Defining digital scholarship in the humanities: Ten-fingered humanists?

“Digital scholarship” seems to have become a new buzzword in academia. The term is invoked by those advocating for open access to scholarly knowledge (e.g. Charles Bailey’s Digital Scholarship) as well as those promoting innovative research methodologies. Universities, libraries, and funding organizations are beginning to recognize the need to support digital scholarship. Witness:

But what exactly do we mean by “digital scholarship,” particularly in the humanities? Let’s look at three definitions:

  1. The ACLS report offers more of a description of what could be considered digital scholarship than a precise definition. To make this description more concrete, I’ve added my own examples in brackets:

a) Building a digital collection of information for further study and analysis [e.g. the Blake Archive]
b) Creating appropriate tools for collection-building [e.g. Collex, Zotero]
c) Creating appropriate tools for the analysis and study of collections [e.g. TAPOR Tools, MONK, Token-X]
d) Using digital collections and analytical tools to generate new intellectual products [e.g. Ayers and Thomas, “The Difference Slavery Made,” a hypertext historical essay that draws its evidence from The Valley of the Shadow]
e) Creating authoring tools for these new intellectual products, either in traditional forms or in digital form [this one is important, but harder to think about–would CommentPress, which allows readers to add comments and annotations to WordPress posts, qualify?]

Although this list offers a helpful way to think about the different forms that digital scholarship can take, I think it misses at least two other types of digital scholarship:

  1. theorizing the digital (digital textuality, media studies, etc), such as Jerome McGann’s Radiant Textuality
  2. publishing scholarship as hypermedia, e.g. works in the journal Vectors and, I would argue, the video Web 2.0 … The Machine is Us/ing Us

And then there are blogs, scholarly portals, podcasts, online colloquia, etc.
2. The University of Washington likewise offers a broad definition:

Digital scholarship has many dimensions and may be defined as:

  • any element of knowledge or art that is created, produced, analyzed, distributed and/or displayed in a digital medium for the purpose of research or teaching;
  • the creation of digital technology, tools and services to solve problems in scholarship; or
  • the study and analysis of digital information, resources and culture.

I like the way that this definition encompasses both tools/services (collections?) and the study of digital culture. I would agree that digital scholarship is knowledge produced, distributed, etc. in a digital medium, but I think that this definition is too general–these days, almost every article is produced in a word processing program and uses at least some sources from e-journals. For me, what is crucial is the method more than the medium. Digital scholarship, I think, involves some critical reflection on what it means to be using computers as part of the work, whether in building a tool or writing an article.

3. My favorite definition–which is, admittedly, a definition of “e-humanities” rather than “digital scholarship”–comes from the Australian e-Humanities Research Network and is itself derived from Willard McCarty’s work:

a complex and dynamic application of the prodigious memory and processing power of the modern computer, actualised through computer science, to a collection of disciplines with a very long and proud tradition in the preservation, transmission, and examination of human culture (McCarty).

This report distinguishes between two types of digital scholarship: building collections and tools to make research more efficient, and “exploring the new conceptual terrain opened up as a result of bringing established humanities disciplines into contact with the power of the digital.” I like the way that this definition invokes humanities traditions even as it imagines how those practices might change with the analytical power offered through technology; it links the practice of “scholarship” with the possibilities of the “digital”

So how would I define digital scholarship in the humanities? (I won’t pretend to be able to define it for the sciences, although I bet the word “data” would show up somewhere in the definition). I kind of like the description offered by one of the organizers of the 2007 American Literature Association conference. Before I presented at the conference as part of the Digital Americanist panel, he hustled the previous presenters away from the podium so we strange techie folks would have time to set up our computer and projector, saying, “Look out, here come the ten-fingered Americanists.” It took me a while to get the pun (oh yeah, digital does mean “pertaining to the fingers or digits”), but it seems apt–often digital humanists are makers (of tools and collections) as well as thinkers; we’re homo faber as well as homo sapiens.

But, OK, “ten-fingered humanists” is more of a slogan than a definition. Typing “define: digital scholarship” into Google got me no results. So I turned to a favorite old-school tool of humanities scholars, the OED, to mash up “digital” and “scholarship”:

  • digital (from the 2002 draft additions): “involving or relating to the use of computer technology or digital communications, esp. digital multimedia and the Internet”
  • scholarship: learning, erudition

Hmmm. Learning that uses computer technology–pretty squishy. But (here I get evasive) maybe it’s best to avoid tight definitions of such an emerging term; maybe we should let digital scholarship define itself, since it’s still being imagined. In coming posts, I plan to explore different examples of digital scholarship, such as recent dissertations on algorithmic criticism (fascinating stuff!), hypermedia essays, videos, and more. Maybe I’ll come up with a better definition as I work through this stuff…

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3 responses to “Defining digital scholarship in the humanities: Ten-fingered humanists?

  1. Pingback: What does it mean to be a “Digital Scholar”?

  2. Pingback: What does it mean to be a "Digital Scholar"? | JustPublics@365

  3. Pingback: What Does it Mean to be a Digital Scholar? | Laura W. Kane

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