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Why the Digital Humanities Matter

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 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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[1] Jennifer Levitz and Douglas Belkin, “Humanities Fall From Favor,” The Wall Street Journal, June 6, 2013. Accessed at

[2] David Sibley, “A Crisis in the Humanities?,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 10, 2013. Accessed at

[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

[5] David Berry, Understanding Digital Humanities (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). Accessed at

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