What is the Digital Humanities?

A definition:

The Digital Humanities (DH) encompasses both using digital technologies to undertake humanities work and examining how digital technologies affect people. Its practices are multifaceted, encompassing teaching, publishing, preserving artifacts, researching, tool-building, etc. However, not every use of a computer or technology to do humanities is DH. DH means using technology to do humanities work you couldn’t do without it, whether observing human activities dependent on the digital or making and using new digital research tools or doing anything else.

My definition of the Digital Humanities, understands the field as a broad one, a field tied together by common methods and interests. It is a field using recent technological innovations to push the limits of understanding humanity and its cultures. It is more a set of shared practices than a traditional academic. discipline. Tool building, digital analysis, online publishing, and preservation through digitization are all examples of DH projects, as are humanistic examinations of these practices and of the technology that enable them.[i]

My understanding of DH reflects the realization that DH is broader than “computational humanities.” As much as DH is about using technology, it is also crucial to examine technology from a humanist perspective. Humanities researchers have repeatedly identified how power structures, social relations, cultural norms, and technological change affect people’s lives and often reproduce inequalities. These perspectives must continue to be brought to bear on digital technologies and their impact on society, politics, and culture. DH as the field where digital technologies and the humanities meet must continue to undertake this kind of analysis, and it is especially important for digital humanists to take factors such as access, accessibility, and cultural impact into account when building tools, sharing information, and engaging the public.[ii]

Though DH should be disciplinarily and methodologically diverse, it must still have boundaries to be a useful category. Critics of “big tent” DH have pointed out that too broad of a definition can lead to disciplinary confusion and the breakdown of the community, where “‘peers’ can often have little real insight into the relevance of applicability of a given specific research topic.”[iii] Accordingly, I believe an apt limit to DH is what activities can only be performed with the help of digital technologies. Word processing, for instance, is an update to pen-and-paper and typewriter drafting that should not be considered DH, while the statistical analysis of hundreds of documents, the sharing of primary texts via the internet to anyone in the world, or the examination of how communities form via the internet are all “born digital” practices that should be part of the umbrella.

[i] My thoughts here are especially informed by Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, and Jeffrey Schnapp, “A Short Guide to the Digital_Humanities,” in Digital_Humanities (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012), 121–27; and Melissa Terras, “Peering Inside the Big Tent: Digital Humanities and the Crisis of Inclusion,” Melissa Terras’ Blog (blog), July 26, 2011, https://melissaterras.blogspot.com/2011/07/peering-inside-big-tent-digital.html.

[ii] For more on these opportunities, see Jacqueline Wernimont and Elizabeth Losh, “Introduction,” in Bodies of Information: Intersectional Feminism and Digital Humanities, Debates in the Digital Humanities (Minneapolis: Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2018), https://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/read/untitled-4e08b137-aec5-49a4-83c0-38258425f145/section/466311ae-d3dc-4d50-b616-8b5d1555d231.

[iii] Terras, “Peering Inside the Big Tent.” See also Lauren F. Klein and Matthew K. Gold, “Introduction: Digital Humanities: The Expanded Field,” in Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016, Debates in the Digital Humanities (Minneapolis: Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2016), https://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/read/untitled/section/14b686b2-bdda-417f-b603-96ae8fbbfd0f.