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Access, Explore, Converse: The Impact (and Potential Impact) of the Digital Humanities on Scholarship

Lisa Spiro

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  • 1  This essay builds upon and puts into written form a series of presentations that I have been givin (...)

1I started graduate school in English in 1992, the year after the web became publicly available and the year before the introduction of the Mosaic browser popularized web browsing.1 The more than twenty years since then have witnessed massive changes in how we shop, access music, movies, games and videos, communicate with others, and discover news and other forms of information. Not all of those changes have been positive (just ask the people trying to come up with effective business models for journalism), but they have certainly been profound, allowing us to find, share, and act upon information much more efficiently and to participate in vibrant (if sometimes contentious) online communities.

2How has scholarship in the humanities changed over the same period? Humanities scholars now communicate with colleagues using email and other networked technologies, employ word processing software to compose their papers, conduct research using online databases and catalogs, and publish in journals that offer web-based versions. Yet humanities scholars could harness technology in even more powerful ways to conduct their research and communicate their ideas. Perhaps more importantly, they are in a position to more fully contribute their own perspectives to the ongoing conversation about the cultural implications of digital technologies and media. As Cathy Davidson argues,

  • 2  Cathy N. Davidson, “Humanities 2.0: Promise, Perils, Predictions”, PMLA, vol. 123, no. 3, May 2008 (...)

we need to acknowledge how much the massive computational abilities that have transformed the sciences have also changed our field in ways large and small and hold possibilities for far greater transformation in the three areas – research, writing, and teaching – that matter most. We are not exempt from the technological changes of our era, and we need to take greater responsibility for them.2

3Digital technologies affect core humanistic practices, such as how we tell stories, read, communicate, construct and share knowledge, participate in communities, and shape our own identities. As Davidson suggests, it is crucial for humanists to contribute to the continued exploration of the Information Age. We should be thinking about transformations critically, considering what they mean for the humanities, and working to shape them.

4In my view, the academic community that has done the most to explore the possibilities (and problems) of technology in the humanities is that of the digital humanities. What do I mean by “digital humanities”? There probably exist as many definitions of the term as there are people who consider themselves digital humanists, but I favor this definition from Digital Humanities Quarterly, one of the major journals in the field:

Digital humanities is a diverse and still emerging field that encompasses the practice of humanities research in and through information technology, and the exploration of how the humanities may evolve through their engagement with technology, media, and computational methods.3

  • 4  Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner and Jeffrey Schnapp, Digital_Humaniti (...)

5This definition highlights the emergent and evolving nature of the field. The digital humanities community includes diverse disciplines (literature, architectural history, computer science, information science, and so forth), professional backgrounds (faculty members, librarians, programmers, designers, and so on), and theoretical perspectives. Work in the digital humanities may take on many forms, from mining texts to authoring multimodal essays to building platforms for participation in humanities work. In this essay, I will focus on three ways in which the digital humanities is contributing to scholarship, with the promise of an even greater impact in the future: providing access to cultural information, devising new methods for analyzing data both large and small, and reinvigorating scholarly communication. I will ground my analysis in specific examples that illustrate the potential of work in the digital humanities as well as ongoing challenges faced by the field. Together, these approaches invite generative scholarship, which celebrates collaboration, experimentation, iteration, openness, public engagement, interpretation, making, and critiquing.4

Making Cultural Information Available

  • 5  Lisa Spiro and Jane Segal, “Scholars’ Usage of Digital Archives in American Literature,” in Amy E (...)

6When asked what has been the most significant impact of digital resources on their research, many humanities scholars would point to the increased access to information. Indeed, in a study that Jane Segal and I undertook on the impact of digital resources on scholars of American literature and culture, we found that most used computers to conduct searches and access research materials such as journal articles and electronic texts but that few were using analytical tools or exploring “new modes of interpreting text.”5 In survey comments and interviews, scholars frequently mentioned the ways in which digitization was making research faster and more convenient, allowing them to access a broad range of resources at any time from any place with an internet connection. They could also exchange ideas via listservs, email, and online forums. Yet some feared that the rise of digital resources would result in researchers feeling pressured to produce more, giving less serious consideration to the resources they examined, and ignoring materials that had not been digitized.

  • 6  “TEI: Guidelines”. URL: www.tei-c.org/Guidelines. Accessed March 13, 2013.
  • 7  James Cummings, “The Text Encoding Initiative and the Study of Literature”, in Susan Schreibman an (...)

7The digital humanities have played an important role both in building high-quality digital collections of texts, images, videos, maps, audio, and artifacts, and in developing the experiments, standards, and best practices underlying this work. Indeed, the important (if sometimes undervalued) work of scholarly editing has been transformed by the digital. The Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) provides a widely adopted standard for representing the structure, presentation and “conceptual features” of texts digitally.6 As editors have grappled with how to represent a text, TEI has stimulated ongoing explorations of the nature of text and the purposes of editing.7 Many digital humanists, myself included, note with some pride that work on TEI has helped shape the development of XML, a core standard for enabling the exchange of information online.

8Digital humanists have also developed new approaches to creating, exploring, and organizing digital collections. Projects such as Transcribing Bentham provide access to transcription tools and digital images of manuscript pages, enabling the public to help transcribe historical manuscripts and thus contribute to knowledge.8 As researchers seek to make sense of rich digital collections, digital humanists have developed tools such as Voyant, TaPoR, and WordSeer for analyzing patterns in texts.9 Such tools allow researchers to identify and investigate unique or frequently occurring terms and to understand key words across a corpus. Moreover, researchers can organize, analyze, and share the information that they collect using citation management tools such as Zotero.10

The Impact of the Walt Whitman Archive

  • 11  “The Walt Whitman Archive”. URL: www.whitmanarchive.org. Accessed June 3, 2013.
  • 12  Lisa Spiro and Jane Segal, “Scholars’ Usage of Digital Archives in American Literature”, op. cit.
  • 13  “Zotero”, op. cit.
  • 14  Ken Price, Whitman Archive usage stats, October 6, 2011.

9One particular example, that of the Walt Whitman Archive (WWA), demonstrates the impact of digital collections on scholars and the public.11 Launched by Ken Price and Ed Folsom in the mid-1990s, this digital collection offers a wide range of materials related to Whitman and his poetry, including his manuscripts, works published in books and periodicals, translations, biographical materials, reviews, and images and audio. In the study undertaken with my colleague Jane Segal, Whitman scholars called the WWA “indispensable,” “the first place that I go to do research on Whitman,” and “the most important development in the history of Whitman studies.”12 Scholars told us that the WWA has sparked deeper study of Whitman’s manuscripts, particularly editions of Leaves of Grass other than the 1855 and deathbed editions, by making it much easier to examine “the visual evidence.” Moreover, it has attracted greater attention to the contexts surrounding Whitman, such as works by his disciples and his appearance in periodicals. As is appropriate for America’s “poet of democracy,”13 the WWA has made his works available around the world, resulting in significant web hits: 30,856 visits from 143 countries between September 4th and October 4th, 2011.14 Like the Whitman Archive, a number of other digital collections also expand access to literary, historical, and artistic works and enable new modes of analysis.

Exploring Big and Small Data: New Methods for the Humanities

  • 15  Roy Rosenzweig, “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era”, The American Histor (...)
  • 16  National Endowment for the Humanities, “Digging Into Data Challenge”, 2009. URL: www.diggingintoda (...)
  • 17  See www.arts-humanities.net/ictguides/methods for an extensive listing of computational methods in (...)
  • 18  Christa Williford and Charles Henry, “One Culture. Computationally Intensive Research in the Human (...)

10As Roy Rosenzsweig observes, we are shifting from an environment of information scarcity to one of information abundance.15 Once information is in a digital format, it can be more easily searched, mined, manipulated, visualized, shared, and mashed up. Having access to so much information raises another question: how does one make sense of it? Such was the question posed by the American National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and its international partners with the Digging into Data Challenge: “Now that we have massive databases of materials used by scholars in the humanities and social sciences […] what new, computationally-based research methods might we apply?”16 Now in its third iteration, Digging into Data requires teams from two or more countries to examine how computational research methods can offer insights into questions in the humanities or social sciences. In the first two rounds, a wide range of projects (eight in the first round, fourteen in the second) received funding, encompassing data such as railroad records, speech datasets, digital images of American quilts, music corpora, medieval charters, newspaper articles documenting the 1918 flu pandemic, and medical images of mummies. Making sense of this data required teams to develop and apply innovative methods, incorporating techniques such as text mining, social network analysis, geospatial analysis, and data visualization.17 As Christa Williford and Charles Henry have observed, “The Digging into Data Challenge presents us with a new paradigm: a digital ecology of data, algorithms, metadata, analytical and visualization tools, and new forms of scholarly expression that result from this research.”18 The Digging into Data projects give us a glimpse of new possibilities for works in the humanities. They not only enable scholars to apply the interpretive traditions of the humanities to data on a massive scale, but they also require cross-disciplinary collaboration and give rise to dynamic scholarly arguments that foster interaction and conversation.

Visualizing Knowledge Networks: Mapping the Republic of Letters

  • 19  “Mapping the Republic of Letters”, URL: https://republicofletters.stanford.edu. Accessed March 14, (...)
  • 20  Cynthia Haven, “Stanford technology helps scholars get ‘big picture’ of the Enlightenment”, Stanfo (...)
  • 21  Ibid.
  • 22  Dan Edelstein and Paula Findlen, Digging Into the
Enlightenment: Mapping the Republic
of Letters N (...)
  • 23  Ibid., p. 7.

11The Mapping the Republic of Letters project, which received funding in the first Digging into Data competition, is an excellent example.19 Bringing together collaborators at Stanford University, the University of Oklahoma, and Oxford University, this project examines the correspondence network through which ideas circulated during the Enlightenment. Intellectuals such as Voltaire, John Locke, Benjamin Franklin, and many others participated in rich exchanges of letters, providing what principal investigator Dan Edelstein calls an early form of peer review.20 This exchange is documented by the Electronic Enlightenment project, which provided Mapping the Republic of Letters with access to metadata for about 50,000 letters. In order to understand patterns across these letters, Edelstein and his colleagues are developing visualization tools and methods, using them to pose questions that are difficult to explore manually, such as how correspondence networks developed over space and time, where the hotspots and coldspots were, and what makes someone a “hub” connecting multiple correspondents.21 To devise new tools and methods, the project brought together historians, computer scientists, and an academic technology specialist in an iterative, interdisciplinary, and collaborative process: “Through discussions about the data and draft views, the computer scientists and humanities scholars learned to understand and appreciate the others’ intellectual, theoretical, and methodological approaches.”22 The team also grappled with how to deal with missing or uncertain data (such as the absence of dates or location information), how to represent data, and how to foster interpretation. Its members continue to push the project forward by devising ever more elegant techniques for visualizing historical data. Ultimately, they aim to support what they call “ampliation,” or “interpretation-driven extension of data through visual interaction,” whereby researchers can add their own analysis by, for example, annotating data and creating markers for variables such as place and time.23 This work is thus less about crunching numbers or establishing certainty than it is about augmenting human capabilities to detect and interpret emerging connections—a humanistic endeavor.

Exploring Millions of Words: With Criminal Intent

  • 24  “Criminal Intent”. URL: http://criminalintent.org. Accessed September 21, 2011.
  • 25  “Old Bailey Online – The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913 – Central Criminal Court”. URL: (...)
  • 26  Dan Cohen et al., “Data Mining with Criminal Intent”, August 31, 2011. URL: http://criminalintent. (...)
  • 27  I take this idea from Pasanek and Sculley’s discussion of the useful “defamiliarization” that occu (...)
  • 28  Patricia Cohen, “Old Bailey Trials Are Tabulated for Scholars Online,” The New York Times, sect. B (...)

12Whereas the Mapping the Enlightenment project explores correspondence networks across space and time, Data Mining with Criminal Intent, another project funded in the first round of Digging into Data, provides tools and interfaces for searching and studying a large collection of trial transcripts.24 This project brings together The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913, which contains documents from 197,000 trials that took place at London’s central criminal court (about 127 million words), with two key tools: Zotero for managing information and Voyant for analyzing and visualizing the data.25 The project also makes available an API to query Old Bailey data, so that researchers can filter searches by the gender of the defendant or victim, nature of the offense, date, punishment, and so forth. After searching for trial transcripts in Old Bailey, researchers can send them to Voyant to investigate patterns and trends across the corpus as well as in particular documents. They can explore a word cloud highlighting frequently used words, a summary of word usage across the corpus, distinctive words in particular documents compared to the rest of the corpus, and keywords in context. Essentially Voyant helps researchers to begin to make sense of a large amount of data, finding trends, examining outliers, and exploring their significance. One of the main goals of the project is to make these tools available to the “ordinary working historian,” so that he or she does not need sophisticated programming knowledge or technical skills “to integrate text mining and visualization into his or her day-to-day work.”26 This way of working with texts generates a productive sort of unfamiliarity that sharpens the researcher’s observance.27 In working on this project, the historians involved have made some fascinating initial discoveries. For example, they found that around 1825 the number of short trials increased, as did the number of guilty pleas, suggesting a rise in plea bargaining around this period.28

13All this talk about humanities data may make some scholars nervous, since it sounds awfully science-like and empiricist. But, ultimately, these methods can help scholars to answer questions that are humanistic at their core. As Steve Ramsay says,

  • 29  Stephen Ramsay, “Prison Art”, presented at the Digging into Data Conference, Juin 2011. URL: http: (...)

The Old Bailey, like the Naked City, has eight million stories. Accessing those stories involves understanding trial length, numbers of instances of poisoning, and rates of bigamy. But being stories, they find their more salient expression in the weightier motifs of the human condition: justice, revenge, dishonor, loss, trial. This is what the humanities are about.29

14Through text analysis and other computational methods, scholars can detect patterns in vast digital collections, discover details that might be otherwise invisible, and bring their own interpretive expertise to bear.

Understanding the Historical Weather: Visualizing Emancipation

15With digital tools, we can explore patterns in space and time as well as in text. No longer are we confined to static documents such as printed maps and data tables. As Ed Ayers suggests, we can create “historical weather maps” that allow us to “comprehend the historical weather, tracing where the currents led, how the storms brewed, and how the unpredictable somehow came to pass.”30 For example, Visualizing Emancipation, a project that Ayers developed with colleagues from the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab, allows users to explore the complex history surrounding the emancipation of slaves during the American Civil War. Visualizing Emancipation places over 3000 emancipation events on a dynamic map and timeline, chronicling incidents such as escape, capture, orders and regulations, and abuse. Researchers can view these events in relation to the movements of Union troops, as well as to geographical features such as bodies of water and railway lines. By using this tool, researchers can observe and examine different phenomena, for instance the fact that slaves who lived close to the coast, major rivers or railroad lines were more likely to secure freedom.31 Further, researchers can examine brief accounts from the historical records used in creating Visualizing Emancipation. As Ayers notes, “The digital medium allows us to see what we could not see before,” such as the uneven ways in which Emancipation proceeded, the mixed opinions of White Northerners, and the complex, even contradictory role that the Union Army played.32 Instead of being restricted to static evidence distributed across multiple volumes of text, researchers can view this data in spatial and temporal dimensions, interact with it, query it, devise their own interpretations, and generate visualizations that can support their arguments.

Small Data: Neatline

16Not all data is big. Digital humanities scholarship likewise values the small—stories, experiences, interpretations. Scholars can use digital tools to hone in on particular objects, study their features, test different interpretations, and locate these stories even more richly in time, place, and human experience. Indeed, a dynamic emerges between the macro and micro views as researchers both survey vast digital collections and zoom in on particular patterns, features, or works. As Bethany Nowviskie observes,

  • 33  Suzanne Fischer, “Once Upon a Place: Telling Stories With Maps”, The Atlantic, July 13, 2012. URL: (...)

The big-data discoveries that have most excited me, as a scholar, haven’t been expressions of large-scale trends or conclusions drawn from human experience in the aggregate. They’ve been the chances we’ve had to drill down, through large collections, to individual objects and stories. My curiosity is often deeply localized to a certain artifact (or document, or set of concepts) as encountered in a certain time, at a certain place—and the closer you look at it, the more the edges of that certainty become the interesting thing. You get provoked to tell a story, or better yet, to figure out what kind of story it’s possible for you to tell.33

17Nowviskie serves as the principal investigator for Neatline, a geotemporal tool that enables researchers to craft stories that locate events in space and time and provide interpretative annotations.34 For example, David McClure’s “My Little Nelly” contextualizes a letter that Confederate cartographer Jedediah Hotchkiss wrote to his daughter in which he describes and maps the Battle of Fredericksburg during the US Civil War.35 This Neatline exhibit places pages from the letter on a map of the area around the battleground, offers additional details about observations in the letter, and draws lines connecting passages in the letter to details in the landscape, such as the location of rivers and other landmarks. Through these spatial annotations, the viewer can develop a deeper understanding of geographic references and examine the landscape described in the letter. Using Neatline and similar tools, researchers can explore the messy details of human experience and offer multi-layered interpretations.

Participatory Humanities: HyperCities

  • 36  “HyperCities”. URL: www.hypercities.com. Accessed June 10, 2009.
  • 37  Lisa Spiro, Interview with Todd Presner, July 24, 2009.

18Participatory humanities initiatives enable the public to share their insights, experiences, and labor using digital platforms. For example, HyperCities provides scholars and citizens “a collaborative research and educational platform for traveling back in time to explore the historical layers of city spaces in an interactive, hypermedia environment.”36 This platform invites open participation, allowing community groups, individuals, and scholars to create their own narratives and arguments by placing markers on a Google Maps interface with an embedded timeline. They can also embed media in the markers, such as photos, videos, and audio. Since the stories co-exist, it is possible to explore an historian’s dynamic, multimedia account of the history of Los Angeles on one layer, then interact with another layer containing stories of LA collected by members of a Filipino youth group. Hypercities’ principal investigator Todd Presner compares this platform to a city in its diversity and the richness of experience it offers.37 While participatory initiatives raise questions about scholarly authority, recognition and incentives for participation, they also dissolve some of the barriers between humanities scholarship and the public that it ultimately serves.

Transforming Scholarly Communications

  • 38  Collection Development Executive Committee Task Force on Print Collection Usage, Report of the Col (...)

19The digital humanities is devising new ways not only to conduct research, but also to communicate it. Ultimately, scholars do research in order to make a contribution to the scholarly conversation, but the current system unfortunately poses several challenges to that goal. Publication often occurs at a seemingly glacial pace, slowed down by a journal’s or publisher’s backlog as well as by the process of review, editing and production. Although double-blind peer review is regarded as crucial to filtering work and establishing its credibility and value, it has flaws, including the potential for bias and the reinforcement of traditional views, the lack of accountability (and credit) for reviewers, and the limits inherent to relying on only a few people to evaluate a work’s worth. Whereas work published on the open web is available to anyone with an Internet connection, most work published by a traditional academic publisher is gated, available only to those with access to a good academic library or enough funds to procure academic books and journals themselves. Furthermore, it seems that much work in the humanities is not being cited—or even read. For example, a 2010 study by Cornell Library found that approximately 55% of books in its collections acquired after 1990 have never circulated.38Academic publications often resemble a monologue, as authors have their say in discrete articles or books, yet without being able to engage in the back-and-forth supported by blogs and online forums.

  • 39  Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy, (...)
  • 40  “Comment Press”. URL: www.futureofthebook.org/commentpress. Accessed June 3, 2013.
  • 41  Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy, (...)

20Web-based publishing promises to address some of these problems, speeding the circulation of ideas, providing open, interactive models for peer review, enlarging access, and fostering dynamic conversations among authors and readers. In Planned Obsolescence, Kathleen Fitzpatrick offers an apt diagnosis of the problems plaguing scholarly communication and puts forward smart recommendations for reform.39 She began thinking about the book because of her own difficulties in getting her first book published—not because of the quality of her work, but because university presses lacked the financial resources to take on books by first-time authors. Planned Obsolescence represents an innovative approach to scholarly communication both in its arguments and in the way that it was made available. Fitzpatrick suggests that scholars should experiment with emerging forms, including blogs and multimodal publications that incorporate the media that they are discussing (images, audio, video, etc.). She also argues that we should re-envision authorship, so that the aim of authorship is not so much delivering a finished product as it is engaging in community conversation. Embracing a “peer-to-peer” review process, Fitzpatrick posted a draft of the book using CommentPress, a WordPress plug-in that allows readers to provide to comments at the page and paragraph level.40 Through this open review process, Fitzpatrick was able to get granular feedback from a wide range of reviewers—44 people commented, making 295 comments in total—and to engage in conversation with them.41 Moreover, she was able to circulate her ideas more quickly, refine them based on reactions from people whose perspectives she could identify, and build an audience. The book also went through a traditional peer review process—which is where I have a bit part, as one of the commissioned external reviewers. Fitzpatrick made such a compelling case about the problems with anonymous reviewing, such as the lack of accountability and the inability to discuss the author’s work that I felt had no choice but to reveal my own identity as a reviewer. Coming out into the open increased my own sense of accountability and responsibility—I can tell you that I worked very hard on my second review—and it also gave me a sense of pride to have contributed (in a small way) to such an important project.

21In the digital humanities, most of the scholarly conversation now occurs online, through blog posts, digital projects, and other online publications. Unfortunately, much of this work does not get full credit from tenure committees, and keeping up with the flood of publications challenges even the keenest observer. Enter PressForward, an initiative of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, which seeks to bring recognition to significant scholarship on the open web by engaging the community in curation and evaluation.42 Twice a week PressForward’s Digital Humanities Now features key recent works in digital humanities as selected by Editors and community Editors-at-Large. These editors monitor blogs included in the Digital Humanities Compendium, tweets, and other social media sources to discover new work. Only 5% of the content considered by the editors appears as an Editors’ Choice publication.43Digital Humanities Now also circulates helpful information such as news (CFPs, jobs, resources) and DHNow Unfiltered (feeds from authors considered for inclusion).44 The top Editor’s Choice works in Digital Humanities Now are eligible for publication in the quarterly Journal of Digital Humanities, an open access journal edited by Dan Cohen and Joan Fragaszy Troyano.45 In determining what will appear in the Journal of Digital Humanities, the editors evaluate the work’s impact and contribution, weighing factors such as how frequently it is shared (through Twitter and other means) and commented upon as well as more the traditional criteria of ideas and presentation. Thus the Journal of Digital Humanities merges the wisdom of the community (a more selective group than the crowd) with the discernment of the editors, applying a multi-phased filtering process to recognize the best of digital humanities scholarship.

  • 46  Edward L. Ayers, “A More-Radical Online Revolution,” op. cit.
  • 47  Todd Presner, “HyperCities: A Case Study for the Future of Scholarly Publishing,” in Jerome McGann(...)
  • 48  David P. Levitus, Philip J. Ethington and Janice L. Reiff, “Online Multimedia Companion to ‘Transn (...)

22Projects such as Visualizing Emancipation and HyperCities themselves represent new model publications that leverage the digital medium to enable readers to explore the data for themselves. Such projects often provide layers of context and interpretive support and can help arguments emerge from the data. Ayers calls this approach “generative scholarship”: “scholarship built to generate, as it is used, new questions, evidence, conclusions, and audiences.”46 Rather than resolving issues, generative scholarship promotes the humanistic act of spinning out interpretation and engaging in conversation about how to understand evidence. According to Ayers, generative scholarship encourages ordinary people to contribute evidence and explore patterns, but it also requires experts to build it and ground it in disciplinary questions. With Visualizing Emancipation, users can add events to the underlying database, which can then be brought into the main interface following review by the project team. With HyperCities, all registered users can create their own stories located in space and time. It offers a platform for what Todd Presner calls “geotemporal argumentation,” as “the visual elements, spatial layouts, and kinetic guideposts guide the ‘reader’ through the argument situated within a multi-dimensional, virtual cartographic space.”47 For example, a special issue of the journal Urban History focusing on “Transnational Urbanism in the Americas” used HyperCities as a platform for a series of interactive tours.48 These tours enable readers to explore commentary and digital objects linked to location, thereby providing a richer context.

Challenges Facing Digital Humanities

23While the digital humanities have great potential, aspiring digital humanists face significant challenges. Depending on the type of work they want to do, researchers need to develop new skills, such as an understanding of text encoding, Geographical Information Systems, database design, text analysis and mining, programming, or 3D modeling. Fortunately, there are many ways to acquire such skills, including workshops, online tutorials such as Programming Historian, or working with knowledgeable collaborators. Many projects also face the challenge of gaining access to data, whether that means having to digitize resources or work with data providers. Once the data is secured, researchers must often do significant work to get it into the form that is needed. It is crucial to understand the data and its limitations. What does the digital collection contain and what does it exclude? How does the metadata reflect a particular view of the data? For some projects, copyright can be a huge obstacle (not many digital humanities collections focus on the twentieth or twenty-first centuries, since these works typically are not in the public domain). Given how many tools are available, digital humanists can also struggle to find the tool most adapted to their work—and to understand its limitations. (Let me put in a plug here for Bamboo DiRT, which I helped to develop and which catalogs tools based on different uses.)49 Much digital humanities work is in an experimental phase, as researchers are exploring how to apply methods such as text mining to humanities data and discovering the potential pitfalls.

  • 50  “Guidelines for Evaluating Work in Digital Humanities and Digital Media”, Modern Language Associat (...)

24Perhaps most importantly, there are significant cultural and institutional barriers to digital scholarship. Although the digital humanities is attracting more attention, many tenure committees still aren’t sure how to evaluate it, and junior scholars may jeopardize their careers in pursuing digital scholarship, at least at some institutions. Scholarly societies such as the Modern Language Association and groups such as NINES are developing guidelines for evaluating digital scholarship, but these need to be embraced by departments and universities.50 Whereas much work in the humanities can be accomplished by solo scholars with access to a good library and perhaps funds to travel to a few archives, digital humanities work is often more complex, requiring a technical infrastructure and a team of collaborators.

Conclusion

  • 51  Anne Burdick et al., Digital_Humanities, op. cit., p. 5.

25The digital humanities marries the strengths of humanities inquiry with the open web, fostering scholarship that is dynamic, interactive, interpretive, and engaged with the community, while retaining scholarly rigor. As I’ve noted, DH makes available high-quality digital collections, thus enabling both scholars and, often, the public to explore rich cultural heritage materials. Further, DH helps scholars to ask new kinds of questions and devise new methods, whether by using geospatial tools to investigate change across space and time or text analysis tools to explore patterns in corpora. As we grapple with how to represent and interpret humanistic data, we become more conscious of our own methods as humanists. Much of this work is necessarily collaborative and interdisciplinary, thus enabling us to devise innovative approaches that draw on the insights of several disciplines. In addition, DH promotes web-friendly publication models, speeding the circulation of ideas and expanding the potential audience. These approaches—broadening access to digital information, creating tools and analytical methods, developing modes of scholarly communication that encourage conversation and experimentation—fuse together in an emerging approach to humanities that Burdick et al. call Generative Humanities: “a mode of practice that depends on rapid cycles of prototyping and testing, a willingness to embrace productive failure, and the realization that any ‘solutions’ generated within the Digital Humanities will spawn new ‘problems’— and that this is all to the good.”51 In order for the humanities to thrive, we need to be willing to experiment, fail, learn, share and open up.

Notes

1  This essay builds upon and puts into written form a series of presentations that I have been giving called “Why Digital Humanities?”

2  Cathy N. Davidson, “Humanities 2.0: Promise, Perils, Predictions”, PMLA, vol. 123, no. 3, May 2008, p. 707-717.

3  “About”, DHQ: Digital Humanities Quarterly. URL: www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/about/about.html. Last modified February 16, 2013, accessed March 12, 2013.

4  Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner and Jeffrey Schnapp, Digital_Humanities, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2012.

5  Lisa Spiro and Jane Segal, “Scholars’ Usage of Digital Archives in American Literature,” in Amy E Earhart and Andrew Jewell (eds.), The American Literature Scholar in the Digital Age, Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press and University of Michigan Library, 2011 (Editorial theory and literary criticism), URL: www.digitalculture.org/books/american-literature-scholar-in-the-digital-age. Accessed March 12, 2013.

6  “TEI: Guidelines”. URL: www.tei-c.org/Guidelines. Accessed March 13, 2013.

7  James Cummings, “The Text Encoding Initiative and the Study of Literature”, in Susan Schreibman and Ray Siemens (eds.), A Companion to Digital Literary Studies, Malden: Blackwell, 2008. URL: http://nora.lis.uiuc.edu:3030/companion/view?docId=blackwell/9781405148641/9781405148641.xml&chunk.id=ss1-6-6&toc.id=0&brand=9781405148641_brand. Accessed March 14, 2013.

8  “Transcribe Bentham”, University College London. URL: http://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/transcribe-bentham. Accessed March 14, 2013.

9  “Voyant Tools: Reveal Your Texts”. URL: http://voyant-tools.org. Accessed March 14, 2013; “TAPoR”. URL: www.tapor.ca. Accessed March 14, 2013; “WordSeer Project Page”, URL: http://wordseer.berkeley.edu. Accessed March 14, 2013.

10  “Zotero”. URL: www.zotero.org. Accessed March 14, 2013.

11  “The Walt Whitman Archive”. URL: www.whitmanarchive.org. Accessed June 3, 2013.

12  Lisa Spiro and Jane Segal, “Scholars’ Usage of Digital Archives in American Literature”, op. cit.

13  “Zotero”, op. cit.

14  Ken Price, Whitman Archive usage stats, October 6, 2011.

15  Roy Rosenzweig, “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era”, The American Historical Review, vol. 108, no. 3, June 2003. URL: www.historycooperative.org/journals/ahr/108.3/rosenzweig.html. Accessed January 25, 2010.

16  National Endowment for the Humanities, “Digging Into Data Challenge”, 2009. URL: www.diggingintodata.org. Accessed January 12, 2010.

17  See www.arts-humanities.net/ictguides/methods for an extensive listing of computational methods in the arts and humanities.

18  Christa Williford and Charles Henry, “One Culture. Computationally Intensive Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences: A Report on the Experience of First Respondents to the Digging into Data Challenge”, Washington, DC: Council on Library and Information Resource, 2012, p. 2. URL: http://www.clir.org/pubs/reports/pub151/pub151.pdf. Accessed March 11, 2014.

19  “Mapping the Republic of Letters”, URL: https://republicofletters.stanford.edu. Accessed March 14, 2013.

20  Cynthia Haven, “Stanford technology helps scholars get ‘big picture’ of the Enlightenment”, Stanford Report, December 17, 2009. URL: http://news.stanford.edu/news/2009/december14/republic-of-letters-121809.html. Accessed March 12, 2013.

21  Ibid.

22  Dan Edelstein and Paula Findlen, Digging Into the
Enlightenment: Mapping the Republic
of Letters NEH White Paper, NEH, August 29, 2011. URL: https://securegrants.neh.gov/PublicQuery/main.aspx?f=1&gn=HJ-50056-10. Accessed March 11, 2014.

23  Ibid., p. 7.

24  “Criminal Intent”. URL: http://criminalintent.org. Accessed September 21, 2011.

25  “Old Bailey Online – The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913 – Central Criminal Court”. URL: www.oldbaileyonline.org. Accessed March 14, 2013; “Zotero,” op. cit.; “Voyant Tools: Reveal Your Texts,” op. cit.

26  Dan Cohen et al., “Data Mining with Criminal Intent”, August 31, 2011. URL: http://criminalintent.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/Data-Mining-with-Criminal-Intent-Final1.pdf. Accessed March 11, 2014.

27  I take this idea from Pasanek and Sculley’s discussion of the useful “defamiliarization” that occurs when a literary scholar works with algorithmically generated data. Brad Pasanek and Dan Sculley, “Mining millions of metaphors”, Lit Linguist Computing, vol. 23, no. 3, September 1, 2008, p. 345‑360. URL: http://www.eecs.tufts.edu/~dsculley/papers/millionMetaphors.pdf. Accessed March 11, 2014.

28  Patricia Cohen, “Old Bailey Trials Are Tabulated for Scholars Online,” The New York Times, sect. Books, August 17, 2011. URL: www.nytimes.com/2011/08/18/books/old-bailey-trials-are-tabulated-for-scholars-online.html. Accessed March 18, 2013.

29  Stephen Ramsay, “Prison Art”, presented at the Digging into Data Conference, Juin 2011. URL: http://stephenramsay.us/text/2011/06/10/prison-art. Accessed September 21, 2011.

30  Edward L. Ayers, “Mapping Freedom,” 2007. URL: http://digitalhistory.unl.edu/essays/ayersessay.php. Accessed October 1, 2011.

31  Scott Nesbit, “Introduction”, Visualizing Emancipation. URL: http://dsl.richmond.edu/emancipation/introduction. Accessed March 14, 2013.

32  Edward L. Ayers, “A More-Radical Online Revolution”, The Chronicle of Higher Education, sect. The Chronicle Review, February 4, 2013. URL: http://chronicle.com.navigator.southwestern.edu:2048/article/A-More-Radical-Online/136915. Accessed February 6, 2013.

33  Suzanne Fischer, “Once Upon a Place: Telling Stories With Maps”, The Atlantic, July 13, 2012. URL: www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/07/once-upon-a-place-telling-stories-with-maps/259787. Accessed March 13, 2013.

34  “Neatline”. URL: http://neatline.org. Accessed June 3, 2013.

35  David McClure, “My Dear Little Nelly”, Neatline. URL: http://hotchkiss.scholarslab.org/neatline-exhibits/show/my-dear-little-nelly/fullscreen. Accessed March 13, 2013.

36  “HyperCities”. URL: www.hypercities.com. Accessed June 10, 2009.

37  Lisa Spiro, Interview with Todd Presner, July 24, 2009.

38  Collection Development Executive Committee Task Force on Print Collection Usage, Report of the Collection Development Executive Committee Task Force on Print Collection Usage, Cornell University Library, October 22, 2010. URL: http://staffweb.library.cornell.edu/system/files/CollectionUsageTF_ReportFinal11-22-10.pdf. Accessed March 13, 2013.

39  Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy, New York: NYU Press, 2011. URL: http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/mcpress/plannedobsolescence. Accessed January 12, 2010.

40  “Comment Press”. URL: www.futureofthebook.org/commentpress. Accessed June 3, 2013.

41  Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy, op. cit., 189.

42  “Press Forward”. URL: http://pressforward.org. Accessed June 3, 2013.

43  Dan Cohen and Joan Fragaszy Troyano, “Sixteen Month Review”, Digital Humanities Now, February 19, 2013. URL: http://digitalhumanitiesnow.org/2013/02/editors-choice-sixteen-month-review. Accessed March 13, 2013.

44  “About PressForward”. URL: http://pressforward.org. Accessed March 13, 2013.

45  “Journal of Digital Humanities”. URL: http://journalofdigitalhumanities.org. Accessed June 3, 2013.

46  Edward L. Ayers, “A More-Radical Online Revolution,” op. cit.

47  Todd Presner, “HyperCities: A Case Study for the Future of Scholarly Publishing,” in Jerome McGann (ed.), Online Humanities Scholarship: The Shape of Things to Come, presented at the Online Humanities Scholarship: The Shape of Things to Come conference, University of Virginia, Rice University Press, 2010. URL: http://cnx.org/content/m34318/latest. Accessed May 23, 2010.

48  David P. Levitus, Philip J. Ethington and Janice L. Reiff, “Online Multimedia Companion to ‘Transnational Urbanism in the Americas’ – a Special Issue of Urban History”, 2009. URL: http://journals.cambridge.org/fulltext_content/supplementary/uhy36_2supp001/index.html. Accessed March 13, 2013.

49  “Bamboo DiRT”. URL: http://dirt.projectbamboo.org. Accessed June 3, 2013.

50  “Guidelines for Evaluating Work in Digital Humanities and Digital Media”, Modern Language Association, January 2012. URL: www.mla.org/guidelines_evaluation_digital. Accessed March 13, 2013; “Peer Review”, NINES. URL: www.nines.org/about/scholarship/peer-review. Accessed March 13, 2013.

51  Anne Burdick et al., Digital_Humanities, op. cit., p. 5.

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Lisa Spiro, « Access, Explore, Converse: The Impact (and Potential Impact) of the Digital Humanities on Scholarship », in Keys for architectural history research in the digital era (« Actes de colloques »).

Référence électronique

Lisa Spiro, « Access, Explore, Converse: The Impact (and Potential Impact) of the Digital Humanities on Scholarship », in Keys for architectural history research in the digital era (« Actes de colloques »), [En ligne], mis en ligne le 01 avril 2014, consulté le 26 juin 2017. URL : http://inha.revues.org/4925

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Lisa Spiro

Rice University’s Fondren Library, Houston, United States

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