What are the Digital Humanities?

The Day of Digital Humanities on 27th March this year has provoked numerous conversations about the nature of Digital Humanities (DH). Some believe DH is a discipline or community, with its own methods, resources, communities of practice, journals, standards of evidence, etc.

Others prefer simply to use the term as a way of looking at activity across a number of humanities-related disciplines which has a significant digital component, and while it is useful to trace connections in terms of methods, resources and tools, it is preferable for digital research in the humanities to live within the historic academic disciplines. It could be argued, for example, that the work of ‘digital classicists’ should be primarily related to addressing research questions in the mainstream of classics (or relevant sub-discipline), not primarily focussed on interacting with an interdisciplinary ‘digital humanities’.

But this is simplistic: digital research can be transformative, allowing new research questions to be formulated and posed, thus transforming existing communities. DH can enable new forms of inter-disciplinary research. Geographical Information Systems (GIS), together with large historical datasets in digital form, can allow visualizations of spatial data in ways that allow new questions to be asked in, for example, economic history, literature, history of science, linguistics, toponymy, climate studies, etc.. New points of contact between these disciplines are created, and also with scientists, social scientist, engineers and technologists in geographical sciences.

Where are the Digital Humanities?

Digital research in the humanities takes place in a variety of institutional frameworks, from isolated individuals in otherwise non-digital faculties to large specialist centres. There are 22 member organisations in the ‘Network of Expert Centres in the Digital Humanities in Britain and Ireland’, but there is no common template. To give a few partial examples:

  • The Oxford e-Research Centre has a strong DH team and project portfolio, but is not exclusively humanities-focussed, by any means, and the vast majority of DH activity in the university is outside of this department;
  • CRASSH at Cambridge is focussed on the arts and humanities, but is not exclusively digital;
  • The Department of Digital Humanities at KCL is an academic faculty which comes out of a merger of centres and groups who focussed on infrastructure,  teaching, and technical development work on research projects;
  • Institute for Historical Research offer a wide range of facilities and services which assist the researching, teaching, writing and dissemination of history, not all of them digital;
  • Archaeology Data Service runs a data repository and associated services to support research, learning and teaching in Archaeology

In fact, while there are strong overlaps in activities and organizational forms between many of the centres, there is no easily discernible common factor which is true for all centres.

This network of ‘centres’ risks failing to connect with the large number and wide range of academics engaged with digital research in the humanities who are not associated with one of these centres. The problem is writ larger at the international scale with the wider centernet network. The answer is not necessarily to create and connect more ‘centres/centers’ to encompass the wide range of activity currently outside of them. There is no consensus on what a center should do and how it should fit into an institution, and the very existence of a centre risks detaching practitioners of digital research from the mainstream of their disciplines.

DH@OX aims to provide a view of the wide range of DH activity across the University, and to support this activity in various ways, including facilitating communication and collaboration between researchers, and building better infrastructure and support services, but without imposing any particular boundaries, organisational models or definitions on the ‘digital humanities’.

It remains to be seen which approaches will prove most fruitful in the long term. The Day of Digital Humanities is likely to be a recurrent catalyst ongoing relections and discussions for many years to come.

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