Pelle Snickars – new media professor specialising in digital humanities at Umeå University

– wants to find new ways of making cultural heritage accessible to all

Pelle snickarsPelle Snickars, Professor of Media and Communication Studies, specializes in digital humanities. He received his doctorate in film science in 2001 from Stockholm University, with his thesis Svensk film och visuell masskultur 1900. After receiving his doctorate, he worked with investigative assignments at the Swedish National Archive of Recorded Sound and Moving Images (SLBA), where he also took on a managerial position at a later date.
"Although I have not been employed at a university for a number of years, it has been very important for me to maintain contact with the world of research. This is why I have regularly taught and taken part in various research projects in addition to my other work," explains Pelle Snickars.

Refused position as Director General

In 2009, SLBA was merged with the National Library of Sweden. At that time, Pelle Snickars was made responsible for the newly formed research department at the National Library, where he devoted himself to issues relating to the digitisation of cultural heritage and other things. While at SLBA, he took the initiative to compile the Mediehistoriskt arkiv series of books, continuing this work at the National Library. Some 25 books have been published in the series, on topics such as storytelling in the media, new media and politics and the media. Two years ago, he applied for the position of national librarian, i.e. Director General of the National Library, and among other things he underwent a final interview with Secretary of State Peter Honeth.
"I have to admit, I was fairly nervous before that job interview. But after thinking it over for a while, I turned it down. I am a researcher at heart, and research is what I really want to do. I do not just want to be a manager."

The main themes of Pelle Snickars' research relates to the relationship between older and new media, media economy, digitisation of cultural heritage, media history and the importance of new technical infrastructure for humanities.
"In my earlier research, I looked extensively at media usage throughout the entire 20th century, and I am planning to start a history of media seminar in Umeå. I am also interested in the significance of technical infrastructure for the media. If a large number of readers of a newspaper buy tablets, for example, how will this affect the papers? I also want to examine how we should retain and archive our cultural heritage, and how we should get people to examine those collections. We have a lot to learn from the major network corporations in this regard. Look at Spotify, for example, which is actually a gigantic music archive. How do they build up their database? How can people search in it? How do they get their users to feel comfortable using the database? There is a massive gap between Spotify and the arrangement of some scientific archives at present, where you first have to order the material that you want to see or hear, then you have to go down to the archive in question and only there can you access the material."

Streaming music provides knowledge on archive building

Spotify is a vital component in one of Pelle Snickars' future research projects. Between 2014 and 2018, he will be working together with Patrick Vonderau, Stockholm University, Rasmus Fleischer, Stockholm University/Södertörn University, Anna Johansson, HUMlab and Christopher Kullenberg, University of Gothenburg, and they have been granted almost nine million Swedish kronor by the Swedish Research Council for their project "Streaming cultural heritage: file pursuit in digital music distribution". The project plan includes a somewhat unusual element: they plan to form their own record company!
"We will be examining various criteria for streamed music as part of this project. Understanding how commercial digital archives such as Spotify work will be valuable to our research. Spotify currently has a fairly large number of analysts who work solely on studying how traffic works in the database - how users search for music, what music seems to be linked with other music, and so forth. But this is data which researchers are not allowed to access. But if you have your own music in the database, you can view Spotify's data on your own songs. So forming a record company is a practical and methodological way for us to learn more about how a gigantic archive like Spotify works," says Pelle.

Digital humanities and humanities

Pelle Snickars' professorship is in the field of media and communication studies, and above all he will be devoting himself to building up a vital research environment. But his position will also focus on digital humanities, a subject that is gaining a lot of ground at both Umeå University and other Swedish universities. He feels that humanities have an opportunity for development in that various aspects of digital humanities are being examined to an increasing extent.
"Of course, I do not think everyone can work with digital humanities, but humanities specialists have an important part to play with regard to technical development and in being able to criticise and problematise new technology and its application. I think issues relating to the digital world are an exciting way in which to consider the development of humanities in general. This really is a field in which humanities can and should set up shop! Digital humanities also provide a platform for new interdisciplinary humanities research issues, not least methodological issues with regard to the use of digital material, for example."

During his time at the National Library, Pelle Snickars has maintained contact with Umeå University through cooperations with Patrik Svensson at HUMlab and other initiatives. His position is affiliated to HUMlab, and he has ideas for a number of projects where he would like to work together with the lab staff.
"One of the reasons why HUMlab is so interesting is because it combines various kinds of skills. When humanities specialists study the digital world, they encounter opposition fairly quickly - they need someone on the project who understands how the technology is structures: programmers, systems analysts, etc. I do not think it is sufficient to have technical specialists that you give orders to: technicians and other non-research personnel should be integrated and get involved early on in projects. Technical personnel of this kind are available at HUMlab, and this is of a lot of interest to me. I think interaction between technicians and humanities researchers is the key to success for research in the field of digital humanities."