“Making the Digital Humanities More Open”: Modeling Digital Humanities for a Wider Audience

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“Making the Digital Humanities More Open,” a NEH ODH Digital Humanities Start-Up Grant Project, is creating a free and easy-to-use tool that enables end-users with a variety of disabilities and abilities to access online humanities resources, allowing digital humanities projects to share the products of their text-based projects with this often-neglected audience of readers. During the year previous to DH 2013, our team designed and deployed a WordPress-based accessibility tool that created braille content for end-users who are blind or low vision. Specifically, we extended the use of Anthologize — a free and open source plug-in for WordPress that currently translates any RSS text into PDF, ePub, HTML, or TEI — to include the conversion of text to braille. As a result, we not only made it easy for digital research content creators to convert a text into braille, thereby extending humanities content to hundreds of thousands of visually disabled readers, but we also experimented with making braille available visually through the WordPress interface. This tool will also make it possible to translate the textual content of an Omeka archive into braille provided the site — like most that use Omeka — publishes an RSS feed. We conducted initial tests of the tool by translating the existing BrailleSC oral histories into braille, and then reached out to other Omeka- and WordPress-based humanities computing projects to ask for their cooperation and collaboration in translating their content.

Over the last several decades, scholars have developed standards for how best to create, organize, present, and preserve digital information so that future generations of teachers, students, scholars, and librarians may still use it. What has remained neglected for the most part, however, are the needs of people with disabilities.[1] As a result, many of the otherwise most valuable digital resources are useless for people who are blind or have low vision; the barriers to participation are varied and include such obstacles as the high price of specialized software and hardware, the advanced expertise that such software and hardware often requires, and design choices that can prevent end-users with sensory disabilities from taking full advantage of online resources.[2]

For public humanities practitioners, including the many local museums, small organizations, and individual scholars, our project provides an entrance into digital humanities communities that might otherwise be obfuscated by the high costs of technology adoption, customization, and deployment. Accessibility is important because disabled users need to be able to participate fully in humanities research and teaching. In providing accessibility tools to disabled communities, we enrich their individual research and learning efforts beyond the formal educational process. As the insights of scholars working in disability studies in the humanities have shown, creating tools for individuals with disabilities improves digital environments for all users.[3] Our work aims to increase participation by all people in experiencing and creating scholarly digital projects.

The deliverables of the project were a public GitHub repository of the code, a documentation guide, a pilot test using a local LibLouis library with WordPress, a pilot test of using a remote LibLouis library with WordPress and Anthologize, and a white paper explaining what we learned about various options for creating online braille documents. A demo of the technical components of our work is part of our poster presentation, but we emphasize the theoretical takeaways of the project, modeling the ways in which digital humanities projects should be designed and implemented with the needs of disabled users in mind. We discuss what we have learned about accessibility for both digital humanities projects and digital writing in general, and explore both the direct impact of this tool and the significance of opening digital humanities work to a wider audience of participants. Our poster is of interest to anyone interested in the theory behind how we code and design digital humanities tools and site, designing for universal and accessible use, and accessing, preserving, and working with the cultural histories of people interacting with the braille form of reading and writing.

The poster was originally presented at DH2013 on July 17, 2013.

  1. [1]Abou-Zahra, S. (ed.) “Evaluating Web Sites for Accessibility: Overview.” Web Accessibility Initiative, World Wide Web Consortium, 2011. http://www.w3.org/WAI.
  2. [2]Fox, S. “Americans Living with Disability and Their Technology Profile” Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, 2011. http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2011/Disability.aspx. (accessed 21 January 2011).
  3. [3]Williams, G. H. “Disability, Design, and the Digital Humanities” In Gold, M. K. (ed.), Debates in the Digital Humanities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012. p. 202-212.

About Cory Bohon, Jennifer Guiliano, James Smith, George Williams, and Amanda Visconti

Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, University of Maryland

Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, University of Maryland

Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, University of Maryland

University of South Carolina Upstate

Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, University of Maryland