Open Scholar Stars Series: Interview with Patrik Svensson

In the next episode of our Open Scholar stars series, I am talking with Patrik Svensson, former Director of HUMlab (2000-2014), and, not least, Chair of the DARIAH Scientific Board. We chat about Digital Humanities and DARIAH, his experiences with Open Access publishing and his new role at the Open Research Europe platform, translating epistemic cultures to infrastructure needs, our COVID afterlife, and many more! 

Hi Patrik, and thanks for joining us! Could you start off by letting us know a little bit about your background? You have a long history in exploring but also shaping the complex landscape of Digital Humanities. What sparked your interest towards DH back then? 

I think I was really lucky, having the chance not only to participate in the Digital Humanities space but also to shape it to some extent. For me, it didn’t start from Humanities Computing or Digital Humanities per se. Instead, it naturally grew out of my own disciplinary background, or backgrounds. As a linguist, I had been working with text corpora, that was clearly one entry point. In addition to that, I was doing quite a bit of work with learning and technology in particular in relation to language learning, language education. At the end of the 90s, we got a fairly big national grant to support a project where our third semester students of English, instead of writing a traditional BA paper, they had to build a graphical virtual world with hypertexts, something similar to what we call now virtual research environments, where they and their workspaces became connected. 


Such experiments gave us the chance to explore the intersections of technology, culture and humanities at Umeå, not only in classroom dialogues but later also in the more established formats of an international postdoc programme in humanities and information technology at HUMlab and of course the lab itself [Patrik served as the director of the HUMlab, Umeå University from 2001-2014] as well as at scholarly events of different kinds. . 

Personally, I’ve always been somewhat resistant to established frameworks and kept wondering what’s outside the traditional boundaries. And I think Humanities Computing then, research infrastructure now, very clearly put, creates conditions for knowledge production, and I find it very important to think about how we can tweak those. 

Indeed! Also, how interesting this sequence is: back then, first you needed to create physical spaces in order to create virtual spaces, dedicated for the intersections of cultural studies and technology. Was it specifically your experience with your own lab that sparked your curiosity towards DARIAH or more the network of people? 

I actually checked my email archive and the first kinds of conversations about DARIAH were as early as 2007. I mean, HUMlab was a part of DARIAH. Very concretely, I think, about building stuff in the lab, but also DARIAH plays a super important role in extending these things to a kind of a European arena. In terms of concrete projects, we had an FP7 EU grant for a four faceted browsing. NeDIMAH was also one of those things… So for us, DARIAH played an important part of opening up, creating connections to Europe.

And one of the things I appreciate about the DARIAH, too, is that it seems to me, more open, conceptually and also materially than some other infrastructures. So perhaps in relation to, or even, partially as opposed to the prevailing infrastructural model, I think for the humanities, that kind of broader approach is, and will be, very important.

Speaking of domain specificities and epistemic cultures: in your works, realigning academic knowledge creation with society at large is a recurrent topic. According to you, what are the major contributions of Digital Humanities (or Humanities at large) to grand societal challenges and what is the role of humanities infrastructures in that? 

I think many of the people I’ve worked with and whose work I admire Johanna Drucker at UCLA or David Theo Goldberg at the UC Humanities Research Institute, Sverker Sörlin,  the environmental historian here in Stockholm, I mean, they are public intellectuals. As such, they get involved in all kinds of contexts where they get to be an important voice. 

But speaking of Humanities in general, I think we are facing a challenge here. Namely, I think, there is a tendency that the Humanities and the Arts get involved in such discussions about grand societal challenges only at a late stage in the process.

You know, it is something you add on towards the end, like you sprinkle a little bit on the cake or something. And it does not only have to do with the outside societal processes, it has to do with Humanities themselves, too. That said, Humanities as a whole, generalising heavily, of course, tend to think of themselves as being involved in studying things at a distance, to provide critique, to do all kinds of important things, but not so much to, as I would say, actively engage in building, in working collaboratively with outside partners, to change things. I’m not saying that the work that the Humanities do under public intellectual work, policy work etc. is not super important because it is. But I think there is a potential for involvement in a different way, looking at how we can change the relationship between the academy and the public.  And this, I think,  is very difficult to do on a disciplinary basis and without appropriate infrastructure broadly speaking. 

I like your metaphor that in many cases Humanities knowledge is considered as an add-on and I remember facing this very clearly when I first learned about Open Science. It became immediately clear to me that the open research culture is  something super important for the future of knowledge production. But the more I learnt about it, the more confused I got about it. Where is my Linguistics background positioned in all this, where are my books? What does the publication of null results even mean in my epistemic tradition? That said, we need to find open research practices that are organically growing out of Humanities. So it’s a question of translation rather than merely transplanting good science practices. 

In a similar vein, I often hear comments that DH is kind of an Arts and Humanities equivalent of Open Science because it’s digital, because it’s collaborative, because it’s computational, because it leverages on a much more constructive, collaborative research culture. What do you think about this? How do you see the relationship between DH and Open Science? 

That’s a good point and also interesting to hear your own personal experience. I think this is also an important part of DARIAH’s role, to think about how you do that translation work, how you create places or arenas, contexts, projects where there is respect for upfront epistemic traditions, but also a kind of collaborative grappling around issues, problems, etc. You know, epistemic commitments are also such a complex matter. I just looked up again some of the European Open Science language. The European Open Science Cloud is a new paradigm for innovation, technology and building the European data economy. The Commission intends to unlock the reuse potential of different types of data, facilitate this free flow across borders to achieve a European digital single market for the benefit of the economy and society. It’s a European level narrative but on the other hand, it is also very much science focussed. I mean the name itself, too. One question is how to do that translation work in terms of negotiating different positions to be part of this dialogue, not just following it, as you say. The Open Science paradigm also needs the kinds of knowledge coming from Humanities, also for contextualising and designing viable and usable infrastructures.  

To your point about Digital Humanities and Open Science, I think, it depends on how you look at DH as a field. Of course, Digital Humanities doesn’t cover or include, and perhaps they shouldn’t, all of the Humanities as such. I think that’s fair to say. It has to do with perhaps fields that are used to working with materials that they call data, such as text analysis, Environmental Archaeology or Corpus Linguistics. Especially when considering digital humanities in the context of Open Science and infrastructure. These fields seem to fit the model, the kind of (open) science model we were talking about earlier, probably more than other parts of the Humanities. And that also means that I think it would be unfair to DH, and to Humanities too, to say that DH sort of represents Humanities as a whole. There are of course shades and positions in-between, because DH works with people from all kinds of humanistic and also other disciplines and actually function as a kind of intermediary in various contexts. There are also many new exciting developments in digital humanities. And, obviously, DH is also a field of its own with its own tradition and commitments and goals, and strong interest towards research data and tools. But it is certainly not random, of course, that DH and Open Science and DH and research infrastructure get coupled in different contexts. There is certainly some commonality. 

If you look at some of the early work on research infrastructure and sort of DH-driven research infrastructure, you can see really well how it maps onto the STEM-based model. There are certain kinds of projects that get funded, projects that fit this lab-oriented model very well. For instance, an Environmental Archaeology database fits more than something that will come, let’s say, from Critical Theory or Media Studies or something to do with Disability Studies. Unless it’s very clearly sort of data or tool centric. And  I’m very interested in how to cross-cut this, and how to infuse intellectual arguments into infrastructural thinking, so it doesn’t just become a data and tool sort of interoperable generic tools. The role of DARIAH is crucial in this respect, as I see.

Oh, sure! And you mentioned, Patrik, that there are overarching issues in this transition that are equally present in all disciplines, such as making publications openly available. I know that you practice Open Access publishing and you even published your Big Digital Humanities monograph Open Access. Could you tell us about what Open Access publishing means to you and what are your experiences with it? 

For me, it wasn’t always a kind of deliberate choice. Instead I’ve gradually learned my way into it. I think most scholars and scientists want their work to be available or accessible and not locked behind paywalls. For instance, articles published for or with Digital Humanities Quarterly are important to me. They have been part of the DH dialogue for quite some time now and the fact that they are available easily online, that they have created that platform and format has been very important for their work and for myself, too. I’ve also been interested in different kinds of alternative platforms and genres. Diversity is a core value here.  I think publishing Open Access has great benefits, getting your work out there and making it available to people. Also, I wonder whether perhaps it’s not really a choice anymore, given the push from funding agencies. 

My experience from the Michigan book,  the Big Digital Humanities book was a good one, but it was part of an interest from the publishers’ side too, as it fit an existing book series of the publisher well. So there was no extra cost associated with it. On the other hand, I think many humanist folks appreciate the long form, the argumentative text and also the materiality of books, the very possibility that we can just browse them on a real bookshelf. [At this point, Patrik reaches to his bookshelf to show a Gothic language textbook, one of his early book publications.]

I really like being able to do both, to do different things. And it’s not always about numbers, as we are serving smaller and bigger disciplinary communities alike.

And clearly, I also value edited volumes, when they have something to say, not just published for the sake of producing them. But I think if they’re not made available Open Access they may not get used much.

You mentioned that in many cases, Open Access comes hand in hand with innovation or experimenting with different publishing platforms and formats. Is it the reason why you decided to accept the invitation of the European Commission’s Open Research Europe platform and join the advisory committee?

Yes, certainly. Open Research Europe has just started and I think it’s an interesting model, a strong commitment from the Commission to build its own infrastructure for scholarly communication. A serious advantage in terms of sustainability is that it has been built on strong partnerships across the EU countries, and the Commission is in a good position to sustain it, they are not like university departments that might not have funding eventually.  It is linked to Horizon funding schemes but I was wondering whether this will be extended, moving further in time.  And there are also innovations implemented, for instance, in terms of  how reviewers are selected, presented with names. I am both curious and impressed.  

Being part of it, being a Humanities representative in the committee also gives me chances to contribute to this translation work we have been discussing earlier. One challenge, actually, a crucial one, will be to find a sensitive balance between creating a platform that is generic, interoperable and scalable but at the same time, also takes the particular knowledge domains and their traditions into consideration. For instance, the STEM fields perhaps have a longer tradition of including other kinds of content to their papers: visuals, data, tables etc.  Humanities knowledge production does not always work in such a modular way, as research processes can get deeply intertwined with writing itself. Or one may have an image that cannot be stored in a data repository. Still, it is exciting to think about these integrated formats where you have these resources, together maybe with research tools, embedded in papers in a sophisticated way.

Another challenge, when it comes to innovation and infrastructures like this, has to do with thinking about our after-lives. Once COVID gets calmer, we certainly will find ourselves in a different place in the world, thinking about what can be changed meaningfully and taking the opportunity when we build infrastructures. Not just to do more or less the same thing again, but to think about what might make sense from the knowledge production point of view.

And I think DARIAH has a role in this too, being experimental in the sense of taking the next steps in terms of what an infrastructure can be and finding and negotiating those emerging new conditions of knowledge production. 

Ah, indeed, COVID-19 has brought major changes to our lives in this respect. What are your experiences with these changes and which trends do you expect to stay with us in the new normal, once the pandemic is over?

I think we’ve been learning a lot and people are trying to reflect. There are advantages in doing some things in a distributed manner, for instance via Zoom. Some meetings and events, certain types of discussions can be handled efficiently through a bigger platform, while others perhaps not so much. One thing we will probably have to face is mixed modalities and mixed environments. 

Part of my practice, something that I really enjoy, is creating and organising, moderating events. Some of those have been fully digital, but mostly, and historically, they have been physically situated. But always, almost always, with digital participation. So thinking about the how: it should not necessarily happen with big heads on screens. We need other ways of doing it. A platform like Zoom and many others, are video conference tools, not really designed for mixing modalities. So I think we need more appropriate tools for that, something that we, DARIAH and others, Digital Humanities can help with. For instance, I think it would be great when you reconvene in a Zoom event if you could have the breakout groups grouped visually. On your screen, you could see the groups separately. There is room for such social- technical developments, obviously also a potential to change how we can work  and to bring it closer to value driven and humanistic enterprises.  

Also, some experiments can be really simple. I have been curating a series of conversations on “humane infrastructures” (the theme of my upcoming book) with some truly great people and I decided to use an anti-zoom model, where there is a long-term, asynchronous, textual, curated conversation in a google doc. I have learnt a lot from this experiment, and I feel we just got started.

Thank you for your time, Patrik! It has been great to learn from your insight and experience! Tack så mycket!

(Photo credit: Natalie Jeremijenko)


Cite this blog post
Erzsebet Toth-Czifra (2021, September 14). Open Scholar Stars Series: Interview with Patrik Svensson. DARIAH Open. Retrieved April 23, 2024, from

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