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On the Digital Humanities

15 November 2012

It is not often that so slow and stuffy a discipline as history experiences a genuinely paradigm-shifting (if I might employ a bit of hateful management speak) development. While new historiographical theories and new interpretative perspectives certainly arise with adequate regularity, the advance in actual research methodologies is generally slow. This pace has been picked up of late with the rise of the digital humanities, the new research methodologies and electronic dissemination techniques brought about the rise of computer technologies. New methodologies such as data-mining and idiom-mapping have allowed historians to find hitherto unseen conceptual relations between and within thinkers. Visualisation techniques allow us to map and better understand the transmission of ideas and practices across time and space.  Digitisation and digital research environments allow access to published and archival materials previously impossible for researchers ranging from first-year undergraduates to noted and lauded scholars.

Unsurprisingly, this new movement has not been without controversy. Some of you may have witnesses or taken part in the mini-controversy occasioned by Stephen Marche’s Literature is not Data: Against Digital Humanities (for a pair of excellent responses to which see In Defense of Data). While poorly written and less than wholly coherent, Marche’s critique did raise one of the big issues which people seem to take with the digital humanities: that it reduces the irreducible. For a clear and concise response to this objection, I very highly recommend the two retorts to Marche’s article to which I have linked above. There are also more than a few historians and other humanists who are uninterested in, dismissive of, or even hostile to the digital humanities for any number of reasons.

Having developed a growing interest in making use of the new research methodologies of the digital humanities, I am undertaking to the learn to code. Using an online tutorial called The Programming Historian 2, suggested to me by fellow twitterstorian @ProfessMoravec. I have worked my way through the first couple of lessons, finding it both enjoyable and taxing to attempt to master something so completely novel. Hopefully with some time and practice I will be able to make use, maybe even participate in  the development of, the new exciting research tools of the digital humanities. I am particularly interested in data-mining and idiom-mapping as methods of finding conceptual relations within and between the works of thinkers in order to better understand the development and transmission of ideas during the early modern era, and in projects to digitise and liberalise access to previously hard-to-access materials such as manuscript working papers and works unjustly overlooked by or simply unaffordable to many university libraries.

If you have any thoughts on the digital humanities as a discipline or a cluster of methodologies, I would be very interested to hear them.

This post also inaugurates a new category on The Molinist (huzzah?): Digital Humanities. In it you will find all posts about or in any way connected to this broad and emerging field.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Stefan Heßbrüggen permalink
    17 November 2012 12:25 am

    Great list of ressources (and great blog to follow in order to ‘get a feel’ for DH):

    • 17 November 2012 10:09 am

      Thanks for the link. I’ve added the blog to my ‘following’ list. Much appreciated.

  2. 24 November 2012 6:05 pm

    Regarding the merits and demerits of ‘projects to digitise and liberalise access to previously hard-to-access materials such as manuscript working papers and works unjustly overlooked by or simply unaffordable to many university libraries’, we had a discussion about this a couple of months ago at the many-headed monster:

    • 24 November 2012 7:14 pm

      That’s certainly an interesting discussion. I certainly appreciate the drawbacks of digitisation when it comes to considerations of physicality and, especially, when the source being digitised is itself a copy or reproduction. Your discussion also raised some excellent points about how the biasing toward/privileging of richer, more centrally located, larger, etcetera archives is, for the time being at least, being reinforced by the correlation of those factors (particularly money) with digitisation. However, I tend to be dismissive of the ‘something intangible’ argument. It always smacks to me of that fallacy so beautifully illustrated by Stephen Marches argument regarding the loss of the research trip to the Bodleian, or, as he described it, ‘the mother library in the mother country.’

      • 25 November 2012 10:48 am

        Yes, I think all of the anti-digitisation arguments I’ve come across tend towards simple reactionary nostalga.

        In many ways, I think the more interesting argument is amongst those who already support expanding digitisation (and digital humanities) about where resources should be invested and how much weight the results should be given. Personally I find the techo-utopianism of some of the self-declared digital humanists a bit naive, but I suppose we need people out on the frontiers making possible the more mundane day-to-day digital research that I do.

  3. 25 November 2012 3:42 pm

    Yes, the question of funding priorities is absolutely an interesting and important one. There being, as ever, not enough money to around, the distribution of funding to digitisation efforts carries with it, as your discussion pointed out, the risk of reinforcing existing biases in favour of certain archives; sources, writers, etcetera; and methodologies. Current efforts in intellectual history tend to favour extensive visual digitisation with a lack of emphasis on transcription and searchability. While visual reproduction is an important first step and makes these works considerably more widely available than they would be otherwise, the greatest advantage of digitised sources is searchability and the ability to cross-reference texts. Thus, I might suggest that we should focus less on the bulk of texts digitised and more on maximising their utility by prioritising free and searchable databases. Of course, this would likely result in further priositisation of prominent or otherwise popular figures at the expense of ‘minor’ ones. I, for one, don’t know if there is a ‘right answer’ to be found or ‘correct balance’ to be struck.

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