Getting Started in the Digital Humanities

Last week I presented at the Great Lakes College Association’s New Directions workshop on digital humanities (DH), where I tried to answer the question “Why the digital humanities?” But I discovered that an equally important question is “How do you do the digital humanities”?  Although participants seemed to be excited about the potential of digital humanities, some weren’t sure how to get started and where to go for support and training.

Building on the slides I presented at the workshop, I’d like to offer some ideas for how a newcomer might get acquainted with the community and dive into DH work. I should emphasize that many in the DH community are to some extent self-taught and/or gained their knowledge through work on projects rather than through formal training. In my view, what’s most important is being open-minded, experimental, and playful, as well as grounding your learning in a specific project and finding insightful people with whom can you discuss your work.

  • Learn standards and best practices. If you want your project to have credibility and to endure, it’s best to adhere to standards and best practices. By talking to experts, you can develop a quick sense of the standards relevant to your project. You may also wish to consult:
  • Find collaborators. Most DH projects depend–and thrive– on collaboration, since they typically require a diversity of skills, benefit from a variety of perspectives, and involve a lot of work.
    • Making its debut at the aforementioned MLA workshop, Digital Humanities Commons will serve as an online hub (or matchmaking service) linking people, projects and tools. For instance, if you want to learn by doing, you will be able to use DH Commons find out about opportunities to work on existing projects. Beta accounts are now available.
    • Talk with library and IT staff at your own institution. Although many library and IT professionals are necessarily focused on the day-to-day, there is also an increasing recognition that what will distinguish libraries and IT groups is their ability to collaborate with scholars and teachers in support of the academic mission. Be a true collaborator–don’t just expect technical (or content) experts to do your bidding, but engage in conversation, shape a common vision, and learn from each other. (Steve Ramsay offers great advice to collaborators in “Care of the Soul,” and the Off the Tracks Workshop devised a useful “Collaborators’ Bill of Rights.”) If you can bring seed funding or administrative backing to a project, that might make it easier to attract collaborators or garner technical support.
    • Reach out to others in your community. By attending a THATCamp or corresponding with someone who shares your interests, you may discover people who can contribute to your project or help shape a common vision. You could also find a colleague in computer science, statistics or another field who has common research interests and would be eager to collaborate. You might able to hire (or barter with) consultants to help out with technical tasks or provide project advice; I understand that Texas A&M’s Initiative for Digital Humanities, Media, and Culture is exploring offering consulting services in the future to help advance the DH community.
    • Engage students. While there can be risks (after all, students graduate), students can bring energy and skills to your project. Moreover, working on DH projects can give them vital technical, project management, and collaborative skills.
    • Consider a DIY approach.  As Mark Tebeau of Cleveland Historical wisely observed at the New Directions workshop, if your institution doesn’t provide the support you need for your DH project, why not strike out on your own? As Trevor Owens suggests in “The digital humanities as the DIY humanities,” it takes a certain scrappiness to get things done in DH, whether that’s learning how to code or figuring out how to set up a server. If you don’t think you have the time or skills to, say, run your own web server, consider a hosted solution such as Omeka. In the long term, it’s a good idea to affiliate with an institution that can help to develop and sustain your project, but you may be able to get moving more quickly and demonstrate the value of your idea by starting out on your own.
  • Plan a pilot project. Rather than getting overwhelmed by trying to do everything at once, take a modular approach.  At the New Directions workshop Katie Holt explained how she is building her Bahian History Project in parts, beginning with a database of the 1835 census for Santiago do Iguape parish in Brazil and moving into visualizations, maps and more. This approach is consistent with the “permanent beta” status of many Internet projects. Showing how a project moves from research question to landscape review to prototype to integration into pedagogy, Janet Simons and Angel Nieves of Hamilton’s Digital Humanities Initiative demonstrated a handy workflow and support model for digital projects at the workshp.
  • Where possible, adopt/adapt existing tools, particularly open source software. Too often projects re-invent the wheel rather than adopting or adapting existing tools.
    • Find tools via Digital Research Tools (DiRT) wiki (which I edit and which will soon be overhauled, thanks to the hard work of the fabulous Quinn Dombrowski and Bamboo).
    • SHANTI’s UVa Knowledge Base offers useful information about technologies, teaching, and research approaches. (Aimed at the University of Virginia, but more widely applicable.)
    • You can also poke around GitHub, which hosts code, to identify tools under development by members of the DH community such as CHNM and MITH.
NITLE Can Help
Let me end with a plug for NITLE (the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education), my (relatively) new employer. One of the reasons I wanted to join the organization as the director of NITLE Labs is because I was impressed by its digital humanities initiative, which my colleague Rebecca Frost Davis leads. Among NITLE’s activities in the digital humanities:
If you’re a veteran digital humanist, how did you get started, and what do you wish you knew from the beginning? If you’re a newcomer, what do you want to know? What worries you, and what excites you? What did I leave out of this overview? I welcome comments.
[Updated soon after hitting publish to provide more info about TAPoR. I’m a reviser…]

31 responses to “Getting Started in the Digital Humanities

  1. Thanks for this great round-up of places to begin learning about the digital humanities! Here’s one more: in addition to the DH bookmarks on Diigo and Delicious, I also recommend the digital humanities Zotero group, where folks are routinely adding articles and other sources related to DH.

  2. As someone new to DH, I can’t thank you enough, Lisa. This is by far the best and most comprehensive guide I’ve encountered!

  3. Thank you for this post! It is a helpful resource, especially as I prepare for my 2011 Museum Computer Network Conference video panel, “Philosophical Leadership Needed for the Future: Digital Humanities Scholars in Museums.” A discussion at THATCamp MCN is also planned to further explore the questions addressed in the panel.

    I discovered digital humanities on Twitter. I’ve been reading blogs, listening to podcasts, watching lectures online and exploring the projects of digital humanities centers since. I also value the collaborative, open-minded and experimental attitudes that are core to the digital humanities community. I hope the panel will demonstrate the importance of making the ethics & practical skills advanced by digital humanities scholars an essential part of revitalizing museums in a digital culture.

    Videos may be submitted to the panel until November 3rd. Please consider participating and thank you again for all your important contributions to the field.

  4. Great stuff! I am particularly enjoying the TaPoR site, which I hadn’t encountered before. My issue with DH has always been that my coding skills aren’t where I want them to be, so it’s always great when I can use tools built by others.

  5. Thanks for linking to the Geospatial Institute site for Spatial Humanities. Folks can find our peer reviewed geospatial tutorials here: . Our newest tutorial shows how to use Google Fusion Tables to map Wikileaks Afghanistan data.

    Several new posts are in the pipeline, so check back often. Our review board encourages you to submit your own tutorials for publication regardless of your experience level. If it’s jargon free and just works, we’ll publish your work! More info:

  6. great list! Though, I was a little dismayed that you only mentioned one or two examples of DH related work happening in the Great Lakes region – given that you were speaking to a Great Lakes crowd.

  7. Hey cool, thanks for this

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  11. Another resource to add is the Digital History Project website that Will Thomas and I edit at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. We have a number of essays, interviews, and lectures by practicing digital historians along with a Directory of Digital Historians, project reviews, tool reviews, and digital history course syllabi, undergraduate class projects and graduate student digital research projects .

    Doug Seefeldt

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  25. any recommendations for scholarships for someone in graduate school? I am particularly interested in local history museums and digital humanities. Thanks!

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