What Is Digital Humanities?
Digital Humanities remains a field difficult to define. It’s often noted that digital humanities is where using a computer transforms what is possible within the humanities. Using a computer to type a paper is nothing special, but it would have been when word processing was invented. The ability to access digital archives across the world within a few minutes allows us to ask and answer questions that would not have been feasible before the internet. Once a technology becomes commonplace, it’s no longer 'digital humanities', it’s just 'humanities'. This parallels the introduction of new technology to an organisation, to an industry, to society or an individual. Digital Humanities is an ongoing process from strangeness and novelty, through learning, to a new automatic way of doing things, a new expectation and assumption, a new quotidian routine.
"It’s amazing what happens when you take somebody whose basic training is in humanities and you teach them how to program. It becomes a creative experience of astonishing proportions."1 - Lenny Muellner, Director of Publications and IT at the Centre for Hellenic Studies at Harvard University, 2013.
"Throughout its history, humanities computing has shown a healhty appetite for imagination and innovation while continuing to maintain high scholarly standards."2 - Susan Hockey, Emeritus Professor of Library and Information Studies at University College London, 2008.
"The digital humanities try to take account of the plasticity of digital forms and the way in which they point toward a new way of working with representation and mediation, what might be called the digital ‘folding’ of reality, whereby one is able to approach culture in a radically new way."3 - David M. Berry, Professor of Digital Humanities (Media and Film) at the University of Sussex, 2011.
"Yet despite the aggressive promotion of Digital Humanities as a radical insurgency, its institutional success has for the most part involved the displacement of politically progressive humanities scholarship and activism in favor of the manufacture of digital tools and archives...the unparalleled level of material support that Digital Humanities has received suggests that its most significant contribution to academic politics may lie in its (perhaps unintentional) facilitation of the neoliberal takeover of the university."4 - Daniel Allington, Sarah Brouillette, David Golumbia in Neoliberal Tools (and Archives): A Political History of Digital Humanities
Types of Digital Humanities
Because it is relatively new, the field is plastic, so perhaps the best way to answer the question is by examples of what people are doing that they call Digital Humanities. The following summary of types of activity within Digital Humanities is derived from the DH2015 schedule and abstract list and my own experience.
You may also want to look at this list of example digital humanities sites accumulated ad hoc over the last 6 years.
- Digitised texts.
- Scanned documents and manuscripts.
- Photographed artefacts (eg: museum collections).
- Virtual reality and autocad of ancient sites.
- Archive enhancements (eg: connect text and image).
- Topic based cross institutional collaborations linking data resources on a topic.
Using computers to create works, collections or other outcomes, such as part of an artistic practice.
- Algorithmic arts (eg: Software generated art (visual, audio, text, performance), potentially interactive).
- Generative Sociology (eg: map, spatial, temporal and social networks in a community while enabling online sharing of cultural items, such as mapping migrants movements over time and enabling online sharing of photos, anecdotes, scans that inform that mapping etc.)
- Collective/participatory resource production, such as building an archive by inviting community contributions.
Representing large amounts of data or information to discover and illustrate trends and characteristics, eg:
- Represent statistical relationships for broad reading.
- Relationship network maps, within texts and corpora (eg: characters).
- ‘Graphs, Maps, Trees’.
- See Geographical Mapping.
- Computational Stylistics.
- Statistical Analysis.
- Markup, tokenisation and parsing.
- Broad/distant reading.
- Audio (eg: automatic detection of language features).
- Text (eg: parsing, tokenisation, lexicons).
- Interactive geolocating (eg: cultural information about this place where I’m standing now through mobile device GPS).
- Geo-social network maps (eg: ‘knowledge networks’ of Enlightenment Europe derived from letters of key thinkers).
- Cultural information layer on map (eg: locations of historical massacres; accessing photos, texts, media relevant to a location through pips on a map, etc.)
Virtualisation and Reproduction
- Virtualisation and representation of sites/artefacts.
- 3D printing.
Publishing and Editing
- Digital Editing.
- Digital Publishing.
'Citizen-science' style projects where human judgement is required to process massive amounts of information. Examples from www.zooniverse.org:
- Skakespeare's World: volunteer transcription of manuscripts from Shakespeare's era.
- Ancient Lives: volunteer transcription of ancient Greek text on fragments from the Oxyrhynchus Papyri collection.
- Measuring the ANZACS: volunteer transcriptions of soldiers letters.
- Socio-political transformation (eg: to enhance engagement through access to government information and decision making processes; online systems as a force for social change, activism, raising awareness, etc.)
- Programs to address information equity issues.
- See Generative Sociology.
Applying digital techniques from other areas to DH and vice versa. Eg:
- Bioinformatics (because bioinformatics deals with processing large texts strings there are many analytical techniques that can be adapted to and from DH text processing, bioinformatics and information theory).
- Other techniques adapted from sciences, engineering and maths.
- Economics (eg: Economics of distribution such as music downloading, epublishing industry).
- Marketing (eg: DH language processing of social media or customer comments for market research and prediction).
Using statistical techniques to discover often unexpected relationships in datasets.
- Big data storage.
- High performance computing.
- Establishing organisations to setup and maintain infrastructure.
- Connecting infrastructure. (eg: two sets of data brought together to discover new information).
Organisation and Management
- Tagging (eg: tagging sections of scanned documents/music/etc for ease of reference).
- Multimedia management (eg: organise collections between text, images, video).
- Collaboration (remote collaboration, mass collaboration).
- Conventional cybernetics (human machine interface, GUI).
- Tool construction (eg: not creating a language dictionary but a tool for creating language dictionaries).
Teaching and Adoption
- Organisational implementation.
- Encouraging and equipping students with DH skills.
- Training 'digital humanists'.
Critique of usage, contemporary experience, the meaning of ‘memory’ and ‘heritage’, analysis of phenomena such as fan fiction and fandom, digital humans, digital natives, post-humans etc.
- Lenny Muellner, “Digital Humanities: Across the Spectrum" Discussion at Lamont Library, Harvard University, 6/3/2016. Humanities in the digital age.
- Susuan Hockey, "A Companion to Digital Humanities", edited by Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens & John Unsworth. John Wiley & Sons, 2008. A Companion to Digital Humanities.
- David M. Berry, "The Computational Turn: Thinking about the Digital Humanities." Published in 'Culture Machine', Vol. 12, 2011. The Computational Turn: Thinking about the Digital Humanities.
- Daniel Allington, Sarah Brouillette, David Golumbia "Neoliberal Tools (and Archives): A Political History of Digital Humanities" LARB, May 1, 2016 https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/neoliberal-tools-archives-political-history-digital-humanities/
William Pascoe & Daniel Price
Digital Humanities Lab
Centre For 21st Century Humanities
University of Newcastle