What began sixty years ago as an isolated effort to harness the power of computing for concordance generation is now a global movement within humanistic research, with its own journals, conferences, funding agencies, and even markup language. Digital Humanities (DH) is where humanistic research is authored with computational affordances to explore what it means to be human, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Perennial jeremiads predicting the doom of the humanities are not borne out by the numbers, rather, the pace of technological advances in human/machine interoperability suggest that DH is entering an era of unprecedented opportunity to positively impact the twenty-first century.
A number of features set DH apart from traditional humanistic research:
The DH project, unlike the academic monograph, is a collaborative enterprise that, in many cases, produces an open-ended knowledge process rather than a circumscribed scholarly work. Design of the academic monograph was generally dictated by publishers. The open-world DH project, in contrast, demands design savvy at every level of production, and in many ways "project design" itself is a core value skillset in DH.
Martin Mueller, Northwestern U. faculty emeritus, oversaw the design of the heavily downloaded WordHoard application using only two part-time programmers due to the depth of his knowledge of XML and how text markup should function in analysis of large text corpora. Many successful DH project leaders are adept programmers in their own right.
DH projects increasingly meld existing pieces of software (ruby gems, gaming engines, authority files, visualization tools) into a creative technology stack. A Microsoft Office document or WordPress installation alone does not a bleeding-edge DH project make.
Historical humanities studies culminated for centuries in the commentary, lately the academic monograph. With the waning of print culture and the efflorescence of the visually dynamic internet, increasing numbers of DH projects utilize strikingly original transmedia (multi-media on steroids) platforms to communicate their findings and to educate.
DH projects frequently employ numerous contributors scattered across the global, a phenomenon made possible by the internet and virtual research environments. Crowdsourcing is increasingly common, leading to successful projects authored by hundreds or thousands of participants. Determination of project intellectual property rights by universities and funding agencies can be complicated!
Personnel roles associated with a contemporary DH project often resemble agile software development teams more than academic departmental rosters, with principal investigators/project managers of diverse disciplinary expertise, programmers, librarians, web developers, gamers, design specialists, copyright specialists, preservation officers.
Handouts at a current DH conference are likely to include many GitHub and Subversion URIs, web addresses where project code can be freely downloaded, more often than not with a GPL or Creative Commons license specifying that the code may be freely reworked and distributed for non-commercial purposes. Publishing project results in open-access journals, like Vectors and Digital Humanities Quarterly, bespeaks an ethos where scholarly artifacts exist to contribute to an information commons accessible to all, an ethos of abundance, not scarcity.
Unlike conventional humanities research with that prestige-publisher monograph to add to a curriculum vita at day's end, DH projects and DH as a whole continue to struggle for legitimacy in the eyes of aging university tenure committees (it's "frivolous" "irrelevant" "amateurish" "stupid") and funding agencies. Young academics need to understand that winning DH project design includes effective communication with their power-brokers. A heavy upfront investment in measurable educational outcomes is crucial.
Big-ticket funders like Mellon and National Endowment for the Humanities look with askance on "one-off" software projects that lapse when the funding folds. DH projects not infrequently entail the digitization of unique and perishable analog resources, hence, they are designed with data management end-game plans. Many wind up in institutional repositories, at once freely accessible and preserved using state-of-the-art methodology.
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Sustaining the Digital Humanities, an Ithaka S&R report (June 2014)
A Companion to Digital Humanities, edited by Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, John Unsworth (2004)
Digital Humanities Quarterly (2007-)