What is Digital Humanities? (part 1)

2011 March 18

In a recent blog post entitled “What is Digital Humanities?,” the director of the Office of Digital Humanities at the National Endowment for the Humanities, Brett Bobley said that a “precise definition may not really matter,” and that he prefers to focus on “the work we do” instead of what we call it.1 At the same time, he acknowledges that definitions are useful, and points his readers to an article by Matthew Kirschenbaum, associate director of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH). Kirschenbaum reminds us that “computers have been part of our disciplinary lives for well over two decades now.” With that, and by pointing to several books, websites, journals, conferences, and institutes that are dedicated to the digital humanities, he suggests that the question is well treated already, stating playfully that essays on the question “are already genre pieces.”2

But, as a historian of early China, I tend to think that twenty years is not a long time. Moreover, so long as digital humanities continues to be a subject of interest, it will continue to change, and its definition will need periodic reappraisals. I don’t expect that digital humanities will disappear, so I think that the question will remain pertinent for a very long time. To put the issue another way: nearly two and a half millennia after Herodotus of Halicarnassus produced his famous Histories, the historian E.H. Carr stood in front of a group of scholars and students at Cambridge University and asked What is History? Nobody thought that was a silly question.3

It is not my intent here to denigrate the accomplishments and contributions of people who have been working in this new field since its inception; as a newcomer to digital humanities, I owe them much. But I do want to emphasize this: the question ‘what is the digital humanities?’ might be merely academic, but it is certainly not moot.

In any case, despite some apparent reservations, Kirschenbaum does offer an answer. He begins with Wikipedia’s surprisingly insightful definition:

The digital humanities, sometimes also known as humanities computing, is a field of study, research, teaching, and invention concerned with the intersection of computing and the disciplines of the humanities. It is methodological by nature and interdisciplinary in scope. It involves investigation, analysis, synthesis and presentation of information in electronic form. It studies how these media affect the disciplines in which they are used, and what these disciplines have to contribute to our knowledge of computing.4

I agree with Kirschenbaum that this is a good working definition. It is also detailed, so I want to highlight one part of that definition which I think is especially useful—namely, that digital humanities is “concerned with the intersection of computing and the discipline of the humanities.” This statement encapsulates an idea of digital humanities that many people share.

Kirschenbaum’s article continues by mentioning another aspect to digital humanites, one that is less often discussed:

Digital humanities is also a social undertaking. It harbors networks of people who have been working together, sharing research, arguing, competing, and collaborating for many years (2).

And he goes on to say that digital humanities has become “something like a social movement” (4). To demonstrate this point, he mentions projects such as the Text Encoding Initiative, groups such as the Alliance for Digital Humanities Organizations, and institutions such as Bobley’s office at the NEH. At this point, thinking that any academic field or discipline has projects and institutions, we might be inclined to ask whether digital humanities is different. Or, to put it another way, what makes digital humanities a “movement” in a way that a discipline like history is not? How might we characterize this movement?

Kirschenbaum only touches on this issue. He mentions that there is “an unusually strong sense of community and common purpose, manifested, for example, in events such as the Day of Digital Humanities” (4). But he does not characterize the movement. His point has larger implications, so I want to try to expand on it. In order to illustrate what sort of movement digital humanities is, I want to consider a couple of projects that exemplify the social aspects of digital humanities.

Among academics, self-styled DHers are among the most likely to support (or even know about) the Creative Commons licensing project. The Creative Commons organization has outlined a set of copyright licenses for people, usually self-publishers, who wish to allow their work to be shared and copied more liberally than it would be under the usual ‘all rights reserved’ dictum of American copyright law.5 While most copyright protections are designed to protect intellectual property, and therefore hinder sharing and collaboration, Creative Commons licenses are designed to facilitate the free exchange of ideas, and at the same time, they are intended to hinder profiteers who would appropriate free ideas for personal financial gain. The Creative Commons website has this statement:

Our goal at Creative Commons is to increase cultural creativity in ‘the commons’ — the body of work freely available to the public for legal use, sharing, repurposing, and remixing. We realize there’s an inherent conflict between innovative digital culture and archaic copyright laws. Our licenses help bridge that conflict so that the Internet can reach its full potential.6

In this statement there is a clear and necessary relationship between the “full potential” of the internet and the free exchange of ideas. In other words, the ideal is open-source. And, as a general rule, people in the digital humanities share information freely, collaborate eagerly, and laud the potential of computing technology to increase access to humanities resources. Digital humanities is an open-source movement.

Another fine example of digital humanities culture is The Humanities and Technology Camp (ThatCamp), organized by the Center for Humanities and New Media, George Mason University.7 ThatCamp is designed using an “unconference” model: whereas typical humanities conferences involve speakers and panels presenting pre-written papers or talks to an audience, ThatCamp makes no distinction between presenter and audience, and the panels are created on the spot—that is, ThatCamp begins with a meeting where all of the participants decide together what sessions they will have and how they want to arrange the schedule. A ThatCamp is “collaborative,” “non-hierarchical,” and whenever possible, free to attend.8 Here we have a community making decisions together as equals—a functioning democracy.


Today is the third annual “Day of Digital Humanities” event, organized by the Text Analysis Portal for Research (TAPoR) at the University of Alberta. We have seen how Bobley suggests that digital humanities is what digital humanities people do. Day of DH is addressing this issue:

A Day in the Life of the Digital Humanities (Day of DH) is a community publication project that answers, ‘what does a digital humanist do?’ in the most direct way: by showing what digital humanists are actually doing.9

For Day of DH, participants blog, twitter, and otherwise discuss their activities on the same day, and this information will be compiled and published together.

In preparation for this event, participants were asked to provide a definition of digital humanities. TAPoR compiled these answers and posted them online.10 Some of these answers emphasize technology (coding, computing, etc.) while others emphasize research (languages, texts, etc.), but the vast majority of answers basically agree with the Wikipedia definition. A few others prefer to avoid the question altogether. But a few do identify the social elements that Kirschenbaum pointed out and that I’ve attempted to elucidate above.

So what, after all, is digital humanities? One major implication of Kirschenbaum’s piece is that digital humanities is more than an academic field or a technical enterprise, more than a research methodology or a scholarly discipline, it is a social movement. And, as we can see from the Creative Commons and ThatCamp projects, the movement is open-source and democratic. So, I would define digital humanities like this: it is a democratic and open-source social movement at the intersection of humanities research and computing technology.

At least for the people at the heart of the field, I think digital humanities is in fact this sort of social movement. However, I worry that we might be missing something important when we define digital humanities in this way, since people who are not involved in the social and political aspects of digital humanities still use its tools in their research. So, in part two of this essay, I will explore the question from another angle—by looking not at the core, but at the margins of the field, where digital technology meets the analog humanities researcher.

1 Bobley, Brett. What is Digital Humanities, www.neh.gov, 2011 Feb. 1.

2 Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. “What is the Digital Humanities and What is it Doing in English Departments?” ADE Bulletin 150 (2010), 1, available online at mkirschenbaum.files.wordpress .com/…. See also Amanda French’s highly useful list of digital humanities resources, amandafrench.net/….

3 Carr, E.H. What is History? 1961; rpt. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2001.

4Digital Humanities.” wikipedia.org/…, accessed 2011 March 11; quoted in Kirschenbaum, 2.

5 creativecommons.org/about.

6 “Culture” creativecommons.org/culture.

7 thatcamp.org.

8 thatcamp.org/about.

9A Day in the LIfe of the Digital Humanities,” tapor.ualberta.ca/….

10How do you define Humanities Computing / Digital Humanities?” tapor.ualberta.ca/….