Decoding the digital humanities

What is digital humanities?

More scholars than ever are now identifying as digital humanities researchers or ‘DH-ers’. Universities around the world, including Western Sydney University, now have dedicated digital humanities (DH) research groups. Yet outside this core group – and even within it – the term is ambiguous. What exactly does a DHer do? Given that employers are increasingly looking for humanities graduates with technical skills, an understanding of this term is particularly important.

DH exists at the intersection of humanities and computing. Essentially, it involves using digital methods in humanities research. It allows scholars to ask and answer new – and often unexpected – questions, to see patterns that may not otherwise be apparent, and to communicate their research in innovative ways.

The development of digital humanities

Humanities computing, the precursor to DH, emerged in the 1940s with the invention of computers. Humanities scholars immediately began to incorporate this new technology into their work, just as they had done with previous information technologies. The field diversified throughout the twentieth century, particularly with the invention of the internet in the 1990s. Yet as a subfield, it remained relatively small and mostly external to mainstream humanities research.

The term ‘digital humanities’ was officially adopted in the new millennium. This rebranding indicated that the field was about more than computing or technical support, and had become a “genuinely intellectual endeavour.” By 2009, DH was described as the “next big thing” in the Chronicle of Higher Education. This was echoed in the New York Times the following year, bringing DH firmly into popular consciousness. Matthew Kirschenbaum, then Associate Director of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, declared DH had “gone from being a term of convenience used by a group of researchers… to something like a movement.”

There is now an expanding group of DH practitioners, research institutes and national associations around the world. Thousands of articles and books have been devoted to the subject and there are several specialised peer-reviewed journals and conferences. Numerous universities offer DH workshops as well as undergraduate and postgraduate programs. Some commentators have even suggested that while the humanities are in crisis, DH is the exception.

Western Sydney University played a significant role in this development of DH. It was the first Australian university to appoint a Professor in DH and it is home to the nation’s largest DH research group. Western Sydney hosted the international DH conference in 2015 and the first Digitizing Enlightenment symposium in 2016. It also offers a Master of Digital Humanities and, in conjunction with Sydney University, hosts the annual DH Downunder summer workshops.

Digital humanities in action

Today DH research can look like anything. It encompasses diverse, exciting projects that belong to different disciplines, and employ a wide range of digital tools.

Digitisation dominated early DH endeavours and remains the most well-known type of project. Digitised collections may focus on literary texts (like Project Gutenberg), newspapers (such as Trove), or archival documents (including Reading Experience). Drawing on these collections, many DH projects involve computerised textual analysis solving the “problem of textual abundance.” Famously, Franco Moretti’s ‘distant reading’ allows scholars to simultaneously examine thousands of books. Digital textual analysis also allows for the development of ideas to be traced, or for connections in archival materials to be identified and understood.

Visualisations may be used to reveal connections that may not otherwise be apparent. For instance, Stanford University has mapped endangered languages, the flow of ideas during the Enlightenment, and Mexican migration, and has produced a network graph showing connections between 30,000 British figures.

3D-modelling and virtual reality are used to recreate and preserve objects and spaces. The British Museum, for example, has produced models of its artefacts that can be viewed online. Outside of cultural institutions, these techniques are common in archaeology and anthropology. Projects include modelling the ancient city of Urak, replicas of antiquities like Egyptian funerary objects or stones inscribed with the Ogham alphabet, and a simulation of Aboriginal Dreamtime.

A 3D model visualisation from The British Museum. Image Credit: The British Museum
Core values of DH

Given the diversity of the field, it is difficult to clearly define DH. It is perhaps more useful to consider a few of the core values that underpin much DH research.

DH is interdisciplinary. It stretches across the humanities and social sciences. Projects often implicate computing experts or involve partnerships with cultural institutions. DH is a collaborative undertaking, disrupting the traditional sole-author model of the humanities. Many DHers are also committed to making their work accessible, aiming to eliminate academic/public division.

DH is an open system. It should not just appear in DH journals and at DH conferences. It should also exist alongside traditional humanities research. Some believe DH is therefore redundant, arguing all modern research involves interaction with computers. Yet DH involves more than using technology to write. Technology is fundamentally used to do the research. In this way, DH provides an exciting new lens for inquiry.

So what is DH?

To return to the question that opened this article: what is DH?

The editors of the first Digital Humanities Quarterly deliberately deferred this question. They believed DH would be defined by the projects that emerged, arguing “it will take time for the range of submissions to represent the real contours of the field.”

Each researcher still defines DH differently. Recognising this, the Day of DH project invited scholars to write, blog and tweet about their interpretation of DH. Many responses were captured in Jason Heppler’s simple website which displays a new definition of DH each time it is loaded. The breadth of responses reveals the diversity of DH work that is being undertaken and, by extension, the diversity of the field.

This fluidity is one of DH’s greatest strengths. It allows the field to adapt to the changing world and to unexpected shifts in project direction. It allows DHers – both new and experienced – to imagine innovative projects without restriction. It allows for an ongoing, expansive conversation about what DH is and what it can be.

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