Digital humanities

From The Embassy of Good Science

Digital humanities

What is this about?

Digital humanities stands for humanities research that uses digital resources, tools and methods. It implies collaborative, trans-disciplinary and computational research, teaching and publishing. These relatively new practices mark an important shift away from printed outputs, which have dominated the production and dissemination of knowledge [1].

  1. A Short Guide to the Digital Humanities. [cited 2020 Sept 23]. Available from: http://jeffreyschnapp.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/D_H_ShortGuide.pdf.

Why is this important?

After almost six centuries of using print as the main way to produce and disseminate knowledge, humanities subjects have embraced digital tools[1]. This new practice, first known as “humanities computing”, began in the second half of the 1940s with the pioneering project Index Thomisticus – a collaboration between the Italian Jesuit priest Roberto Busa and IBM [2][3]. The project resulted in an “index verborum” (i.e. the use of punch-cards to index every word in St Thomas Aquinas’ work as well as in the works of related authors, resulting in an index of 11 million words of medieval Latin) [3][4]. From then on, the Index was printed in 56 volumes, it appeared on a CD-ROM and later on the web [5]. Finally, 2006 marked the start of a new project, the Index Thomisticus Treebank, which aims to syntactically annotate the entire corpus [5]. Suffice it to say that this project has had an immense impact on humanities computing.

New digital tools present a wide range of possibilities for research and publication outputs in the humanities. They enable remote reading, visualization and easier access to primary sources [6] through the creation of archives and databases for texts and artworks, and the development of new methods such as computer-based statistical analysis [7]. Using digital tools has improved the humanities’ social impact and the accessibility and public visibility of individual disciplines [1]. For instance, through image processing techniques, the public can now view 3D reconstructions of the ancient city of Babylon [8] and read ancient documents such as the Vindolanda Tablets from Hadrian’s Wall [9].

  1. 1.0 1.1 A Short Guide to the Digital Humanities. [cited 2020 Sept 23]. Available from: http://jeffreyschnapp.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/D_H_ShortGuide.pdf.
  2. USC Libraries. What are “The Digital Humanities? 2019 April 17. [cited 2020 Sept 23]. Available from: https://libguides.usc.edu/c.php?g=235247&p=2220309.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Brandeis Library. What’s “digital humanities” and how did it get here?. 2012 Oct 9. [cited 2020 Sept 23]. Available from: https://blogs.brandeis.edu/library/2012/10/09/whats-digital-humanities-and-how-did-it-get-here/.
  4. Jeremy Norman’s History of Information.com. Roberto Busa & IBM Adapt Punched Card Tabulating to Start Words in a Literary  Text: The Origins of Humanities Computing. 2015 March 15. [cited 2020 Sept 23]. Available from: https://www.historyofinformation.com/detail.php?entryid=2321.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Jeremy Norman’s History of Information.com. Publication of Roberto Busa’s Index Thomisticus: Forty Years of Data Processing in the Humanities. [cited 2020 Sept 23]. Available from: https://www.historyofinformation.com/detail.php?id=3077.
  6. Dalhousie University. Digital Humanities. 2020 April 14. [cited 2020 Sept 23]. Available from: https://dal.ca.libguides.com/digitalhumanities.
  7. Berry D M. What are the digital humanities? The British Academy. 2019 Feb 13. [cited 2020 Sept 23]. Available from: https://www.thebritishacademy.ac.uk/blog/what-are-digital-humanities/.
  8. Babylon 3D. 2013. [cited 2020 Sept 23]. Available from: http://www.kadingirra.com/.
  9. Facet Publishing. Digital Humanities in Practice. 2012 Oct. [cited 2020 Sept 23]. Available from: http://www.facetpublishing.co.uk/title.php?id=047661&category_code=#abstracts-tab.

For whom is this important?

What are the best practices?

One of the best examples of the application of digital tools within the humanities is the collaborative, interdisciplinary research project Mapping the Republic of Letters, developed by Stanford University in 2010 and funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The aim of the project is to map the 17th and 18th century correspondence of prominent and influential intellectuals in the Age of Enlightenment [1]. The “Republic of Letters” was a self-proclaimed community of scholars that exchanged their ideas via handwritten letters across Europe and the Americas. The researchers on the project used metadata to produce maps, charts and other visual tools [2]. These modern visualization tools provide a greater understanding of distribution of the letters over hundreds of years and help identify geographic “hot-spots” in the archive [1]. They shed light on, for example, Voltaire’s correspondence, which consists of about 15.000 letters. The visualization of the letter exchanges on a map shows the places where Voltaire traveled and reveals patterns in his writing at specific times and in specific places [1]. These maps of correspondence raise new questions and facilitate new interpretations of the letters and related documents [2]. The project also provides a basis for further research not only concerning the Republic of letters, but also in related topics.

The use of digital tools in the humanities has seen the formation of organizations that foster research in the digital humanities. One of them is the European Association for Digital Humanities (EADH), established in 1973 under the name of the Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing [3]. This organization is one of the constituent organizations in the Alliance of Digital Humanities (ADHO), formed in 2005, which supports and promotes digital research and education in all the arts and humanities disciplines [4]. In addition, numerous universities now offer undergraduate and graduate courses and programs in the digital humanities [5].

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Coleman N. Mapping the Republic of Letters. Open Knowledge Foundation. 2012 March 22. [cited 2020 Sept 23]. Available from: https://blog.okfn.org/2012/03/22/mapping-the-republic-of-letters/.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Edelstein D, Findlen P, Ceserani G, Winterer C, Coleman N. Historical Research in a Digital Age: Reflections from the Mapping the Republic of Letters Project. Am Hist Rev. 2017;122(2):400-424.
  3. Eadh. European Association for Digital Humanities. [cited 2020 Sept 23]. Available from: https://eadh.org/about.
  4. ADHO. [cited 2020 Sept 23]. Available from: https://adho.org/about.
  5. Digital Humanities Course Registry. [cited 2020 Sept 23]. Available from: https://dhcr.clarin-dariah.eu/#628.