Published on 2014/05/13
Why the Digital Humanities Matter
As more and more information becomes available online, students — especially non-traditional students — should be well-versed in digital humanities.
Those of us who live in the humanities wing of the academic mansion constantly hear people telling us we’re “in crisis.” In June 2013, the Wall Street Journal featured the article “Humanities Fall From Favor.” [1] Four days later, the Chronicle of Higher Education presented a counter-argument that stated the “‘humanities in crisis’ story is seriously overrated.”[2] It’s clear there’s a perception that a crisis exists and, in fact, this perception has existed in various degrees since the 1920s.

One of the ways I believe we can overcome this perception is with a relatively new discipline called the Digital Humanities (DH). DH practitioners experiment in the area “born of the encounter between traditional humanities and computational methods.”[3]

Though the DH name did not exist prior to 2004, pioneering efforts began with Jesuit priest Roberto Busa who, working with IBM in the 1950s, developed a computer-generated concordance to the writings of Thomas Aquinas (that can be found today at http://www.corpusthomisticum.org/). DH projects increased dramatically with the advent of the Internet and more powerful computer technology. Today, we’re seeing important DH projects that focus on curating knowledge that was actually “born digital.”[4]

Why are projects like this needed now more than ever? Research is fundamentally different than it was just a short time ago. As David Berry wrote in “Understanding Digital Humanities,” “it is becoming more and more evident that research is increasingly being mediated through digital technology.”[5] Technology is bringing a revolutionary change to what it means to conduct research in the humanities and across all scholarly disciplines.

Here are two personal examples. When I was working on my master’s degree in history at the University of Akron in 1992, one of my professors told me not to use the computer system in the library to find books. She said it was much more thorough to use the paper-based card catalog system because the computer system failed to account for many books in the physical collection.

Things began to change when I moved to Case Western Reserve University to work on my Ph.D.  I completed my Ph.D. in history in 1999 and, at that time, Yahoo! Internet Life ranked the university as the “Nation’s Most Wired Campus.” Nevertheless, when writing my dissertation on the history of the information explosion, I spent all of my time in a physical library and archives. There were simply no digitized databases that could assist me with my research.

Today, almost everything has changed. I am a professor of history at an online university, we have a wonderful digital library and new primary sources are digitized and made available online every day.

We desperately need a discipline whose sole purpose is to investigate, experiment with and create meanings for this new electronic world of information. That is the role of DH today.

I firmly believe the growing vigor and sophistication of DH will serve as an antidote to the persistent rumors that the humanities are in crisis. As Mark Twain famously said in 1897, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” I can assure you, the humanities are alive, well and thriving in the digital world of the 21st century.

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References

[1] Jennifer Levitz and Douglas Belkin, “Humanities Fall From Favor,” The Wall Street Journal, June 6, 2013. Accessed at http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887324069104578527642373232184

[2] David Sibley, “A Crisis in the Humanities?,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 10, 2013. Accessed at http://chronicle.com/blognetwork/edgeofthewest/2013/06/10/the-humanities-crisis/

[3] Peter Lunenfeld, Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Todd Presner and Jeffrey Schnapp, Digital_Humanities (Boston: The MIT Press, 2012)

[4] The Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0. Accessed at http://manifesto.humanities.ucla.edu/2009/05/29/the-digital-humanities-manifesto-20/

[5] David Berry, Understanding Digital Humanities (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). Accessed at http://books.google.ca/books/about/Understanding_Digital_Humanities.html?id=tCB_aGKxOFgC&redir_esc=y

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Readers Comments

Sergio Fabbri 2014/05/13 at 10:25 am

Perhaps… to be in crisis is not that bad thing!
I am a physics teacher, and today I notice that science can’t reach anything without digital technologies. Likely the humanities should overcome their natural repulsion toward whatever is vaguely associated to those evil tools… Can we imagine a new study about the Divina Commedia using a dedicated software? Don’t know what the Accademia della Crusca would shout! However, it’s a chance, isn’t it?
In any case, if it can give some relief, also all “hard” sciences are in crisis right now, because, after discovering the Higgs boson, researchers–to come out from their blurred world–need more and more and more energy…
As my wife tells me, hinting to my recent books on the iPad: “I have all my paper books around me. But what would happen to you, if electricity suddenly falls down?”

WA Anderson 2014/05/13 at 1:44 pm

What excites me most about digital humanities is that it’s interdisciplinary in a way the traditional humanities never were. I agree with Bowles that there should be a ‘discipline’ devoted to e-information, but there’s no need to start from scratch in creating one. I reckon some literature already exists, and perhaps it’s simply a matter of doing a call-out to get the researchers — who have likely been studying this for years — out of the woodwork and connected to each other.

Scott Russell 2014/05/14 at 10:48 am

As Dr. Bowles states in his article “those of us who live in the humanities wing of the academic mansion constantly hear people telling us that we are in crisis”. I would argue that not only are the humanities not in crisis, but quite the opposite, are growing and paving new ways, tools, and components to the research realm. Enter digital humanities. Executive director of the digital humanities Dan Cohen defines digital humanities as “the use of digital media and technology to advance the full range of thought and practice in the humanities from the creation of scholarly resources, to research on those resources, and the communication of results to colleagues and students.”
Because of the move to the digital world by our society there has been a need for the creation of digital platforms that allow the storage and research of digital collections. This opens new opportunities with the digital humanities for researchers, historians, and students to become more deeply involved in this field. I would also argue that the digital humanities have opened up doors in research that have been, until recently for the most part closed. The digital humanities have allowed students, as well as scholars to research antiquated books that in the past would be near impossible to find. These books provide valuable information, firsthand accounts, and primary sources.
On the same token, digital humanities has opened up the gates to genealogical research. Websites like myheritage.com, progenealogists.com, and genealogy.com to name a few, have made finding records on family research accessible to anyone who want them. The future of genealogical research will be found on digital platforms.
If you take for example the White House and its shift from hand written memos to email form. This shift calls for digital scholars to catalogue and categorize this information. It is changes like these that call for information retrieval techniques that will rely on the digital humanities. To say that the humanities are dead is a fallacy at best, it would appear that with the trend of the digital world the humanities are needed now more than ever. Today it is vitally important to be a digital scholar as technology advances.

Tawna Regehr 2014/05/14 at 12:47 pm

In order to push the digital humanities forward, course designers and faculty should consider working more closely with research librarians, who have for years been diligently digitizing materials, preserving archives and seeking new digital tools for students. Librarians are more aware of day-to-day student needs and potential available digital solutions for them.

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