Visiting Humlab, Umeå

Text by Anna Kajander and Tanja Välisalo

Digital tools, methods and practices are both established and growing areas of humanities research. In recent years, they have centered under the umbrella term of Digital Humanities (DH), which in many universities has been situated in DH centers or in so called “labs” (about situated practices of DH, see Oiva & Pawlicka-Deger 2020). In the University of Jyväskylä, research and teaching in DH and social sciences (SSDH) already exist but without a centralized support structure. Projects and courses are dispersed in different disciplines. Currently, there are plans to develop more cohesive structures for instance by offering a possibility for networking. Also, a new seminar for humanities scholars working with digital tools will start in autumn 2023.

We, SENSOMEMO researcher Anna Kajander, and Tanja Välisalo, local coordinator of the FIN-CLARIAH infrastructure, had the chance to visit Humlab, which is a DH lab at the Faculty of Arts at Umeå University in Sweden. Both of us have some background in DH. Tanja’s research has focused on digital culture and digital media, and she is responsible for digital skills education for humanities and social science students. Anna is a former DH doctoral student at the University of Helsinki and is interested in digital practices and digital materiality of everyday life. We have been discussing the importance of developing DH networks and teaching in Jyväskylä, so the aim of our visit to Umeå was to see in practice what Humlab is and does, and how it brings together and develops “the interaction between traditional humanities, culture and information technology in research, postgraduate education and teaching”, as is stated on the Humlab website.

Our visit was organized together with Coppélie Cocq, who is the deputy director of Humlab and a professor in Sámi studies and Digital Humanities. We also had the pleasure to meet other staff, including associate professor Evelina Liliequist and the director of Humlab, Karin Danielsson. They introduced the lab, which was situated in the same building as the University library. This meant easy access in a very central spot on the campus area. The lab offers technology such as computer stations with specialized software, a sound studio, conference and presentation rooms, and a maker space with electronical equipment, 3D printers, and other tools for creative work with digital technology – similar to hacklabs. In addition to the technical infrastructure, Humlab offers various forms of support for researchers. This includes activities such as talks, workshops, training, and a “tech breakfast” once a month, which is a low-threshold meeting place to discuss questions concerning digital technologies in research with tech specialists, all while having breakfast. Most importantly, Humlab’s software developers give support to researchers throughout project life cycles: from consulting researchers in the funding application phase, to working in funded projects, and all the way to maintaining the developed tools and software for an agreed time period.

Solutions created in Humlab range from functional digital models of museum objects one can interact with via VR technology, to creating a more inclusive AI solution for gender classification based on automated facial analysis. Jim Robertsson, Mattis Lindmark, and Henrik Norin also showcased Humlab’s motion capture technology. We were personally able to take part in a virtual reality tour of a museum building, created in collaboration with Västerbotten Museum using various technologies, such as drone photogrammetry.

The visit showed us the importance of a particular physical space where researchers and students interested in digital research can meet, discuss, share thoughts, seek help and learn. The digital technologies and competence are obviously more easily accessible for those who need it, when they can be found in one place (e.g., instead of different disciplines or faculties). This can support gaining knowledge about, for instance, different tools, digital ethics, or the latest interesting research in the field of DH. Therefore, a center or a lab with a dedicated physical space advances digital research within a university.

From the viewpoint of the SENSOMEMO, the visit was useful in many ways. Although SENSOMEMO is focused on autobiographical and affective materiality of home instead of digital research, the need to understand the digital in the context of everyday life has become evident during the project. This means understanding the impacts of the digital on everyday life as well as the possibilities of using digital theories, materials, methods and tools in studying different phenomena affecting the contemporary ideals, practices and materialities of home. Humlab has defined digital practices as one of their focus areas, together with digital methods, pedagogical development and arts. It brings together different kinds of expertise concerning digital questions, and provides a space for a wide range of research. We would be very happy to see something similar at the University of Jyväskylä in the future and see research of everyday experiences as a part of the DH networks and collaborations.

We warmly thank Coppélie and others from Humlab for the visit!