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Discussion of digital humanities at historical society conference

May 15, 2019

Dr. John Nelson and Dr. Stacey Berry shared a presentation on digital humanities at the South Dakota Historical Society History Conference at the end of April. Digital humanities are the practice of utilizing computational tools in the humanities and social sciences.

Nelson and Berry were invited to present at the conference by South Dakota State Historical Society archivist Matt Reitzel. The duo met Reitzel while taking thousands of photographs of the documents related to a project they were working on – digitizing the records from the Hiawatha Insane Asylum.  

 “He asked us to provide some instruction on digital humanities,” said Nelson, professor of English.

Nelson and Berry shared information at the conference about the Hiawatha Insane Asylum project and other projects they have worked on with students, projects which illustrate different approaches.

During the years it was open, from 1903 to 1934, 391 Native Americans were admitted to the Hiawatha Insane Asylum in Canton, S.D. Documents from the facility exist in state and national archives.

“John and I have the passion and knowledge and interest to preserve these documents related to the asylum, but for us to do that as individual scholars would take us years,” said Berry, associate professor of English for New Media.

Several students were enlisted to assist with the Hiawatha Insane Asylum project, all tech fellows of Dr. Tom Halverson, associate professor of computer science. They created code to convert images of the documents into text documents, thereby recreating the documents and storing them digitally in one place.

Berry used the Hiawatha Insane Asylum project as an example of the importance of collaborating with others.

“These collaborations are what digital humanities projects are all about,” she said. “Instead of working in isolation, we look at how can we use our computing technology and knowledge to make the work happen from a humanities aspect.”