Thoughts on Digital Humanities

This week I’m lucky enough to be in Amsterdam for the Beyond the PDF 2 Meeting, sponsored by FORCE11.  I’m sure I will be blogging about this meeting for weeks to come, however something came up today that has me inspired to do a blog post: digital humanities.

For those unaware of BTPDF2, it’s a spinoff event from the Beyond the PDF meeting, which took place in San Diego a few years back. Both events are a meeting of the minds for digital scholarship, with representatives from publishing, libraries, academia, software development, and everything in between. This group has customarily been dominated by bioscience data, and to a lesser extent social science. But this year, digital humanities just keeps cropping up. Next week I will talk about BTPDF2, but this week, I’m using my blog as a reason to educate myself about the digital humanities.

Digital Humanities: What does that mean? Let’s go to Wikipedia:

The digital humanities is an area of research concerned with the intersection of computing and the disciplines of the humanities. [It] embraces a variety of topics ranging from curating online collections to data mining large cultural data sets. Digital Humanities combines the methodologies from the traditional humanities disciplines (such as history, philosophy, linguistics, literature, art, archaeology, music, and cultural studies), as well as social sciences.

So there ya go – it’s just like it sounds. Humanities + computers. I must admit, I’ve been avoiding DH in my time as a data-centric person. First of all, the field is intimidating to a natural science person like me – it all seems so… human. The unpredictable element of humanity makes me nervous, especially since I thought clams were pretty darn complex back in my grad school days. Despite my biases, I’ve learned more about the wide array of interesting projects that DH encompasses, and have been impressed by the unique challenges associated with DH data collection.

A digital humanities finding: mummies had atherosclerosis. Read more from NPR by clicking on this photo.  Image from Flickr by Brooklyn Museum

A digital humanities finding: mummies had atherosclerosis. Read more from NPR by clicking on this photo. Image from Flickr by Brooklyn Museum

A great example of a DH project was written up in the New York Times back in 2011, which featured the work of DH scholars who use modern spatial tools (GIS, Google Earth) to understand human history, including the Salem Witch Trials, the Battle of Gettysburg, or ancient Greece. I actually posted about one such project back May after meeting a digital humanist at a UCLA Libraries panel- read that entry here. One thing I have noticed about digital humanities projects: they are all GREAT party conversations. Certainly better than those softshell clams.

A great example of a specific branch of digital humanities is digital archaeology – see the tDAR (Digital Archaeological Record website for an introduction. This work sounds like a cross between Indiana Jones and The Matrix, which has led me to wonder whether I’ve seen a movie in the last 15 years.

The point? Digital Humanities are kinda awesome. They have a HUGE diversity of data, and much of the work sits right on the fence between quantitative and qualitative data. It’s an interesting area I’m now embracing as an opportunity for learning about cool stuff. For an overview, check out the Twitter hash tag: short answer is they are having conferences, getting new funding from the NEH, and establishing new academic units (e.g., StanfordUniversity of NebraskaKing’s College London).

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One thought on “Thoughts on Digital Humanities

  1. Zoe Borovsky says:

    UCLA has a Digital Humanities minor (for undergraduates) and certificate program (for graduate students)! In addition, UCLA libraries have established a Research Commons, where we help support initiatives of the Digital Humanities program, faculty and students!

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