Parrafo magazine

Interview: Wendy Perla

by Michelle Medrado &
Nitzaira D. Garcia

M/N: Can you tell us about the history of Digital humanities (DH)?

Wendy: Many attribute the first “digital humanities” project to Father Roberto Busa, a Jesuit priest, who used an IBM punch card system at the end of the 1940’s beginning off the 1950’s to study a corpus of text by Thomas Aquinas. Before the term Digital Humanities was widely adopted, Humanities Computing was the term used to describe the field. But the field of DH is difficult to define (and there’s an entire genre of scholarly articles that attempt to define DH) precisely because some don't even consider it a field per se. Technologies evolve unevenly and as they advance, their use becomes more easily adopted outside the fields for which they were designed. When mapping and GIS made large advances at the end of the 20th and beginning of th 21st centuries, a lot of mapping projects gained momentum. Depending on the technology emerging, scholars started to dive into more advanced technological questions and fields

M/N: How is the Humanities and Engineering encounter? How does the dialogue develop?

W: It's fantastic to work with experts from a variety of disciplines. For example, at the Center for the Digital Humanities our lead academic developer is an English PhD, but has an extensive background in Computer Science. He understands both sides of the coin: the development of systems and programming languages needed to support them, but also the way that humanities scholars approach their research questions. By working closely with software engineers we learn to develop communication skills that allow each side to enhance the final project outcomes–they learn from us as much as we learn from them.

M/N: How did you apply it to your project?

W: I work on the recovery of mass graves from the Franco dictatorship. When I visited the Spanish Ministry of Justice's website, I saw that they had a digital map of the mass grave sites found around the Spanish peninsula, but that map only provides user with information about the status of recovery of specific sites. It would tell you if the site had been exhumed, if it had been identified, but not yet recovered, if it had gone missing, or if the remains had been transferred to the Valley of the Fallen. The map also would give you additional information on who they thought was buried in the grave, or if the victims had already been recovered and identified. A family member could open an inquiry with government based on the location because often family members and communities knew where victims were being buried by the regime. You can report that information to the Ministry and it is incorporated onto the map. When I started working with digital media about the recovery efforts—and especially how social media can impact acts of remembrance— I thought that information would complement the map built by the government. Rather than just representing a flat, single-layered space, applying thick mapping objectives would give depth to these spaces of mourning while creating a framework to study acts of remembrance and the recovery of collective memory.

M/N: Do you have any data about the victim's family? Are you using information from the maps provided by the government?

W: I don't have statistics on the number of people who are visiting these websites and navigating through the information because the government does not publish that data, what I have is more anecdotal. I presented my map called Virtual Cartographies: Visualizing Mass Grave Recovery in Contemporary Spain in the UK at a Spatial Humanities conference. There was a professor who approached me after the talk and said she was interested in working with the project because her grandfather was buried in a mass grave and she had been trying to find information about the location. We pulled up the map and we looked at all of the sources available in that area, in her local hometown and where they expected to find him. She emailed me after she returned home and said that she navigated through the site with her family and it was comforting to see that she was not the only person undergoing these experiences.

M/N: Do you think DH is a way to understand a new wave of digital culture in service of sociopolitical issues?

W: Yes, especially in social media. Several Facebook groups about mass grave recuperations use Facebook live broadcast to post and share events related to the recovery efforts, for example commemoration or an exhumation. They post videos and you can see the live comments where people participate in the event as both a part of a physical and virtual community. Even if a person couldn't necessarily be there in person to witness the acts, the Web transforms into a sort of safe space to mourn and to communicate and experience the mourning process collectively.

M/N: How DH can be a way to manage topics that have been overlooked?

W: One of my favorite projects is called “Mapping Indigenous LA.” It was conceived as a collaborative effort of professors and museum professionals who work on UCLA’s campus. We had representation from Professors in Gender Studies and Chicano Studies, a researcher from the Fowler Museum and help from undergraduate students. They then collaborated with youth, community leaders, and elders from indigenous communities throughout the city. These divers persons brought their knowledge and expertise to the project in order to uncover and highlight the multifaceted histories of indigenous Los Angeles through a mapping project.

M/N: DH is a way to change the relationship between academia and the community because it seems that now you are approaching the real people, but at the same time it's hard to get the information from there.

W: DH helps expose what we're doing in academia, rather transitioning it off in academic journals. The work we’re doing gives a space to our research in the eyes of the general public so that they also can take advantage of what we're researching and the discoveries we make. DH also allows for collaboration between academic and the public, as is exemplified by the Mapping Indigenous LA project I mentioned above. Another example is a project I’m collaboration on called the “Virtual Museum of the Spanish Civil War.” The project brings together an academic team of 18 scholars in the Social Sciences and Humanities from Canada, the US and Spain, along with partnering institutions in Canada and Spain, such as the Centro Documental de Memoria Histórica and Memorial Democratic in Catalonia. By its very nature the Virtual Museum has the general public as its main audience. While it will provide a public-oriented translation of the most up-to-date research on the topic of the Civil War, the Virtual Museum will not be just a top-down purveyor of information. It will also engage with the public as active participants in two ways. First, it will encourage feedback about the provided content. Second, it will invite people to contribute digitized versions of material now in private hands, including their own interpretations of the material for their inclusion on the site.