Welcome to Digital Scholarship in the Humanities

As someone with a strong interest in the digital humanities, I’ve been excited by recent reports calling for more support for digital scholarship, such as the ACLS Cyberinfrastructure report. At the same time, I’m aware that digital tools such as text analysis software have not yet been widely adopted by humanities scholars. I wonder: 1) what impact are digital tools and resources having on mainstream humanities scholarship? And 2) what would it take to produce solid digital scholarship, which I define (rather fuzzily, I admit) as scholarship that uses digital tools and resources in innovative ways, or experiments with new modes of presenting scholarly arguments. (I’ll devote a future blog post to coming up with a better definition.)

With my colleague Jane Segal, I’ve been investigating the first question by seeing how many Dickinson, Whitman and Uncle Tom’s Cabin scholars cite the leading thematic digital research collections the Dickinson Electronic Archives, Walt Whitman Archive, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture. We’ve found that although few scholars cite digital collections, many use them, primarily to access unique resources (such as images of Whitman’s manuscript pages or film versions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and use search tools.

N ow I’m turning my attention to question #2, examining what it takes to produce digital scholarship by trying my own hand at it. I finished my dissertation five years ago, and for five years I’ve been avoiding looking at the &*%^! thing. But now I’d like to remix my dissertation, which examines bachelorhood in nineteenth-century American literature and culture, as a work of digital scholarship. I plan to dive into all of the new electronic resources that have come online since 2002, experiment with text analysis and visualization tools, use bibliographic software to organize my research, and make my whole research process as well-documented and transparent as possible by blogging it, sharing bookmarks, tracking my research in a freely available spreadsheet, etc.  I may even make some bachelor mashups–google maps showing where all the nineteenth century bachelors lived (sure to get picked up by dating sites), flickr mashups of classic bachelor images (sure to get picked up by hot or not?).  I also hope to engage the community–digital humanists, Americanists, digital librarians, banjo players, and whoever else is interested–in this work.  At this point, I have many, many questions, a couple of hunches, and no answers.  My project may appear to be a bit of navel-gazing (researching how a researcher researches by researching myself), but my hope is that I’ll have a much better understanding of how research can be conducted in a digital environment by doing it myself. Along the way, I plan to learn about new tools and methods. I expect to stumble, too, but that’ll be interesting and worth reporting on.

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