Digital Humanities in 2008, Part I

When I wrote a series of blog posts last year summarizing developments in digital humanities, a friend joked that I had just signed on to do the same thing every year.  So here’s my synthesis of digital humanities in 2008, delivered a little later than I intended. (Darn life, getting in the way of blogging!) This post, the first in a series, will focus on the emergence of digital humanities (DH), defining DH and its significance, and community-building efforts.   Subsequent posts will look at developments in research, open education, scholarly communication, mass digitization, and tools.   Caveat lector:  this series reflects the perspective of an English Ph.D. with a background in text encoding and interest in digital scholarship working at a U.S. library who wishes she knew and understood all but surely doesn’t.  Please  add comments and questions.

1.    The Emergence of the Digital Humanities

This year several leaders in digital humanities declared its “emergence.”  At one of the first Bamboo workshops, John Unsworth pointed to the high number of participants and developments in digital humanities since work on the ACLS Cyberinfrastructure report (Our Cultural Commonwealth) began 5 years earlier and noted “we have in fact reached emergence… we are now at a moment when real change seems possible.”  Likewise, Stan Katz commented in a blog post called “The Emergence of the Digital Humanities,” “Much remains to be done, and campus-based inattention to the humanities complicates the task. But the digital humanities are here to stay, and they bear close watching.”

Termite Cathedral (Wikipedia)

Emergence: Termite Cathedral (Wikipedia)

Last year I blogged about the emergence of digital humanities and I suspect I will the next few years as well, but digital humanities did seem to gain momentum and visibility in 2008.  For me, a key sign of the DH’s emergence came when the NEH transformed the Digital Humanities Initiative into the Office of Digital Humanities (ODH), signaling the significance of the “digital” to humanities scholarship.  After the office was established, Inside Higher Ed noted in“Rise of the Digital NEH” that what had been a “grassroots movement” was attracting funding and developing “organizational structure.”  Establishing the ODH gave credibility to an emerging field (discipline? methodology?).  When you’re trying to make the case that your work in digital humanities should count for tenure and promotion, it certainly doesn’t hurt to point out that it’s funded by the NEH.  The ODH acts not only as a funder (of 89 projects to date), but also a facilitator, convening conversations, listening actively, and encouraging digital humanities folks to “Keep innovating.” Recognizing that digital humanities works occurs across disciplinary and national boundaries, the ODH collaborates with funding agencies in other countries such as the UK’s JISC, Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), and Germany’s DFG; US agencies such as NSF, IMLS and DOE; and non-profits such as CLIR.  Although the ODH has a small staff (three people) and limited funds, I’ve been impressed by how much this knowledgeable, entrepreneurial team has been able to accomplish, such as launching initiatives focused on data mining and high performance computing, advocating for the digital humanities, providing seed funding for innovative projects, and sponsoring institutes on advanced topics in the digital humanities.

It also seemed like there were more digital humanities jobs in 2008, or at least more job postings that listed digital humanities as a desired specialization.  Of course, the economic downturn may limit not only the number of DH jobs, but also the funding available to pursue complex projects–or, here’s hoping, it may lead to funding for scanner-ready research infrastructure projects.

2.    Defining “digital humanities”

Perhaps another sign of emergence is the effort to figure out just what the beast is.  Several essays and dialogues published in 2008 explore and make the case for the digital humanities; a few use the term “promise,” suggesting that the digital humanities is full of potential but not yet fully realized.

  • The Promise of Digital History,” a conversation among Dan Cohen, Michael Frisch, Patrick Gallagher, Steven Mintz, Kirsten Sword, Amy Murrell Taylor, Will Thomas III, and Bill Turkel published in the Journal of American History.  This fascinating, wide-ranging discussion explores defining digital history; developing new methodological approaches; teaching both skills and an understanding of the significance of new media for history; coping with impermanence and fluidity; sustaining collaborations; expanding the audience for history; confronting institutional and cultural resistance to digital history; and much more. Whew! One of the most fascinating discussion threads: Is digital history a method, field, or medium?  If digital history is a method, then all historians need to acquire basic knowledge of it; if it is a medium, then it offers a new form for historical thinking, one that supports networked collaboration.  Participants argued that digital history is not just about algorithmic analysis, but also about collaboration, networking, and using new media to explore historical ideas.
  • In “Humanities 2.0: Promise, Perils, Predictions”  (subscription required, but see Participatory Learning and the New Humanities: An Interview with Cathy Davidson for related ideas), Cathy Davidson argues that the humanities, which offers strengths in “historical perspective, interpretative skill, critical analysis, and narrative form,” should be integral to the information age.  She calls for humanists to acknowledge and engage with the transformational potential of technology for teaching, research and writing.
    Extra Credit, by ptufts

    Extra Credit, by ptufts

    Describing how access to research materials online has changed research, she cites a colleague’s joke that work done before the emergence of digital archives should be emblazoned with an “Extra Credit” sticker.  Now we are moving into “Humanities 2.0,” characterized by networked participation, collaboration, and interaction.  For instance, scholars might open up an essay for criticism and commentary using a tool such as CommentPress, or they might collaborate on multinational, multilingual teaching and research projects, such as the Law in Slavery and Freedom Project.   Yet Davidson acknowledges the “perils” posed by information technology, particularly monopolistic, corporate control of information.   Davidson contributes to the conversation about digital humanities by emphasizing the importance of a critical understanding of information technology and advocating for a scholarship of engagement and participation.

  • In “Something Called ‘Digital Humanities'”, Wendell Piez challenges William Deresiewicz’s dismissal of “something called digital humanities” (as well as of “Contemporary lit, global lit, ethnic American lit; creative writing, film, ecocriticism”).  Piez argues that just as Renaissance “scholar-technologists” such as Aldus Manutius helped to create print culture, so digital humanists focus on both understanding and creating digital media. As we ponder the role of the humanities in society, perhaps digital humanities, which both enables new modes of communicating with the larger community and critically reflects on emerging media, provides one model for engagement.

3.    Community and collaboration

According to Our Cultural Commonwealth, “facilitat[ing] collaboration” is one of the five key goals for the humanities cyberinfrastructure.   Although this goal faces cultural, organizational, financial, and technical obstacles, several recent efforts are trying to articulate and address these challenges.

To facilitate collaboration, Our Cultural Commonwealth calls for developing a network of research centers that provide both technical and subject expertise.  In A Survey of Digital Humanities Centers in the United States, Diane Zorich inventories the governance, organizational structures, funding models, missions, projects, and research at existing DH centers.  She describes such centers as being at a turning point, reaching a point of maturity but facing challenges in sustaining themselves and preserving digital content.  Zorich acknowledges the innovative work many digital humanities centers have been doing, but calls for greater coordination among centers so that they can break out of siloes, tackle common issues such as digital preservation, and build shared services.   Such coordination is already underway through groups such as CenterNet and HASTAC, collaborative research projects funded by the NEH and other agencies, cyberinfrastructure planning projects such as Bamboo, and informal partnerships among centers.

How to achieve greater coordination among “Humanities Research Centers” was also the topic of the Sixth Scholarly Communications Instititute (SCI), which used the Zorich report as a starting point for discussion.   The SCI report looks at challenges facing both traditional humanities centers, as they engage with new media and try to become “agents of change,” and digital humanities centers, as they struggle to “move from experimentation to normalization” attain stability (6).   According to the report, humanities centers should facilitate “more engagement with methods,” discuss what counts as scholarship, and coordinate activities with each other.  Through my Twitter feeds, I understand that the SCI meeting seems to be yielding results: CenterNet and the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes (CHCI) are now discussing possible collaboratiions, such as postdocs in digital humanities.

Likewise, Bamboo is bringing together humanities researchers, computer scientists, information technologists, and librarians to discuss developing shared technology services in support of arts and humanities researchers.  Since April 2008, Bamboo has convened three workshops to define scholarly practices, examine challenges, and plan for the humanities cyberinfrastructure.  I haven’t been involved with Bamboo (beyond partnering with them to add information to the Digital Research Tools wiki), so I am not the most authoritative commentator, but I think that involving a wide community in defining scholarly needs and developing technology services just makes sense–it prevents replication, leverages common resources, and ultimately, one hopes, makes it easier to perform and sustain research using digital tools and resources.  The challenge, of course, is how to move from talk to action, especially given current economic constraints and the mission creep that is probably inevitable with planning activities that involve over 300 people.  To tackle implementation issues, Bamboo has set up eight working groups that are addressing topics like education, scholarly networking, tools and content, and shared services. I’m eager to see what Bamboo comes up with.

Planning for the cyberinfrastructure and coordinating activities among humanities centers are important activities, but playing with tools and ideas among fellow digital humanists is fun!  (Well, I guess planning and coordination can be fun, too, but a different kind of fun.)  This June, the Center for New Media in History hosted its first THATCamp (The Humanities and

Dork Shorts at THAT Camp

Dork Shorts at THAT Camp

Technology Camp), a “user-generated,” organically organized “unconference” (very Web 2.0/ open source).  Rather than developing an agenda prior to the conference, the organizers asked each participant to blog about his or her interests, then devoted the first session to setting up sessions based on what participants wanted to discuss.  Instead of passively listening to three speakers read papers, each person who attended a session was asked to participate actively.  Topics included Teaching Digital Humanities, Making Things (Bill Turkel’s Arduino workshop), Visualization, Infrastructure and Sustainability, and the charmingly titled Dork Shorts, where THAT Campers briefly demonstrated their projects. THAT Camp drew a diversity of folks–faculty, graduate students, librarians, programmers, information technologists, funders, etc.  The conference used technology effectively to stir up and sustain energy and ideas—the blog posts before the conference helped the attendees set some common topics for discussion, and  Twitter provided a backchannel during the conference.   Sure,  a couple sessions meandered a bit, but I’ve never been to a conference where people were so excited to be there, so engaged and open.  I bet many collaborations and bright ideas were hatched at THAT Camp.  This year, THAT Camp will be expanded and will take place right after Digital Humanities 2009.

THAT Camp got me hooked on Twitter.  Initially a Twitter skeptic (gawd, do I need another way to procrastinate?), I’ve found that it’s great way to find out what’s going on digital humanities and connect with others who have similar interests.  I love Barbara Ganley’s line (via Dan Cohen): “blog to reflect, Tweet to connect.”  If you’re interesting in Twittering but aren’t sure how to get started, I’d suggest following digital humanities folks and the some of the people they follow.  You can also search for particular topics at  Amanda French has written a couple of great posts about Twitter as a vehicle for scholarly conversation, and a recent Digital Campus podcast features a discussion among Tweeters Dan Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt and skeptic Mills Kelly.

HASTAC offers another model for collaboration by establishing a virtual network of people and organizations interested in digital humanities and sponsoring online forums (hosted by graduate and undergraduate students) and other community-building activities.  Currently HASTAC is running a lively, rich forum on the future of the digital humanities featuring Brett Bobley, director of the NEH’s ODH.  Check it out!


20 responses to “Digital Humanities in 2008, Part I

  1. wonderful overview – thanks. seeing all these seemingly disparate developments within one blog post makes me agree: something’s emerging.

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  3. Lisa,

    I’m so happy to see the first part appear. I’d been looking forward to it. Maybe you’ll soon be the G. Thomas Tanselle of digital scholarship. As you and some of your readers will know, his sometimes prickly surveys of editing and textual scholarship in Studies in Bibliography appear about every five years.

    It’s tough to be on internet time. If you waited five years between surveys, even Google wouldn’t notice your posts.

    Cheers, and thanks,


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  5. Thanks for posting this “annual” review! I’m preparing for my qualifying exams in the digital humanities, and it’s reassuring to see that I’m the field I’m entering is gaining credibility!

    Did you see the “Digital Humanities Manifesto” published by the Mellon Seminar at UCLA? It speaks to many of the issues you raise here, namely working out definitions the “Digital Humanities;” the shifting roles of originals, copies, and experts; and the implications of all of this in redefining disciplines and departments. (It also uses CommentPress.)

  6. Thanks for posting this “annual” review! I’m preparing for my qualifying exams in the digital humanities, and it’s reassuring to see that I’m the field I’m entering is gaining credibility!

    Did you see the “Digital Humanities Manifesto” published by the Mellon Seminar at UCLA? It speaks to many of the issues you raise here, namely working out definitions the “Digital Humanities;” the shifting roles of originals, copies, and experts; and the implications of all of this in redefining disciplines and departments. (It also uses CommentPress.)

  7. Thanks for the comments! I wouldn’t pretend to have the knowledge or authority of G. Thomas Tanselle, but it sure is fun to reflect on “the big picture” in digital humanities. Since the Digital Humanities Manifesto came out in 2009, I decided to leave it out of my 2008 summary.

  8. Oops – I thought it came out in December 2008. Sorry!

  9. @Rachel: No problem! Thanks for the suggestion…

  10. @Rachel–Oops! You’re right, I’m wrong. The Manifesto did come out in December.

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