion on matters of ownership of data and databases, and the changing perspectives on how we perceive scholarship, and how data collection and data management fit into this. 

Prof. dr. van den Heuvel gave an inspiring presentation on ontology design patterns and networks of art classifications, and the challenges associated with developing durable and accurate systems of classification and description in the field. We heard of ontology design patterns (ODPs) as reusable solutions in simplifying ontology development, and particularly dynamic ODPs as a potential tool even for the CoCo project to create content networks, co-citation networks based on keywords, and more. This particular presentation offered delicious potential future prospects for the development of the CoCo project and portal, which I am sure gave our team members much food for thought. 

Photo: Suvi Sainio. Presentation and slides property of Charles van den Heuvel.

We also had inspiring presentations by Prof. Pasi Ihalainen from the University of Jyväskylä on the bridging of quantitative and qualitative methods in conceptual history and the digital humanities, focusing on parliaments as the analytical nexus. Prof. Ihalainen presented important points about how methods of digital humanities can help the field of traditional conceptual history (and many other fields!) in answering many tricky questions, based on data spanning decades (even centuries) to give an idea of overall trends in changing conceptions, in this case focusing on digitized parliamentary debates. Assistant professor Mikko Kivelä from Aalto University gave an interesting presentation on changing methods of communication, based on an analysis of the Republic of Letters. This presentation challenged traditional ideas of modern communication being entirely different from epistolary communication, showing, with the use of quantitative methods, concrete results on the similarity and durability of major communication patterns even across centuries, despite the change in mediums and channels of communication. Dr. Veli-Matti Pynttäri from the University of Eastern Finland presented the Digital History for Literature in Finland -project, with ambitions of digitizing metadata of literary works produced in the national languages from the period of the Grand Duchy of Finland (1809-1917) in a common database, inspired by the idea of “the Great unread” (Margaret Cohen) and the driving need to know more, which I am sure all academics are intimately familiar with, no matter their field or personal research interests. Lastly, we also had an exciting presentation by none other than our consortium PI, Dr. Ilona Pikkanen, of our own beloved Constellations of Correspondence project. Ilona shed light on the current progress of the project and future prospects, focusing in particular the development of a “critical collection history”, which would allow us to critically examine cataloging categories, practices and the diverse biases of various, heterogeneous datasets, and the challenges in indexing this in published data. Despite the early morning, our audience was attentive and engaged throughout the seminar, with lively discussions heard all around during our brief coffee break. It was truly wonderful to see and experience!

Photo: Suvi Sainio

All in all, it was a wonderfully inspiring two days, and I am grateful I got to take part in such a thought-provoking and engaging environment. Although my internship has had many good moments, this was definitely one of the highlights, and the culmination of weeks of careful preparation and organization. I sincerely hope our guests enjoyed their stay in Helsinki, where we got to enjoy surprisingly lovely November weather and even much needed sunlight on Thursday morning. The CoCo project goes on ahead at full steam, and exciting things await us in the future as we unlock the hidden treasures of 19th century Finnish epistolary cultures!