Digital Humanities

So I just attended ALA, and the very last session I attended during the two days I was there was ACRL Digital Humanities Discussion Group. You can read Bob Kosovsky’s report about the meeting, which is nice enough to mention project CHART specifically. The thing is, I was left wondering what Digital Humanities is, and why it exists.

This may sound idiotic that I don’t understand a field I am working in, and maybe it is, but I feel like I am missing a piece. So, as any librarian would, I decided to research it. Oddly the first thing I found was a blog post titled What is Digital Humanities and What is it doing in the Library. I say oddly only because this post, published an hour before I did my search,  is by Micah Vandegrift, one of my predecessors in my current job. If anybody knows what it is I need to know about Digital Humanities it is this guy. It was a great blog post and it had a lot of great information on what Digital Humanities and what the libraries role is. I think I understand that part a lot better.

It didn’t answer my specific question though. There was a lot of talk at ALA about whether Digital Humanities and Humanities were the same thing and if calling it “Digital” implied it was a different field. So I asked what seemed like the logical followup question, “What makes digital humanities different from other digital projects.” It sounded like a smart question when it came out of my mouth but it didn’t feel smart moments later when everyone was staring at me like I had 12 heads. The only answer I got is that it deals with issues specific to humanists. Nobody explained what those special issues are, except for citations. In fact, the women next to me was afraid to say anything after that because she works in anthropology and it is never clear if anthropology is humanities or social science.

It seems like people see digital humanities looking something like this.

To me Digital Humanities, and really all other digital fields look more like this.

Why do we keep making new digital fields to work in? It’s not that each field doesn’t have its own issues, but subject experts already handle those issues. Yes, to make a digital humanities project we need humanists and we need digital librarians and project managers, but what we may not need is an intermediary. Separate and apart from the project management issues that come from having too many sub-fields, calling something digital humanities can only limit its potential.

In academic libraries each subject has its own expert, but usually the libraries share a catalog. This is not because of limited resources but because the items all relate to one another. A historical painting can easily refer to a place and time in history, which can point to some primary source material that tells the story of the scientist who lived there, which points to modern discovery that references the original paper. It isn’t even always that complicated. These fields already overlap. A digital archaeology project is undoubtedly going to include scientific discoveries, anthropological finds, and ancient art. What do we call that project? In a paper world it is a complicated path to follow because libraries store things in different physical spaces; but in a digital world with some GIS data it is only four mouse clicks away.

I suppose it doesn’t really matter. There are amazing Digital Humanities projects out there and highly qualified humanists and librarians are creating new projects every day. It’s more about not limiting ourselves or our projects to one field or another. Why only learn from one group and offer one thing when you can learn from everyone and offer the world?

3 Responses to “Digital Humanities”

  1. John Russell Says:

    Amanda, I was also at that discussion group meeting and my sense was not that folks thought you had 12 heads, but that no one had a good way of answering your question.

    A not-so-simple short response to your question is ”interpretation.” For example, the intent of much of literary digital humanities is to engage in humanistic interpretation of texts (using ”texts” in the broadest possible sense) using technology. Not all digital projects are created as an act of scholarly interpretation (e.g., scanning all of the photos in a particular collection).

    The second aspect of your question – why have something called digital humanities at all? – is more of a social question, because there are institutional benefits (especially funding) for making DH a separate ”thing” as well as other professional forces at play.

    • Amanda Says:

      Thanks for commenting. You are my first blog comment ever.

      I wasn’t thinking about institutional benefits like funding but that is a very good point. I know in universities collaborative projects are hard because sharing funding is hard to agree on.

      As for the other point that not all digital projects are created as an act of scholarly interpretation, I feel like they all can be. Once photos are scanned from a particular collection, they should be available for others to use for scholarly interpretation by anyone who wants to. Obviously there are lots of reasons why this can’t happen, but inside a university, departments should more easily be able to work together to make that happen. At least I hope they could. Photographs scanned and placed on the web without content or information are much less useful. My project at the Brooklyn Public Library has that problem currently. Right now we are just scanning photographs, but unless we add context it is hard to imagine what users would do with it.

  2. Roxanne Shirazi Says:

    I agree with John. There was nothing wrong with the question you posed, just not an easy answer (the arrangement of the room was a bit odd as well–not so conducive to discussion, alas).

    I did offer one suggestion at the meeting, which I’ll repeat here. Digital humanities is often aligned with the changes happening in scholarly communication, and seems to embrace an ethos of openness and collaboration that may help distinguish it from other areas. In many ways I think it is not just “digital” that is at play here; it is a “networked” humanities as well.

    Also, DH is more than individual projects, as evidenced by the ongoing debates about whether it is necessary to “build” or code to be a digital humanist (the “hack vs. yack” thing). At least part of it is about opening up new research questions in the humanities through computing and digital media.

    And FWIW, I’ve often heard “and the interpretive social sciences” tagged on to discussion of the digital humanities…

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