Internship Introduction: Hackathons and Promoting Cultural Heritage Materials

My name is Alisa Grishin and I am currently serving as one of the 2022-2023 Artes Research Interns. Currently a Master’s student of Cultural Studies at KU Leuven, my main role will be to support the organization of the BiblioTech Hackathon. For this, I will research the potential that hackathons hold for increasing visibility and fostering engagement with cultural heritage materials. One of the main outputs of this research will be an interactive map of existing hackathons in the academic context and will place the BiblioTech hackathon on this map. I will also be developing a handbook for the organization of future iterations of the BiblioTech Hackathon. Further, I will contribute to the Scholarly Tales blog, enriching both my own knowledge of Digital Humanities and also the collective knowledge the blog offers to readers.

Alisa is expected to graduate in the Summer of 2023. She previously received a B.A. in History with a concentration in Public History and minors in Political Science and Legal Studies from Salem State University.

Prior to coming to Belgium, I grew up and studied in Salem, Massachusetts. With this came exposure to difficult historical reconciliations and complicated understandings of local heritage. As a child, I would regularly act as an afflicted child in Salem Witch Trials documentaries. While at the time it was a fun way to get out of school, eventually there was a certain level of appreciation for my small role in bringing attention to this oft-misconstrued chapter in my nation’s history. Thus began an interest in public history and promoting access to cultural heritage.

Now with a background working at local museums, an art law nonprofit, and other nonprofits in the arts sector, I have grown especially interested in the use of policy to help preserve personal and collective cultural heritage. Greatly attuned to narratives and biases in history, I have found that fair access to (in)tangible heritage and encouraging cross-cultural discourse is instrumental to the development of protection policies. In other words, in order to ensure that local and state governments can preserve heritage-linked places, things, and ideas, we, as students and researchers in the cultural sector, need to do our part to make these elements available to the general public.

Having previously studied history, my relationship with historical materials has always been quite tangible. Although digital heritage is on the radar of many historians, There is still much room for the application of digital humanities methods and tools beyond digitization and the publication of online collections. As technology advances and the world becomes more digital, the potential the application of digital humanities tools and methods holds in the cultural heritage sector only continues to increase.

Museums, libraries, and other cultural institutions often have spent dozens — if not hundreds — of years to build collections, audiences, and reputations. Despite this established history, these institutions must engage with current digital developments to maintain their relevance and impact for the future. The increased access to digitized materials or electronic editions means that cultural institutions must adapt and evolve. This expansion does not just mean that they can no longer rely on the in-person visitation they had in the past; it also means that these institutions have an obligation to meet their audience on the patrons’ own terms. The objectives of digital scholarship help fill this gap — expanding Open Access, improving informational literacy, and digitizing and visualizing collections are just a few examples of the ways Digital Humanities can work with cultural institutions. 

Hackathons are a way to extend the internal missions and goals of cultural institutions. Libraries, in particular, can benefit from organizing hackathons as a means of promoting their collections and encouraging education when it comes to their materials, but also when it comes to acquiring digital skills for engagement with and exploitation of those materials. In action, this leaves libraries as either the site of a hackathon or the subject of a hackathon; in the case of BiblioTech, the KU Leuven Libraries is both. This event is therefore an exciting opportunity for not only the libraries as they branch out into more technological initiatives, but also the general public. Events like this make accessing collections and data easier, in turn making the library more relevant and innovative to a twenty-first century researcher. 

As we continue the hackathon preparation, I find myself creating mental notes of what I am most looking forward to (apart from the anticipated reward of a successful event). While I have much to learn in regard to the full potential of DH and its many applications, I am excited to observe how it can support the preservation of cultural heritage.

Do you want to know more about the BiblioTech Hackathon? You can visit the hackathon website here!

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