Digital Humanities at Siberian Federal University


The paper explores digital scholarship at Siberian Federal University and considers the incentives for Siberian scholars to use digital data in their research, build their own databases and digital editions, and develop research questions based on new methods and tools. Although the first stage of digital scholarship (providing digital content) seems to be a well mastered skill for Siberian researchers, the second stage of working with digital data and new research questions in the humanities does not seem to be within their comfort zone. We conclude that random digital humanities initiatives do not guarantee either demand for digital humanities or knowledge and understanding of new research questions inspired by new methodologies. Further studies might be needed to understand if we require lobbying for digital humanities and, if so, what kind of promotion, dissemination and training are needed or would be most effective.


L'article explore les travaux d'érudition en version numérique à l'université fédérale de la Sibérie et considère ce qui pourrait motiver les universitaires sibériens à utiliser les données numériques dans leurs recherches, à bâtir leurs propres bases de données et éditions numériques, et à élaborer des questions de recherche basées sur les nouvelles méthodes et nouveaux outils. Bien que les chercheurs sibériens semblent avoir bien maîtrisé la première étape des travaux numériques (fournir du contenu en version numérique), ils ne semblent pas être dans leur zone de confort pour ce qui est de la deuxième étape, soit travailler avec les données numériques et les nouvelles questions de recherche en sciences humaines. Nous concluons que les initiatives aléatoires de sciences humaines numériques ne garantissent pas qu'il y aura une demande en sciences numériques, ni des connaissances et une compréhension des nouvelles questions de recherche inspirées par les nouvelles méthodologies. Il peut être nécessaire de mener d'autres études pour comprendre si nous devons faire des pressions en faveur des sciences humaines numériques, et dans ce cas, quel est le type de promotion, de diffusion et de formation qui serait nécessaire ou qui pourrait être le plus efficace. 


digital humanities, social incentives, Russia, digital scholarship in Siberia, Siberian Federal University

How to Cite

Kizhner, I., Kim, I., Rumyantsev, M., Lapteva, M., Baryshev, R., & Pikov, N. (2015). Digital Humanities at Siberian Federal University. Digital Studies/le Champ Numérique, 6(2). DOI:


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Digital scholarship in many parts of the world is currently at the stage of building digital collections and turning them into digital editions, a noble task in terms of discovering new cultures, transcending borders and providing access. The question of whether curatorship for these collections is governed by a research question, what might be the standards for analyzing the data and how scholars might use the editions is most often left unanswered in the mid-2000s enthusiasm about access and new (research) opportunities.

The paper explores digital scholarship at Siberian Federal University with an implication that the route of development might be representative for the digital scholarship in Russian provinces.

Section one describes Siberian Federal University as a large institution of higher education in Russia, quite representative of what is happening in Russian provinces in terms of digital scholarship.

Section two provides an overview of digital scholarship at Siberian Federal University including what has been achieved at the stages of digitising cultural heritage in the region, preparing digital editions and carrying out some research in building linguistic corpuses.

Section three considers the incentives for Siberian scholars to use digital data in their research, build their own databases and digital editions, and develop research questions based on new methods and tools.

Our approach to studying how DH methods and tools are used at Siberian Federal University is discussed in section four. The results from semi-structured interviews with Siberian scholars are demonstrated in section five. Section six provides a conclusion and directions for future work.

Siberian Federal University and its humanities research

Siberian Federal University is a part of the federal universities' network. It includes nine universities located in provinces and created as mergers for several higher educational institutions from the same city. The universities follow close policies of providing large areas with technological transfers and innovations demanded by the agenda of districts' socio-economic development.

Federal universities serve the needs of vast areas in Russian provinces (sometimes a fifth or a tenth of Russian territory). They are mainly the areas with huge technological potential and weak traditions of humanities research.

The focus on the Academy of Sciences with its extensive network of research institutes resulted in the concentration of humanities research in certain places. Russian capital cities (Moscow and Saint Petersburg) have a significantly higher concentration of research institutes in the humanities than Russian areas in provinces, Siberia or Russian Far East. What is even more important, the depth of humanities research, its traditions, the opportunity to learn from prominent scholars have been weakly developed in Russian provinces even if they have universities with relatively old humanities departments.

Studying digital humanities at Siberian Federal University may provide a representative picture of humanities research in Russian provinces as

  • Digital scholarship has been developing here without a deep tradition of humanities research that tends to come from the institutes of the Academy of Sciences, not from the corresponding departments at the institutions of higher education with their heavy teaching loads;
  • Siberian Federal University was the first university established in the federal universities' network and what followed largely modeled its approaches; and,
  • It rigorously follows the general trend of reducing publicly funded programs in the humanities and supporting engineering, technological and biomedical programs.

Digital scholarship in Russian capital cities with traditionally strong humanities research might differ dramatically from results obtained at Siberian Federal University. The results might be different for the North-Eastern Federal University in Yakutsk where the Academy of Sciences had a research institute established in 1935. One of the consequences of having a strong research tradition in the humanities in Yakutsk might be the fact that humanities scholarship is one of the research priorities for the North-Eastern Federal University.

Siberian Federal University has forty thousand students most of whom take an obligatory course in the humanities at the beginning of their study programs (as a part of their core subjects). The courses are obligatory for students majoring in engineering and technology and they may be courses in English as a Foreign Language, History or Classical Music Appreciation. There are three faculties where students major in the humanities and learn how to do research in their fields.

Digital Humanities Projects at Siberian Federal University

Digitisation tends to be considered "the bedrock of humanities research" (Terras 2012). Large scale digitisation programmes in Siberia date back to the early 2000s, when 9000 historical and ethnographic images and records were delivered online with the financial support from the Open Society Foundation and the Library of Congress (Bredikhin 2005). Siberian digitisation programmes have been further developed to build local digital collections and/or regional aggregators of digital images (Zagoskin 2012).

Digitisation programmes for museum content at Siberian Federal University have been initiated and carried out by the Department of Information Technologies in Creative and Cultural Industries, Siberian Federal University. Its expertise ranges from providing authenticated content for museum websites to building virtual reconstructions to creating panoramic images.

Demand for digitising local museum content resulted from the availability of funding that came from regional authorities as financial support to develop digitisation programs linked to regional heritage studies. Digitisation programmes that were simultaneously important pedagogical tools and directions of research served the purpose of showing students what can be done with the help of equipment and applications that appeared in Siberia in the late 90s and early 2000s.

Most departmental projects started in mid 2000s with three objectives in mind: first, they made Siberian heritage (mainly from the nineteenth and early twentieth century) accessible to a broader public. Many projects were about creating digital collections for the artworks of Vassily Sourikov, a famous Russian painter of Siberian origin. While his most famous paintings are in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, his less famous works never received the quality of publications that could be achieved through digital media (Figure 1).

Figure 1: An example from the digitisation project completed by faculty and students from the Department of IT in Creative and Cultural Industries for Krasnoyarsk Sourikov Museum

An example from the digitisation project completed by faculty
 and students from the Department of IT in Creative and Cultural
 Industries for Krasnoyarsk Sourikov Museum

Another purpose was to combine historical heritage and art history heritage in a single project through a combination of nineteenth century photos placed on the city's map and artworks. Thus, identity search for a student working on the project, or for a more passive Siberian audience, would be in an elegant combination of known outlines of the city's centre, old photos featuring unexpected costumes and behaviour patterns, similar Siberian nineteenth century's clothes and faces in Sourikov's drawings, and 3D reconstructions of the house where the painter was born, a place that city dwellers visit constantly with primary school excursions. The house is very characteristic in terms of its interior and furniture. People living in the region can easily recognise their ancestors' life style even if they come from Central Russia. The combination of the old and new information that is ideal for independent learning makes Siberian projects especially attractive from the viewpoint of linking the present and the past.

The third purpose of departmental projects was to teach their graduates practical skills of working with digital content that would add to their employability. This resulted in the projects of 3D reconstructions for Siberian churches (Figure 2) and gigapanoramic imaging for regional and national museums.

Figure 2: An example of 3D reconstruction for a church from the 18th century monastery in Krasnoyarsk area.

An example of 3D reconstruction for a church
                                from the 18th century monastery in
                                Krasnoyarsk area.

Students' skills in building digital collections of museum images find constant demand at the Russian Museum and Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg and the skill of making gigopanoramic images was especially useful when working on large paintings that feature plenty of (famous) people (Figure 3 and Figure 4).

Figure 3: Example of gigapanoramic imaging. G. Chernetsov, Parade to Commemorate the End of the Battle Action in the Czardom of Poland (October 6,1831) on Tsaritsino Meadow, 1837, canvas, oil, 212 x 345, State Russian Museum

Example of gigapanoramic imaging. G. Chernetsov, Parade to
                                Commemorate the End of the Battle Action in the Czardom of Poland
                                (October 6,1831) on Tsaritsino Meadow, 1837, canvas, oil, 212 x 345,
                                State Russian Museum

Figure 4: Example of gigopanoramic imaging

Example of gigopanoramic imaging

A project developed at the Department of the Russian Language and Linguistic Communication is about collecting Siberian dialects and extracting entries for the dictionary of a Siberian dialect. The digital edition of the dictionary is a collection of entries with explanations and examples from interviews recorded by the department's students during their field trips. There are selected video recordings that provide examples of interviewees' dialects but they are not linked to dictionary entries or to textual examples.

Building a digital collection of museum images at Siberian Federal University to contribute to independent learning of art history was discussed elsewhere (Kizhner et al. 2008). This was a volunteer project that relied on what an image database could do to build a non-linear digital edition where a user could move from one image to the other exploring connections, building their own questions and their own cause-and-effect trajectories. The project was also about arranging license clearing, which made the scope of its content larger than the content of a single museum.

The project was a failure for a reason clearly described by Desmond Schmidt in his blog post (2013). "…(M)oving a digital scholarly edition to another web-server, which probably runs a different content management system, different scripting languages and a different database, is usually considered either impossible or too expensive" (2013). The database and the web site disappeared when the university changed a web server. Another reason for not moving the project might have been its raison d'être: the intention to have a non-linear scholarly edition for independent learning. Unlike digitisation projects that were the initial stage in developing digital humanities, easily comprehensible and clearly stated, reasons for building a non-linear project that might serve as a playing ground for digital humanities was not so clearly outlined. Building connections, drawing unexpected routes, linking unusual objects was (and might still be) a disputable idea for digital editions (Marty and Twidale 2004). Recent publications, (Burdick et al. 2012; Rainbow et al. 2012) discuss "multiple routes into (the) collections" and searching a collection "across multiple dimensions" as possible tools of establishing relationships between artworks.

Recent research suggests that meanings tend to reside in collections of cultural objects and that a single object might not be too promising in creating "the patterns of knowledge and events, belief and thought that link them (objects) to each other and the observer" (de Polo 2011). If learning is putting one's knowledge and skills in different contexts then visualisations have much to do with learning as they regroup objects, produce additional contexts and enhance knowledge integration.

Linking digital objects in unexpected ways depending on a researcher's task (or a task of independent learning) seems to be a recent trend in historical research and heritage studies with the obvious examples of the British Museum's History of the World in 100 Objects (MacGregor 2012) or Paula Findlen's "Early Modern Objects" (2013). It finds its ways into university undergraduate courses (Spinks 2014) and it seems to be closely linked with database mentality as described by Manovich (2010).

Thus, the experience of digitising content and building digital scholarly editions at Siberian Federal University might be more about improving students' digital skills and building collections that are quite close to printed editions with the only difference of better quality and easier access.

Demand for Digital Humanities

The question of how far digitised materials, metadata and web sites arrangements are from the real needs of Siberian scholars is still unresolved. The criticism that "digitization programmes have sprung up in piecemeal fashion", which has largely been led by "supply rather than demand, spurred by opportunity instead of actual need" (JISC 2005, quoted in Terras 2012, 58) seems to be quite justified when applied to Siberian digitisation practices. Although the intuitive understanding of use and usefulness of high quality images for Russian humanities research is that of high value and impact, no user studies have been carried out to understand their real applications (Warwick 2012).

Digitisation and virtual reconstructions in Krasnoyarsk, a city where Siberian Federal University is based, might be the first step in developing digital humanities in the region. The department's challenge is to apply their acquired skills to research problems outside the immediate scope of technological problems and to collaborate with scholars working beyond their direct technological environment.

Another reason to look for interaction with scholars is that funding to support digitisation programmes or projects experimenting with technology might become scarce. Funding authorities might limit their resources to those research projects that show "real impact" (Terras 2012).

Digital humanities conferences are beginning to be held in the European part of Russia (Herzen State University 2013, Higher School of Economics 2013) where digital research projects in, say, linguistics, have long been a part of the general research landscape (Toldova et al. 2013, Baranov et al. 2010, Kiseleva et al. 2009). Much has been done to promote digital humanities (Borodkin 2012, Volodin 2014), including some papers by Siberian scholars (Mozhaeva 2013). However, the demand for digital humanities resources, tools and approaches is still scarce and many of those humanists who "worked independently and without knowledge of digital humanities as a field of enquiry in itself" (Galina Russell 2012) have never been a part of DH community.


The last part of the paper describes our research to find out how and why DH methods and tools are or are not applied by Siberian scholars. We adopted Harley et al.'s (2010) approach in looking first at "faculty values and behaviors throughout the scholarly communication lifecycle" (ibid). Following this approach, we considered the social and economic incentives to employ DH methods in Siberian humanities research. The study is based on the responses of interviewees working in several institutes of Siberian Federal University in selected academic fields: linguistics, art history, literature studies, education and social sciences.

The questions we asked can be broadly divided into six categories:

  1. Scholars' values and social/economic incentives to publish and do (digital) research;
  2. Availability of and demand for technical expertise/personal technical knowledge to carry out digital research projects;
  3. Potential of non-linear digital publications and new research questions in the humanities;
  4. Quality and quantity of data;
  5. Standards of data description; and,
  6. Collaboration with other researchers and distance work.

First, we conducted 20 semi-structured interviews with scholars working in various fields to get in-depth responses for a qualitative analysis. After that, we developed a slightly different questionnaire to use a quantitative approach and to combine data from extensive conversations (that have a drawback of an interviewer taking a leading part and sometimes driving an interviewee to the idea that researchers want to support with evidence) and 42 relatively short questionnaires to get a more objective picture. The questionnaire was disseminated among faculty and graduate students so that we could get a range of answers coming from experienced researchers and those who have only recently introduced themselves to the humanities research.

Results and discussion

The survey's results are shown in Table 1. The table indicates the percentage of interviewees who answered positively to the question in the table.

Table 1: Survey questions and the percentage of positive answers

Question Percentage
Do you think that successful research contributes to your professional growth? 90.5%
Do you think that successful research contributes to increasing your social status? 81.0%
Do you think that successful research contributes to your financial prosperity? 61.9%
Do you use databases, multimedia publications (web sites that include working with data and discussing possible results) and software applications in your field? 70.0%
Do you need technical support (help from programmers and IT specialists) to build your own digital editions? 61.9%
Are you ready to use digital editions (multimedia books, linked data, built-in video and software applications) to disseminate your research results? 90.0%
Do you think that digital research and publications that rely on working with the database of research objects (texts, images, documents), access to unknown objects and working with "big data" will strengthen humanities research and that they will give an opportunity to ask new research questions? 57.9%
Do you think that distant work with the help of new technologies can substitute personal contacts? 33.3%
Is there a need to teach graduate students new methods and technologies of doing research? 95.0%
Do you need platforms for creating sustainable and accessible multimedia books with an option of external reviewing? 63.2%
Do you use software applications to analyze your data (visualize research results)? 15.0%
Do you need big arrays of data or linked data for your research? 65.0%
Do you need standards of data description to work with your data? 45.0%
Do you think students should be taught how to use standards of data description? 63.2%

Low incentives for working on digital projects in terms of tenure and promotion is a widely discussed topic in popular literature and survey reports (see, for example, Harley et al. 2010). Siberian scholars are unsurprisingly similar to their Western colleagues in this respect. We asked scholars to rank several formal indicators for working in research to boost their social recognition and financial prosperity (these were two separate questions). Our findings show that digital projects were ranked much lower than publishing papers in peer-reviewed journals or attending conferences (Table 2). Another reason for not considering digital publications as a way to improve one's social status might be the lack of DH expert databases in the area and consequently lack of evaluation procedures for digital projects, a circumstance much lamented in popular literature.

Table 2: Rank distribution of work type leading to social achievements

Work Type Percentage
Publishing papers in peer-reviewed journals 71.40%
Attending conferences 71.40%
Getting a doctoral degree 57.10%
Habilitation (a pre-requisite for full professor's position) 47.60%
Developing a database or a non-linear online publication in your field 47.60%
Discussing your research results in a blog or on a web site 33.30%

The complexity of attitude to research as a tool for building a career and working towards promotion was that Siberian researchers do not see professional growth, social success and financial prosperity as equally dependent on their research achievements.

While professional growth was related to research activity in 90 percent of answers, financial prosperity was linked to research achievements by slightly more than a half of interviewees. This might mean that at times of economic prosperity research and consequently digital research would be pursued by Siberian scholars more rigorously than at times of economic adversity.

There was extensive discussion with interviewees about whether or not they needed technical help when working on digital projects. While most researchers recognise that technical help could be useful, they speak about technical expertise in terms of a skill that should be combined with expertise in humanities research or even the universal knowledge of approaches from various fields in the humanities. Discussions of alternative academic paths in popular literature might intersect with this image of "a universal scholar," a Renaissance figure, highly demanded by Siberian scholars. One of the interviewees called this type "a treasure for the department."

One of the most important questions that we asked was about the potential of digital humanities to work with new research questions that result from quantitative approaches/the emergence of big data (Manovich 2012) and from building the argument along the intersecting lines of evidence presented in multiple media (Burdick et al. 2012; Meeks 2012; Mandell 2012).

The importance of new research questions was reported by more than a half of Siberian researchers and graduate students in our sample. Experienced researchers were unanimous in agreeing that new forms of scholarly communication might result in emergence of new research questions. Young researchers, outsiders to contemporary scholarship, reported less confidence in believing new research questions might emerge. The question about the emergence of new research paths was answered positively by forty three percent of graduate students. This might be explained by their little experience in understanding new research questions in the humanities and recent contexts of humanities research. Their technological experience, the fact that they are digital natives or other presumptions linked to their age, do not seem to result in understanding new research problems in the humanities.

When experienced researchers were asked to provide particular examples of new research questions in their disciplines almost every researcher left the field blank either because this was too broad a question to ask or because most researchers are aware of digital humanities in the form of linguistic research or searching in the databases of textual content. As one of interviewees said: "a linguistic corpus is an applied tool for working on linguistic problems…there is (and there will be) no need to build theories around linguistic corpuses." Huge collections of texts might help find patterns and answer questions that were impossible to tackle before the advent of digital scholarship. However, they may not be the new questions most researchers expect to see, the questions of unexpected connections that arise when new relations (for example, spatial relations or social relations) come into play (Hagood 2014). Siberian researchers might not be aware of the forms of digital scholarship that rely on non-textual content and the interplay of curatorship skills leading to pursuing different lines of argument (Mandell 2012).

Automation and digital approaches in the museum world, a place where curatorship skills are essential, seem to have been closely linked to the introduction of standards for data description (Parry 2009).

Interestingly, less than a half of researchers and students at Siberian Federal University reported they needed standards to describe their data. This situation in the humanities might be similar to what happened in the museum world in the second half of the last century when curators felt that standards and automation inhibit their creativity and disrupt their rights to use various ways to structure knowledge (ibid). These idiosyncratic ways of data description are, according to one of interviewees, related to the difference in theories and approaches to what Parry calls "different conceptual frameworks" (ibid, 41).

However, two thirds of interviewees reported that students needed to be taught standards of data description. An explanation from a full professor was that students would work faster with their objects of study and they would be able to analyze more entries if they were aware of metadata standards. Some of the students reported the relation of standards to the professional language and mastering their profession.

Some of the interviewees at the level of associate professors and full professors said they just did not know why standards were needed to work with their data or why they should look at metadata standards to enhance their teaching.

Siberian researchers rarely report they need big arrays of data. The average number of data records for Siberian scholars seems to be in the range of 100-300 entries. A fifth of scholars in our sample reported they needed more than 500 entries to start their data analysis. Siberian scholars mainly use textual data for analysis (the obvious exception are scholars working in art history). Art historians do not report the need for big data and they explain it by the fact that their research tradition implies "close reading" of artworks.

Digital tools of analysis are used by an insignificant proportion of researchers in our sample. This might be partially related to a low demand for big arrays of data but this may also result from the lack of knowledge of curatorship tools. One of interviewees mentioned a need to be better informed about digital tools before considering if they want or need to use them.

As shown in Table 1, two thirds of scholars do not think that distant work in research can substitute personal contacts. However, in-depth interviews show that researchers try to combine distant work that saves time and effort with personal contacts that strengthen communication through non-verbal signs. Some researchers think that distant work is useful in teaching when you need to simultaneously contact many students (the same might be true for collaborative projects).

One researcher reported the need for personal contacts at the initial stages of planning research collaboration and the possibility of distant work at the following stages.

Another scholar reported he only needed email communication out of the variety of digital tools available at the current moment. Preference for personal contacts or specific digital tools of communication might be related to scholars' communication habits and personal traits. Anyway, it seems that the variety of electronic means to arrange communication exceeds the necessity for distant work with the help of digital tools for Siberian scholars.

Conclusion and future work

Our preliminary findings are that, contrary to popular belief, career advancement does not seem to be correlated with a successful researcher's image (at least when it is about researchers' financial achievements). According to results from in-depth interviews, successful research tends to be connected with deep reading and thinking, honest work with data, social recognition and other qualitative characteristics. This might mean that digital methods of disseminating one's research are far from the interests of Siberian scholars who tend to prefer conference presentations as a way of making themselves known to a wider public.

Siberian researchers rarely say they need big arrays of data and scholars are seldom aware of the existence of digital tools for data analysis. We conclude that random DH initiatives do not guarantee either demand for DH studies or knowledge and understanding of the new research questions inspired by digital humanities. Some Siberian scholars acknowledge the enlarged scale of studies and the ability to access big data, which are possible with the help of DH methods. These methods, however, are not linked to new research problems and perspectives, "a new way of conceptualising the world" (McCarty 1992) that, as one may think, might have emerged in recent years.

Siberian scholars tend to think of a digital edition and digital research as a way to save time and efforts, something analogous to a printed publication with the only difference of a screen and easier access. It might be connected with textual content usually seen by researchers in digital editions, rarely enhanced by curatorship tools and indeed looking very much like a printed edition.

We think some promotion of non-linear digital editions that include various types of content interlinked with curatorship tools and providing several lines of scholarly argument might be needed to attract Siberian scholars' attention to new forms of the humanities research. Siberian scholars are aware of the first stage in the development of digital scholarship: the stage of digitisation when availability and access to various (textual) content leads first to freedom of receiving (almost) every type of content you want and second to the lack of skills for the analysis. The ability to work with digitised data at a non-linear multidimensional level of curatorship and analysis might demand a new level of understanding conceptual frameworks and seeing examples of best practices for new forms of digital scholarship.

Siberian researchers may need training and academic exchange programmes (doctoral and postdoctoral exchange) to see the examples of new skills, projects, standards of data descriptions, ways to walk around standards and leave an opportunity for creativity to move to the next stage of digital scholarship development.

Whatever might be the reasons: lack of lobbying, promotion, dissemination and training (Galina Russell 2012), language barrier, social and economic incentives stimulating a different type of research behaviour, or working practices in the humanities (Warwick 2012), further studies might be needed to understand if we require lobbying for digital humanities and, if so, what kind of promotion, dissemination and training are needed or would be most effective.

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Inna Kizhner (Siberian Federal University)
Igor Kim (Siberian Federal University)
Maxim Rumyantsev (Siberian Federal University)
Marina Lapteva (Siberian Federal University)
Ruslan Baryshev (Siberian Federal University)
Nikita Pikov (Siberian Federal University)





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