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Quantifying Autobiography

A guest blog by Rob Wegter, Student Assistant MA Digital Humanities at the University of Groningen, about his experiences during the research project “Me and Myself: Tracing first person in documentary history in AV-collections”.

I must admit that before I started the Digital Humanities master program in Groningen, I had no programming skills and was somewhat of a digital illiterate. It could all just as well have been alien language—with a background in Arts, Culture and Media (specialization: Film Studies), who needs a digital vocabulary? Now I have come to know a bit of Python coding, some XML, snippets of Java and a little bit of database design. Not enough to be called a computer or information scientist, but a sufficient amount to be able to imagine new ways of answering media related questions with digital methodology. Surely it was no coincidence that a project crossed my path that epitomized these skills and the teachings of the Digital Humanities master program. Susan Aasman, director and program coordinator for the master Digital Humanities in Groningen, had answered to a call for research proposals by the CLARIAH project (their goal is to build a digital research infrastructure for the humanities). In turn, I applied for the position of student assistant and that is the role I am currently fulfilling in the project “Me and Myself: Tracing first person in documentary history in AV-collections” (M&M).

Goals of the project
The project aspires to reach two main goals. As Susan Aasman states in the research proposal the first goal is to “provide a better historical overview of autobiographical or confessional documentaries in the Netherlands.” (Aasman 2017) This is a difficult task in itself, because while some of the examples of documentaries can be said to offer a very clear autobiographical style, in a historical overview we would like to see not only the typical, but also the material which shows traces of, or hints to the genre. Thus it can be stated that this genre is not easy to grasp; it needs analysis and contextualization, because it is “part of an on-going and complex historical process.” (Aasman 2014) The second aim of the M&M project is gaining “a better insight in the use of video annotation as a research tool for analyzing historical audiovisual genres.” (Aasman 2017) The combination of these goals lead to epistemological issues, which are very interesting and which force you to scrutinize not only the documentary genre, but also the academic approach to it.

Testing assumptions of ‘old humanities’ in a new way
At the beginning of the academic year 2016-2017 we delved into epistemological and methodological discussions (at that time it was hard to fathom what the ‘fuss’ was about), that circle the field of Digital Humanities. In The History Manifesto (2014), a book on the influences of big data on historical research and its methods, Jo Guldi and David Armitage say that “our calculations open up new possibilities for solving old questions and posing new ones.” (Guldi and Armitage 2014) This has been haunting me ever since; What are the old questions? And what are the new ones? And what are the ways we can find new answers to old questions? It sounded a bit ambiguous to me at the time. But working on the M&M project has had a crystallizing and clarifying effect. It can be said that in the M&M project we are testing the assumptions of ‘old humanities’ in a new way; the assumption is that documentary filmmakers, from the 1960s onwards, have become more subjective in their style and that documentary narratives are more prone to contain autobiographical elements.

Semantic video annotation
The M&M project aims to map this development, with the aid of semantic video annotation. Which, although it sounds like a computer automated process, is still very human and labor intensive. It means binge-watching a sub-collection of Dutch documentaries, and annotating them with tags that are related to the genre of autobiographical documentary. For example, we will annotate moments where the documentary filmmaker is filming his or her family or friends; or when the filmmaker is making a diary shot; or when he or she talks in voice-over in a self-referential manner; et cetera. The computer makes sure these annotated moments are stored in a database, which means that we as researchers are able to call up different moments in documentary history that show autobiographical elements. Subsequently we should also be able to count these moments, and thus quantify the autobiographical and visualize its development.

Interface van ELAN (video annotation tool). Documentary: Papa is weg en ik wilde nog wat vragen (Marijn Frank, 2008).

Rens Bod’s Humanities 3.0 sounded at the time as if computers have taken over, very revolutionary. In reality, it is more modest than that. The search for autobiographical and subjective elements in Dutch documentary history is, I think, greatly aided by the computerization and the linking of data and datasets that the CLARIAH project supports and develops, but I have come to realize that behind every automated system lies manual human work. The revolutionary part is that a great deal of the collections of the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision and Eye Filmmuseum are digitized and can now be watch by proxy from a room in the Harmony building in Groningen. Furthermore, the digital infrastructure that CLARIAH is developing will offer the researcher new ways to structuralize her results, that without a computerized environment would not be possible.

The results of the research project “Me and Myself: Tracing first person in documentary history in AV-collections” will be published around June 2018. To find out where, and to follow the developments of the CLARIAH initiative, check the CLARIAH website.

Aasman, Susan. 2014. “Broadcast Yourself. New Media Technology and the Democratisation of Truth and Trust.” In Retelling Journalism: Conveying Stories in a Digital Age, edited by Marcel Broersma and Chris Peters, 47–64. Leuven – Paris – Walpole: Peeters.

Aasman, Susan. 2017. “CLARIAH Research Pilot Call Proposal.”

Bod, Rens. 2013. “Who’s Afraid of Patterns?” BMGN – Low Countries Historical Review, 128(4), 171–180

Guldi, Jo, and David Armitage. 2014. The History Manifesto. First. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.