Digital Humanities in Alberta, 2017

I started my job in the English Department at the University of Calgary five years ago this month, in 2007. When you move here, one of the things you notice is that Albertans start by making ambitious plans and only then sweat the details.  Approval for pipelines notwithstanding, this quality is pretty admirable.

So five years from now, in 2017, what will be the state of Digital Humanities in Alberta?

We’re already in a position of strength, with active researchers across the province. [I’m learning more as I launch my own SSHRC-funded project this fall, provisionally titled Encoding Shakespeare.] The U of A has a renowned Humanities Computing MA program, and its CIRCA is a national leader in humanities research computing. Dan O’Donnell at Lethbridge is breaking new ground by editing objects in the Visionary Cross project, and Nicole Rosen’s Cree-Innu Linguistic Atlas is a revelation. Our campus infrastructure attracts international attention, like when Dan Cohen tweeted about Calgary’s TFDL. But where can we go next?

I can foresee expansions of what we have already, and drawing together the community of Alberta DHers to address new problems. I see collaborative projects involving digital humanists from multiple universities; senior hires and national expertise on problems like big data; research funding from institutions and governments grappling with data visualization, natural language processing, the semantic web. I see DH research incubators at each university, with permanent offices and dedicated administrators to support our grant applications and project management.

I’m just beginning to grasp the state of DH in Alberta, but can already see that we’re moving in the right directions. I joined AbDAH’s exploratory committee to learn more about DH projects and experts today, but more importantly, to provoke discussions and plans for our future.


Cree-Innu Linguistic Atlas

The Cree-Innu Linguistic Atlas is an on-line, multimedia linguistic atlas of a number of related Algonquian languages spoken across the continent: the Métis, Cree, Ojibwe and Innu dialects of Canada

Nicole Rosen at the University of Lethbridge is a co-investigator on the SSHRC-funded Ressources en ligne pour langues vivantes project which extends the Cree-Innu Linguistic Atlas, co-created between Prof. Marie-Odile Junker, from Carleton University, Prof. Marguerite MacKenzie from Memorial University, the Department of Cree Programs of the Cree School Board in Quebec, the Gift of Language and Culture (Saskatchewan Cree), the Innu Education Authority in Labrador, and l’Institut culturel et éducatif montagnais in Quebec. Other current co-investigators include Rand Valentine (University of Wisconsin-Madison) and Arok Wolvengrey (First Nations University). Read the rest of this entry »

Michif Dictionary

Métis Red River Cart. Image courtesy: The Gabriel Dumont Institute & Leah Dorion & Todd Paquin.

“Word-building in Michif” is a SSHRC-funded project directed by Nicole Rosen of the University of Lethbridge (Principal Investigator), in conjunction with the Manitoba Métis FederationA primary goal of this project is to publish a web-based searchable Michif-English dictionary database, with attached linguistic information and soundfiles for the dictionary entries to aid in language documentation and revitalization. An app for iPhone/iPad is also under development with in conjunction with

What are Digital Arts and Humanities?

At ABDAH, “Digital Arts and Humanities” describes an approach and an interest more than it does a discipline.

The University of Lethbridge Department of New Media's game design class.

The term can describe the work of artists who use technology in their creative process, English professors who build databases to analyse the works of Shakespeare, archaeologists who create virtual reconstructions of ancient sites, librarians who work to improve our ability to find and retrieve information in the library, or on the move, pedagogical experts who turn to the techniques of computer gaming to improve the quality of education and training,… and much more.

What these activities have in common is an interest in how the hardware and software of technology interact with human interests and needs. How it affects the way we learn and understand, what we know and enjoy, how we organise ourselves, and compete and collaborate.

The University of Alberta's Ukranian Traditional Folklore site contains lanugage learning materials, history, and recordings of traditional Ukranian folk knowledge.

Sometimes this use of digital technology allows us to accomplish traditional research and teaching more efficiently or in a different way. XML, databases, and other technologies, for example, allow us to build better dictionaries. The Wikipedia replaces traditional encyclopedias with a new type of reference work.

Sometimes this use of digital technology allows us to ask completely new questions or look at problems in completely new ways. 3D scanning and visualisation techniques allow museums to preserve and represent our cultural heritage in completely novel ways. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) have begun to revolutionise the way we do economic and cultural history.

These approaches often also have a very practical component. In exploring the interaction of the technological and the human, researchers in the Digital Arts and Humanities are forced to develop practical answers to fundamental problems. How can we improve the way we use technology in carrying out every day activities? How can we make research and information more accessible? How can we improve the quality, effectiveness, and efficiency of education and training? What do we need to do to ensure that our heritage, including today’s new born-digital cultural heritage, is preserved and kept accessible for future generations? As the development of Unicode and XML suggest, the answers to these questions can have far reaching effects and involve questions that are interesting to industry and the academy alike.

The University of Alberta's Experimental Reading Project looked at how technology affected reading.

ABDAH supports the Digital Arts and Humanities in Alberta at the moment by encouraging collaboration and cooperation. It provides a forum that allows faculty, students, and the general public to discover how technology is being used by Alberta’s researchers and artists, to share techniques and expertise, and to develop common sets of standards and best practices.

As a future Campus Alberta initiative, ABDAH will build on this current soft support to develop more formal connections and associations. The development of multi-university and centre research teams, the sharing of IT and systems support, the closer integration of graduate and undergraduate research and teaching.

Alberta’s universities and research centres already carry out world-leading research and teaching in the Digital Arts and Humanities. ABDAH provides a way of maximising the return on our investment in this growth area and improving Albertan’s ability to compete and succeed in the new digital economy.



Visionary Cross Project

The University of Lethbridge-led Visionary Cross Team

The “Visionary Cross” is an international, cross-disciplinary project directed by Catherine Karkov of the University of Leeds, Daniel Paul O’Donnell of the University of Lethbridge (Principal Investigator), Roberto Rosselli Del Turco of the Università degli studi di Torino, with James Graham (Multimedia, University of Lethbridge) and Wendy Osborn (Mathematics and Computer Science, University of Lethbridge).

The goal of this project is to draw together a number of recent developments in the Digital Humanities and use them to produce an innovative and intellectually significant study of a key group of Anglo-Saxon texts and monuments. Read the rest of this entry »

Journal incubator

The Lethbridge Journal Incubator is a pilot project hosted by the University of Lethbridge Library under the direction of Daniel Paul O’Donnell and supported by the University of Lethbridge School of Graduate Study.

The goal of the incubator is to address the issue of the sustainability of scholarly communication in an open access, digital age by aligning it with the educational and research missions of the University.In this way, the production of scholarly communication, which is often understood as a cost centre that draws resources away from a host university’s core missions, is itself transformed into a sustainable, high-impact resource that applies largely existing funding in ways that significantly increase the research and teaching capacity of the institution.

Read the rest of this entry »


ABDAH is a proposal for Distributed Centre of Excellence (DCE) in learning, research and community engagement. It will leverage our existing strengths, using collaboration and digital connectivity to bridge institutions and regions of our province and to make Alberta a clear Canadian leader in education in the field.  ABDAH will attract the best and brightest students from Alberta and beyond to contribute to the Alberta advantage in digital arts and humanities. It will bring together faculty at all Alberta universities and the Banff Centre, in keeping with their varying institutional mandates. The DCE model has the following characteristics:

Network of Learning Opportunities: we will build a network of ABDAH certificates and degrees around the interactive arts and digital humanities, including undergraduate diplomas, undergraduate degrees, graduate degrees, and graduate certificates, designed for full-time and part-time students, and with multiple opportunities for laddering and built-in distance-learning components. In particular we will deliver part-time advanced learning programs accessible to working professionals throughout the province who need enhanced new media creation/communication skills.

Shared Excellence: we will develop shared ABDAH resources across the participating campuses that will make new media learning available across the province more efficiently. Common online tools from wikis and blogs to digital portfolios will be developed for all students. Common online learning modules will be developed and acquired to build a learning library. Faculty expertise at any of the sites will be available to students participating from any of the sites or even remotely from rural areas.

Shared Expertise: this proposal will fund the development of a core of shared ABDAH modules that run for students at all sites. This will mean enhancing some courses with distance components and designing new courses for distance delivery. In a few cases where a hands-on component is important, it will also mean developing hybrid ABDAH courses that have an intensive studio experience followed by distance components. These shared courses will be managed collectively by the Initiative. Shared courses mean that students at each site have access to a breadth of expertise from all other sites. This is especially important at the graduate level and would mean that Alberta students can get access to advanced expertise in the digital arts and humanities wherever they are.

Open Pathways and Competencies: all programmes across the Initiative will have well-defined ABDAH Experience components of 2 years each so that students can move easily from institution to institution. The Initiative will achieve this by standardized competency definitions around the Experiences so that students can combine them across campuses. For example, a student might do a 2 year ABDAH Experience at Lethbridge in online publishing and then switch to U of Alberta to do the second 2 year ABDAH Experience in interactive art and design. There will be well-articulated pathways through the system and across campuses based on competency descriptions. The competency approach will mean that students know what they need to know to be ready for an ABDAH Experience and what they will learn in each ABDAH Experience. Competencies also allow the Initiative to collaborate with public- and private-sector stakeholders in defining what students should know.

Interoperable Learning: working in concert with the more traditional units (faculties and departments, registrars’ offices) at the partnering institutions, we will ensure that ABDAH modules and ABDAH certificates are interoperable with existing fields of study and can form part of degrees and diplomas in disciplines like English, Philosophy, Fine Arts, and Sociology. ABDAH-equipped students in those programs will have an extra advantage in eventual employment,  will enhance the Alberta workforce with articulate potential employees who are also tech savvy, and will incidentally provide leavening to encourage the modernization of arts and humanities disciplines into tomorrow’s interactive digital world.

Community Engagement: there will be a community engagement stream of courses that ask ABDAH students to work with partners of different sorts to deploy new media. Students will be expected to contribute to local, regional, or national communities (all sectors) at different phases in the program. They will also be encouraged to spend a semester at a different campus or on an exchange with another university. In Level 4 they will be expected to return to the local community and provide leadership for Level 1 students. At the same time, we will involve community and private sector artists/developers/researchers in the design, management and research of this Initiative.

L2R (Learning to Research): ABDAH learning will be designed to involve students in meaningful creative, research, and communicative projects. The goal of this Initiative is graduates ready to lead and innovate in new media design. L2R will the focus of the Level 3 & 4 experience across the Initiative.

Institutes: to build community and maintain excellence across the Initiative sites, there will be annual ABDAH Institutes woven into the rhythm of the year. In late summer there will be hands-on training institutes to build technical skills needed for online courses. In January there will be an annual ABDAH Retreat where senior students, faculty and community researchers engage larger issues. In April there will be a celebratory ABDAH Institute Conference where students can show their work and the ABDAH Initiative can evaluate progress.

Shared Administration: the ABDAH Initiative, if it is not to devolve into separate solitudes, will need a robust and collegial administration that crosses the campuses involved, the disciplines involved, but also sectors so that community stakeholders are part of the administration. It will also need a fiscal model that gives the administration sufficient control that it can negotiate support and services across the campuses. We imagine a model with a mix of full-time hires to the universities and a budget for negotiating support and services across the campuses.


Lethbridge Graduate student Heather Hobma (left) with Professors Karkov (Leeds), O'Donnell (Lethbridge), and Rosselli Del Turco (Turin) on site in Ruthwell Scotland.

Alberta Digital Arts and Humanities (ABDAH) is a consortium of researchers, practitioners, teachers, students, and post secondary institutions dedicated to developing and exploiting provincial expertise in the Digital Arts and Humanities.

The Digital Arts and Humanities represent the “killer app” of the new Digital Economy. They are concerned with the ways we communicate, play, share, and express ourselves online and on the move: the the things that put the human back into technology.

Canadian successes in other aspects of Information and Communication Technology are well known and widely celebrated. A recent study of researchers in the Digital Humanities placed Canada second after only the United States in participation in major Digital Humanities organisations. Canadians were identified as being among six of the ten most connected participants in this study and researchers associated with Albertan universities at third, seventh, and ninth places.

Manuscript images of the Green Knight with and without his head on the title page of the University of Calgary's Cotton Nero A.x project, an edition of the medieval manuscript.

Alberta’s post secondary institutions are already helping students develop the cutting edge skills required to succeed in the new disciplines. With active teaching and research programmes in all provincial Universities and the Banff Centre, Albertan students have access to the latest technology and opportunities to work on sophisticated new applications and research. With ABDAH, these schools are preparing to take the next step: developing collaborative and closely integrated research and teaching in the Digital Arts and Humanities in order to ensure Alberta’s students remain at the forefront of the new Digital Economy.

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