A Definition of Digital Humanities

After reading many definitions written by people who are much smarter than me, I feel more comfortable asserting that the term “digital humanities” doesn’t have a straightforward definition. Taken literally, it’s just a digital version of the study of the humanities, which invokes the image of a machine doing all the research and analysis. One example that comes to mind is the term “digital computer,” an old term for the machines we know simply as “computers.” Before the invention of a computing machine, “computers” were humans who crunched numbers. While I don’t see “digital humanities” going through the same transition (some humanists are almost prideful of their lack of understanding about technology), I have noticed that the digital humanities has migrated more toward being an “art” subject rather than a “science.” This shift is most apparent in the name change: “digital humanities” was once “humanities computing.” Now, it isn’t necessary to be a programmer to own and maintain a website. Those skills are very useful, but it appears I’m doing alright with my basic HTML!!! (I apologize, but that was me showing off.) As a result, digital humanities has become a humanities subject with technology instead of a technology subject with humanities.

To me, digital humanities is about presentation and sharing. For instance, if I were compiling biographies for all the soldiers buried at the Normandy American Cemetery, the research process would be the same—here, I’d like to point out that looking up US Census documents online does not make this project “digital humanities.” Once I have all the biographies (assuming I could even write 9,387 biographies in my lifetime)—this is where the paths diverge. Without the digital element, I’d be left to print all these biographies in a very long, very heavy book. Even with a trusty index, it would be terrible to go through. So while publishing a niche encyclopedia might appeal to some part of me, I’d prefer to set up a website/exhibit with an interactive map, with 9,387 pins all over North America. Now, instead of trolling through thousands of pages to discover that the state with the most soldier deaths is Pennsylvania, you could see a gigantic cluster of pins on the map, a cluster that spreads out as you zoom in on Pennsylvania to see precisely where each soldier came from. When you click on a soldier’s name, you can see his biography, yes, but you can also get links directly to other sources—books where his name is mentioned, photographs uploaded by the family, etc. Most importantly, you can appeal to anyone visiting the website to supply more information or to correct mistakes. (Though I hope I’d make none!) I find this experience of sharing this information vastly more interesting and more practical. It engages learners and brings the information to more people. Digital humanities is all about presentation and sharing humanities research and projects in new and exciting ways; after all, what is the point of writing this blog if no one is to read it? (Well, at least I know Dr. Robertson is reading!)

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