by Paul Dingman, Ph.D.
Project Coordinator, Applied Insights, Society Marketing—Research, Wiley
If you’re involved directly or indirectly with the academic study of literature, philosophy, art, linguistics, or history, you’ve probably come into some kind of contact with the digital humanities (or DH) by this point. It could be that you saw a demo at a conference or read an article or considered a grant with a DH component. Maybe you’ve built or interpreted (or been a touch mystified by) one of these visualizations that show connections and centrality among characters:
Perhaps you’ve heard that the digital humanities are on the horizon or are coming soon (in some form) to your college or your own department. I’m here to tell you that the digital humanities are not on the way anymore. They’re here! They’ve actually been here for a while now, and they’re growing, albeit slowly.
It’s not like they’re some invading force bent on supplanting the traditional humanities. It doesn’t work like that; no one is taking away the writings of Márquez, Dickinson, Hughes, Ovid, or Thucydides. It’s more useful to view the digital humanities movement as an additional or complementary perspective that researchers and students (and anyone interested in the humanities) can employ to explore works of literature, history, drama, philosophy, etc.
Like most graduate students in the twenty-first-century, I used some elementary DH methods and resources while pursuing my degree in history and while teaching. Finding that obscure chronicle reference or epic or key article on the web always felt like a win, especially when I could sift through hundreds of pages in seconds to locate precisely what I wanted. Digital versions of books, J-Stor and other online databases, digital repositories, web-based search engines, etc. – these tools are a great help to anyone involved in academic research.
However, I really became immersed into the digital humanities when I joined the team of a three-year DH project based at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC. The Early Modern Manuscripts Online (or EMMO) project had two main goals: promoting paleography (the study of old writing systems) and building an online collection of complete transcriptions paired with high-resolution images and rich metadata. Beyond the fascinating process of deciphering sixteenth and seventeenth-century manuscripts and the somewhat taxing process of transferring XML transcriptions to the web, working on this project put me into direct contact with students, professors, programmers, administrators, and researchers who were committed to exploring and advancing the humanities with digital methods. From my vantage point on this project, I saw the vast array of tools available and the practitioners who were planning even more.
That’s one of the first things you learn about the digital humanities. The field is extremely varied and elastic. So much so that it is not easy to agree on an exact definition of what the digital humanities are. Whole book chapters and articles have been devoted to defining DH, so I won’t try to repeat that formidable task here. If having one will help, though, an excerpt from Wikipedia’s page on the subject is a suitable starting point: “…an area of scholarly activity at the intersection of computing…and the disciplines of the humanities.” Of course, with its collective, ever-changing online repository of knowledge, one might argue that Wikipedia itself is a manifestation of the digital humanities. In any case, it is important to understand the breadth of work being done in the field.
The abundance of DH projects and the energy devoted to them is quite exciting.
It will be even more exciting when more people involved in the humanities interact with the robust tools and resources that are available. During the wrap-up discussion at a DH-focused conference on manuscripts held at UCLA last year, the assembled developers and researchers sadly acknowledged the relatively small number of graduate students and faculty who currently take advantage of what is freely accessible on the web. I think much of this problem comes down to promotion (or a lack thereof). However, the sheer number of new projects, conferences, and websites demonstrates the growth underway.
Since the digital humanities field is still developing and hard to define (as noted above) any rules and classifications—even broad ones—should be approached with caution. For the limited scope of this post, I will only give some observations and examples that I have come across as a means to encourage people in their explorations of what DH has to offer.
First, there are those projects that open up the virtual doors and let people read, view, and/or listen to various works. Below are just a few of the many DH websites providing essentially free access to great humanities materials:
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy – online reference work of philosophy (try the random entry feature)
TEAMS – collection of mostly medieval texts and materials, many not easily available in print (geared toward teaching)
The American Yawp – collaborative online U.S. History “textbook” (also available in print)
Project Gutenberg – thousands of free eBooks, generally classics, in a variety of formats (yes, totally free!)
Folger Digital Texts –Shakespeare’s corpus of plays and poetry available to read, download, and search.
Most museums today offer features to encourage the virtual use of their materials. Large institutions like the Library of Congress have substantial digital collections that are on the web for anyone to discover and investigate. The Amazing Grace collection, for example, highlights the history of the famous hymn and contains an array images, recordings, and books. Smaller cultural centers may also have an intriguing digital presence, for example the Leventhal Map Center mounts regular digital exhibitions (like this one on Boston’s green spaces). Also, many colleges have DH programs such as DHi at Hamilton or MITH at the University of Maryland.
Second are those projects providing specific analytical tools and methods to study the humanities in different ways. A controversial trailblazer in the new millennium, Franco Moretti challenged scholars to try “distant reading” as opposed to close reading by using computers to examine an entire genre of texts. Suppose you wanted to study all the nineteenth-century American novels in print or the entire corpus of English Renaissance Drama. One researcher or even a team (most likely) cannot read through a sizable genre in a reasonable amount of time to draw conclusions about the whole, but a computer program designed to analyze something very specific, e.g., word frequencies, can.
If that sounds complicated, consider a simpler example. Word clouds have become fairly common by now, but these visual representations operate on a similar principle, i.e., they show us the words used most often in a defined text by relative size in a colorful, user-friendly picture.
These may remind us of overlooked aspects of a literary work. In the word cloud example above, the prominence of words referring to seafaring and travel in the novel are possibly of interest. Performing this type of analysis on a source (or a paper of yours) might reveal surprising usage patterns.
In a wider contemplative turn, word clouds and other textual analysis tools shift our conception of what constitutes a work of literature. If the pages and chapters and lines that are familiar and expected by human eyes are taken away, is a book just a database (a bundle) of words? If so, what does that mean and how might it change the way we view a literary work?
Some specialized analytical projects and tools that proceed from the view of books-as-data are below:
Juxta – an open-source, downloadable program to compare multiple witnesses (i.e., versions) of a single work
Voyant – a robust set of web-based tools for text analysis
TEI – the Text Encoding Initiative, developers of an encoding standard for texts in the humanities and social sciences that anyone can use for marking text elements and analyzing them (the standard is created and maintained by a consortium)
DocuScope – elaborate system for rhetorical analyses of texts, including the use of specific dictionaries (this system is not currently open for all, though some options may be available)
Also, if we think of literary works as big bundles of words, spreadsheet and database applications as well as algorithms in specific software packages can be used to sort, analyze, and chart the textual “data” of a poem, play, treatise, short story, or novel.
One more type of DH project that I want to highlight are those that involve crowd-sourcing. Such projects usually ask for volunteers on the web to perform tasks that will help build a digital resource for research. In exchange, those who contribute their time and energy learn about a topic that interests them, become part of an online community, and know they are advancing scholarship. Three examples are below:
What’s on the Menu? – volunteers read and enter culinary information from the New York Public Library’s immense menu collection (of special interest to foodies and foodways scholars)
Shakespeare’s World – volunteers transcribe manuscripts and highlight words for study (a joint venture with the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Oxford English Dictionary)
Mapping Magic – volunteers note places connected to folklore and magic (Historypin project)
As with any movement, there are critiques and concerns surrounding the digital humanities. A major one is that many DH projects reflect neither the diversity nor the uncertainty of our world, especially in the cultural realm of the humanities. Reducing a literary work to data can sometimes “flatten” (i.e., minimize) the relationships, imagery, and complexities of the writing, not to mention ignore absences and under-representations. Another problem with DH is that attention and funds are often focused on large grants where the researchers and money become overly focused on programmatic deliverables for a narrow audience (think high-cost development of websites that few actually use); pedagogy and outreach usually suffer in such a model. Along the same line, DH practitioners generally talk more to themselves at specialized conferences (or specific DH sessions) than to others, which helps little in broadening the field. And, some, like Ross Douthat, worry that DH might be smothering the artistic flame of the traditional humanities under a heavy blanket of pragmatism. All of these (and the list is not exhaustive) represent serious questions for the humanities community and should be considered, discussed, and addressed. However, these concerns need not overshadow nor cancel out the benefits and creativity of the digital humanities.
The positive potential of the field is high. Instructors will continue to find new ways to engage students by including digital methods for exploring texts. Similarly, the number of collaborations among students and/or faculty on research endeavors using computer applications will certainly rise. The only question is how quickly. A recent call for better online annotations to enable scholarly teamwork is most intriguing. However, big projects are not the only way for DH inquiries to expand; short papers, articles, and presentations about facets of the digital humanities are important. Small steps may be the best way forward or at least represent a worthwhile alternative to waiting for that one game-changing website. Many books and guides are out there to help, e.g., the JITP journal has a section on DH assignments for classes. If you want to try your hand at building something yourself, Miriam Posner’s “how did they make that” is a great short post for getting started.
The digital humanities are here! Make use of them and be part of them!