Themes from THATCamp

A week after the event, I have time to catch my breath a bit.  Last weekend I attended THATCamp, an unconference on the digital humanities hosted by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.

It was, in the profoundest sense of the word, awesome. THATCamp is a kind of crazy quilt of a hundred digital humanists of diverse backgrounds (academics, libraries, archives, museums, archaeology, documentary film, and more) and varying positions on the technical spectra (code hackers, designers, content expertise, points all in between) coming together to talk about the things they are passionate about.  It is user-generated, meaning the participants proposed the program, open discussion was at the heart of the matter, and Twitter enriched the entire experience. Completely the opposite of most academic and professional conferences, and I went them all to now be more like this.

You might want to check out others‘ reviews of the unconference format as lived out at THATCamp; learn the top 10 reasons THATCamp beats the pants off of traditional conferences; and read about excellent suggestions for improving future THATCamps.  Finally, to really immerse yourself, check out the THATCamp Twitter archive and the wiki.

Whew. That being said, onto my main point:

Three themes that stood out for me @ THATCamp

None of it revelatory to those who were there, but still–they jumped out to me during the weekend and after.

I. Library/Archive/Museum and Scholar Convergence

A sense of collaboration ran throughout THATCamp; indeed, collaboration could be said to be the life’s blood of the digital humanities, as was often discussed throughout the weekend. I’m used to considerations of library/archive/museum (LAM) convergence–been talking about that wonderful Venn diagram since before library school. The idea is that there is a lot of overlap in purpose, function, and employee skill set among those institutions and it’s a thing very much worth talking about, thereby making all three institutions faster/better/stronger.

But this is the first time I’ve been at a conference where academics and those who work at LAMs were so excited about the possibility of working all together on projects. In one of the last sessions, we had a frank discussion that touched on this very point: traditionally, there has been a kind of tension between, say, teaching faculty and librarians on campus, with the librarians often feeling put down (and put upon) by the faculty. Or as another example, scholars who have felt like museums ignore their work while mounting related exhibits.

But those traditional models are dissolving in the face of a more open approach. Many were the comments–explicit and implicit–throughout the weekend that pointed towards the increased success (and flat-out fun) of projects that involve the skills and backgrounds of many players. The traditional walls are falling down and technology is a major reason that is happening.

So: collaboration crushes division. I’m always happy to be on the right side of history; in this case, I’m even happier to be on the right side of the future.

II. The Centrality of Tools

A quick check of the archive of the twitterstream shows 142 uses of the word “tool” or its variants in the backchannel talk over the course of the weekend; I can guarantee the word was uttered out loud at least as many times. The people at THATCamp are perhaps, like their Paleolithic ancestors, set apart from their own forebears by their use and appreciation of tools–digital ones, to be sure, but tools nonetheless. All the incredible historical and literary data that has gone online over the past fifteen or twenty years (on the order of tens of petabytes) is meaningless without some way to do something with it, and THATCamp folks are passionate about creating and using ever-more-innovative and helpful ways to mold and connect that data.

Which is something to be said, since by several accounts this year’s THATCamp was more conversational and less hands-on than last year’s. But even without as many intense coding sessions, it was clear that the participants aren’t just thinkers–they are doers.  It’s part of the digital humanities ethos.

III. Much love for the unconference model

My sense is that for a lot of us first-time campers, THATCamp was a revelation–it could be heard in the conversations we were having at dinner after the first night, seen in the backchannel tweatstream, and read in the blogs written after the fact. For many of us who had only been to traditional academic and professional conferences, THATCamp had us emerging from our gloomy previous experiences, blinking in the sunlight of cooperative, open participation.

The excitement has carried on, too. Folks are talking about regional THATCamps in (at last count) at least twelve locations: Central Virginia, New England, Texas/Austin, Pacific Northwest, Midwest, NY/NJ, Southeast, Oklahoma, Ontario, London,  Australia, the Great Lakes. And acolytes are talking about carrying the gospel to other organizations, too: AHA, AAM, SAA, the Virginia Forum, and Smithsonian 2.0. Related lunches may soon be held on Skype and at the Library of Congress.

There’s something about the digital humanities/THATCamp model that really speaks to folks: myself, I think it’s the creativity and collaboration.  The old model of the dusty scholar working alone amid his musty tomes, speaking occasionally to the four other people on the planet who share his narrow interest (and hoping to beat them all at the game), doesn’t cut it any more. Content specialization certainly won’t die, but the doing of it will entail a lot more collaboration and communication–it’s really inevitable, since the next generation of scholars will have largely grown up in a world with Web 2.0 tools and other online resources that both expand their worlds and pull them closer to their fingertips.

There will always be humanists who jealously guard their labors, for sure, just as their have always been humanists who are collaborative.  But the pendulum is shifting in favor of the latter.

Just look at how, in less than a week, the THATCamp unconference model has gone global.

One final note: I cannot say thank you enough to Dave Lester, Jeremy Boggs, Tom Scheinfeldt, Dan Cohen, and all the behind-the-scenes folks at the Center for History and New Media for putting on such an incredible, energizing weekend.

It was . . . awesome.


  1. kristen said:

    for those of us who didn’t get to go to THATCamp, can you explain more of what this new model of conferences actually looks like? it sounds exciting but what is it? :)

    i just found your blog a few weeks ago (through Public Historian by Suzanne Fischer) and have really been enjoying thinking about the questions that you are asking!

    July 9, 2009
  2. Eric said:

    Hey, thanks for the kind words about the blog! Still very much a work in progress, but I suppose that’s true of most blogs (I’ll keep telling myself that, anyway).

    In any case, a couple of other folks did a nice job of summarizing what the unconference (as done at THATCamp) is like. They pretty well sum up my same gushing/relieved/impressed reaction:

    The unconference notion itself has a pretty good Wikipedia entry here: (the subsequent BarCamp link is a good description of the structural approach we took, too)

    However, if after all that you still have questions about what it’s actually like, just say the word! And welcome aboard. :)

    July 9, 2009
  3. kristen said:

    thanks for all of the helpful links! i definitely appreciate that you don’t want to rehash what others have already done! :)

    July 10, 2009

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