Digital Humanities

Defining “Digital Humanities”

When we study humanities, we study “how people process and document the human experience” (“Digital Humanities,” Stanford Center for the Humanities). The humanities encompass a wide range of fields, such as literature, religion, art, music, history, language, and philosophy. Humanities scholarship helps us to understand and record our world, and encourages us to feel more connected to humans of the past and present. According to Shaw (2012), “The work of the humanities is to create the vessels that store our culture.” Digital humanities add an extra dimension to traditional humanities’ studies. In digital humanities, technology is used to document, process, and explain the human experience. Techniques such as 3-D mapping, digitization, visualization techniques, electronic literary analysis, and online publishing/archives are all common tools of digital humanities.

Like “digital citizenship,” no consensus exists as to what “digital humanities” actually means. According to Kirsch (2014), “The term can mean anything from media studies to electronic art, from data mining to edutech, from scholarly editing to anarchic blogging, while inviting code junkies, digital artists, standards wonks, transhumanists, game theorists, free culture advocates, archivists, librarians and edupunks under its capacious canvas.” Clearly, “digital humanities” encompasses a wide range of activities; these activities can primarily be divided into the minimalist approach or the maximalist approach. In the minimalist approach, technology is applied to traditional scholarly pursuits; for example, paper archives are exchanged for digital archives. The maximalist approach is much more extensive and “represents a paradigm shift in the way we think about culture itself, spurring a change not just in the medium of humanistic work but also in its very substance” (Shaw, 2012).

The Potential of Digital Humanities

By applying technology to the humanities, researchers and scholars are afforded new opportunities. Data collections and online archives allow scholars to interact with source materials in new ways and potentially reach new conclusions. In some ways, digital humanities can be imagined as a new robust form of data management (Shaw, 2012). Similarly, by interacting with data collections and online archives, new knowledge communities and connections among researchers can be formed.

For example, digital humanities researchers are mapping Civil War battlefields to better understand how topography and geography influenced victories and defeats. Researchers are creating databases of music to see how collaboration influenced jazz, and they are archiving texts/books to identify when specific scientific concepts first appeared (Cohen, 2010). By introducing digital tools into humanities scholarship, data becomes more accessible and interactive for researchers. As Shaw explains, the “digitization of archives and collections holds the promise of a grand conclusion: nothing less than the unification of the human cultural record online, representing, in theory, an unprecedented democratization of access to human knowledge” (Shaw, 2012).

Digital Humanities and Digital Citizenship

Digital citizenship explores how we participate in community through technology; digital humanities seeks to use technology to document and process the human experience. In some ways, by maintaining a blog to meet the requirements of ED 654, we are documenting and processing our own human experience (which could loosely be considered an actual application of digital humanities). Similarly, one of the benefits of digital humanities is that it allows researchers to easily collaborate and contribute to each others’ data collections and research. For example, researchers are able to add to online archives and interact with the work of other researchers—even though they have never met. This creation of online knowledge communities bears a strong resemblance to the type of digital online community that is inherent to the concept of digital citizenship.

For Further Study on Digital Humanities

Digital Humanities. Stanford Humanities Center. Retrieved from

The Stanford Humanities Center maintains this informative website that Includes 8 short videos discussing practical applications of digital humanities. For example, one video explains a project that is documenting and mapping the development of post offices in the pioneer American West, because post offices reflect the spread of communities. Another short video explores an application called “Palladio,” which is an analytic tool / “historical viewfinder” that makes it easier for humanities scholars to upload data and produce different forms of data visualizations. Overall, the Stanford Humanities Center argue that digitization has changed how humanities scholars interact with information.

Kirsch, A. (2014, May 2). Technology is taking over English departments. New Republic. Retrieved from

This extensive article critiques the impact and value of digital humanities. The author claims that the move towards digital humanities reflects technological determinism, as, “right before our eyes, options are foreclosed and demands enforced; a future is constructed as though it were being discovered.” The author urges us to be cautious amidst the hype of digital humanities, argues that humanities scholars have an “intellectual responsibility” to not “embrace the momentum of the digital, the tech tsunami, but to resist it and critique it.”

Cohen, P. (2010, Nov. 16). Digital keys for unlocking the humanities’ riches. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Patricia Cohen argues that the next big trend in humanities will center on data and digitalization, but expresses fears that data-driven research may exclude some of the important nuances that are intrinsic to the study of humanities. She argues that humanities is about interpretation and questions of aesthetics and existence—none of which are necessarily quantifiable. The article discusses how “digital media are means and not ends,” but digitalization can lead to new discoveries. In some instances, large amounts of data would have prevented researchers from coming to specific conclusions, but, with digital tools, it becomes possible.

Digging into data resources. Digging Into Data Challenge. Retrieved from

This is the link to the website for the “Digging into Data Challenge,” which is an extensive project originally sponsored by the U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities, the U.S. National Science Foundation, Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, and the U.K. Joint Information Systems Committee (Jisc). As the project grew, sponsors and projects were added from Netherlands, Argentina, France, Germany, Mexico, Portugal, etc. This particular project addresses how “big data” influences the research environment for social sciences and humanities, and explores how new technologies can be used in research. The link to the “Digging into Data Resources” page is particularly useful for practitioners of digital humanities as it offers a list of major repositories of digital information and explains how to access the collections of data.

Kaplan, F. (2013, June). How to build an information time machine. TED Talk. Retrieved from

Researcher and engineer Frederic Kaplan explains how research can be enriched by adding a temporal dimension to visual representation. For example, he uses visualizations to create a “digital time machine” that helps his audience understand how Venice has changed over the last 1000 years. This example demonstrates digital humanities in action, and shows how data and visualizations can help us understand historical and geographic changes over time.

Shaw, J. (2012, May-June). The humanities, digitized. Harvard Magazine. Retrieved from

This in-depth article discusses the pedagogical and collaborative impact of digital humanities. In the classroom context, Shaw argues that visualizations are better than videos, since videos are inherently linear. He offers the example of a 23-foot wraparound screen that projects a 3-D virtual world of the Giza Plateau in the year 2566 B.C. He also explains how digital archives can encourage epistemic communities. As you work your way through an archive, you are not just encountering data, you are interacting with the work of fellow archivists, “so in a way, you’re becoming part of a community of archivists whom you may never meet in person, but with whom you’re collaborating.” He closes by arguing that “the changes afoot in the humanities are about expanding the compass, the quality, and the reach of scholarship.”

NPR (2014, April 9). New age: Leaving behind everything, or nothing at all. All Things Considered. Retrieved from

This NPR article briefly discusses the work of archivists at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities. Primarily, it introduces some of the practical problems that can result from the digitization of data. For example, as technology changes, digital data archives may consist of obsolete technology (like floppy disks). The software and information within digital archives can also start to decay. Consequently, digital archives present different challenges than paper archives. However, digital collections offer precise time stamps which can be useful in building bigger picture of someone’s life, an event, etc.

2 thoughts on “Digital Humanities

  1. Sarah Carstensen says:

    I wrote about this topic as well. It is interesting to see where we overlapped and didn’t.

    I’m definitely going to have to take a look at Kaplan’s TED Talk.

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