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.
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?