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Digitalization offers new horizons for humanities research

As cultural heritage moves to digital sphere, humanities must take on greater role in understanding changes taking place, says Turkish scholar Fatma Aladag

With technology and digitalization playing an ever-greater role in the humanities, new frontiers are opening for historians to shine light on the past.

This includes Turkiye, where such technology has been instrumental in ongoing digitalization efforts of numerous archives and libraries, giving researchers and students of Ottoman/Turkish studies from all over the world invaluable access to a vast volume of primary sources.

Endeavors like these, which fall in the category of digital humanities, serve as a bridge between the humanities and digital technologies, said Fatma Aladag, a researcher at Leipzig University in Germany and founder of the Digital Ottoman Studies website.

In an interview with Anadolu Agency,Aladag explained that the digital humanities allow researchers to ask new questions and produce new data with the help of special software that can process multi-layered and complex data.

Digital supplanting conventional?

Noting concerns that digital technologies are “taking over” academia, Aladag underlined that the digital humanities had no such aim, but could rather be thought of as part of humankind’s inevitable adaptation to the expanding role of technology in daily life.

“Can one expect our careers, research methods, or the institutions where we work to not be affected by these technological developments? Of course not,” she argued.

According to Aladag, as humankind’s cultural heritage becomes increasingly digital, the nature of knowledge as well as each individual’s relationship with society, is in flux.

It is at this juncture that the digital humanities play a critical role in understanding these changes, she underlined, adding that, by facilitating open access to sources that may have otherwise been out of reach for many researchers, digitalization paves the way for inter-disciplinary work.

“Many different disciplines such as history, linguistics, literature, computer engineering, and architecture, along with their characteristic methodologies and sources, can be part of a digital humanities project,” she said.

Applications in Ottoman-Turkish studies

Having worked for years in her field, Aladag pointed out the sheer volume of Ottoman archives in many languages, spanning diverse ethnicities and geographical regions, while making the utilization of technology even more important for study.

With its deep-rooted record-keeping tradition, the Ottoman Empire left a vast collection of archival documents, hundreds of thousands of manuscripts, and registers on population, tax, land, and religious endowments, she said.

“If we can transform this immense volume of Ottoman archives into big data, it would be much easier to classify it according to different eras, regions, and topics.

“Thus, through machine learning and artificial intelligence, still untapped parts of the archive, will be available for researchers and students.”

Digital Ottoman Studies

On the Digital Ottoman Studies website, which she founded, Aladag said that the platform contains numerous projects, publications, and databases of maps, manuscripts, photographs, and dictionaries.

She also noted that the website had been recommended to researchers by academics at many prominent world universities including Harvard, Cornell, and Michigan.

On the state of digitalization in Turkiye, Aladag praised ongoing efforts by archives and libraries to scan documents and make them accessible online.

However, digitalization is more than scanning source material, she said, adding that researchers should be encouraged to use spatial and network analysis, augmented reality (AR), and virtual reality (VR) applications in their work.

Universities, and especially humanities departments, should step up efforts to train students in line with the latest currents and developments in the digital humanities field to remain relevant and in demand, Aladag asserted.

“Therefore, students become not just consumers of information, but producers, too.”


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