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Sustainable research data management for the humanities

The Digital Humanities Center at the University of Tübingen

Network of persons and the medieval documents in which they were named. Created from data from a prosopographic database, which was developed in cooperation with Prof. Steffen Patzold’s subproject on late Carolingian networks in the SFB 923 Threatened Orders.

Since 2022, the former eScience Center of the University of Tübingen, founded in 2013, has been called the Digital Humanities Center. As one of the University’s core facilities, it offers support to research projects in the humanities and social sciences with data management, archiving and publication of digital data. The Center is thus the first point of contact for many doctoral students or research group leaders when they are applying for project funding and need to specify how the digital data they generate will be handled. The Digital Humanities Center is funded in part by the German government’s Excellence Strategy. Currently, the team consists of seven permanent employees and several assistants.

"When you submit a German Research Foundation proposal, there is now a mandatory subsection on handling research data. How is it recorded? How is it stored? How does the research team work with it? What happens to this data after the project?" explains Dr. Michael Derntl, head of the Digital Humanities Center. In this way, the German Research Foundation aims to ensure the accessibility of the research data generated long after the project has been completed. When archived by the Digital Humanities Center, the data is stored for at least ten years and assigned a Digital Object Identifier (DOI) so that it can be found and cited by other researchers via repository networks. 

Michael Derntl holds a PhD in business informatics and joined the eScience Center, as it then was, at the University of Tübingen in 2015. He initially developed databases and software applications until he took over as director in 2022. In summer 2022 came the name change to Digital Humanities Center. "Now it is clearer that we are primarily a service institution for the humanities and social sciences," says Derntl.

Archiving images, videos, measurement data and text documents

"For example, a data package archived with us may consist of thousands of images of an Egyptian temple. The photos were taken on location over years during the excavation work. Basically, every millimeter is photographed several times, also because the terrain is inevitably destroyed during an excavation," Michael Derntl explains. However, data packages may also consist of videos with interviews, of measurement data, or of text documents with studies on 17th century literature. 

"An important question is also always whether the data are not only worthy of archiving in terms of content, but whether they are technically archivable. Often the data were generated using a specific program. But they must be preserved in such a way that they can still be used in ten years' time, regardless of the software originally used," says Derntl.

Equipment park for manifold research projects

As a core facility, the Digital Humanities Center operates a fleet of equipment including drones, various surveying devices, 3-D scanners, high-quality digital cameras and lenses, as well as computer workstations on which licenses for special software are installed. The full range of services offered by the Digital Humanities Center is used primarily by the archaeological disciplines, with which the Center has long-standing collaborations. They deal with projects that make full use of all services, from the use of the equipment, to the research environments for capturing the data, to archiving.

"We are the point of contact for all research projects in the humanities or social sciences in which digital data are generated. This can also be the case in linguistics, for example. For example, when medieval texts are examined for specific persons or names," says Michael Derntl, summarizing the services of the Digital Humanities Center. In a collaboration with Islamic Studies, a research team looked at the census data of the Ottoman Empire from 1905, which had to be digitally recorded. The data made it possible to map social structures, such as which occupational groups lived in which parts of a city.

Master’s "Digital Humanities" profile for 14 Master’s programs in the humanities

"In teaching, with the support of the Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Science, Research and the Arts, we offer the Master's profile "Digital Humanities", which is aimed at students from 14 participating Master's programs in the humanities, such as Egyptology, History and German Literature," explains Derntl. Students can use the profile to specialize in digital research work within their degree program.  

Also cooperating with the Digital Humanities Center is the Dr. Eberle Center for Digital Competences, which is primarily aimed at students for whom digital methods are not explicitly part of the course of study. "Even if you later work in a museum, today you need to be able to handle digital media and digital data processing. This includes, for example, learning how to behave ethically on the Web." Around 500 students take advantage of the courses offered by the Dr. Eberle Center each semester.

Johannes Baral