Digital Humanities And Your Research

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Digital technologies seem to be ubiquitous today, regardless of discipline. Humanities scholars appear to be embracing the world of the digital with as much fervour as their counterparts in the sciences. But arguments still rage – particularly over the definition of ‘digital humanities’ and their use to scholars whose primary object is, precisely, the human.

But first, what is the ‘digital humanities’ (hereafter, DH). A maximalist definition would be that even the most passive form of engagement with digital tools – such as using social media to discuss your research, for instance, – is an example of DH. Others argue that DH is really only research that generates or builds new digital methodologies or tools. So the scope of DH is vast. While I cannot hope to cover it in any detail here, I offer a brief and broad overview of some ways in which existing DH tools can be employed in your research, how you might think about creating your own DH project, and how DH can even be a central part in broadening or developing an individual or group research network.

Using existing DH tools

Scores of DH technologies now exist, and it is now the job of university libraries in particular to enable access to them in ways that best address the varied needs of their research communities in the humanities. This involves not just the management of individual resources, but more often, curating vast constellations of datasets and other resources (these include, for instance, historical text resources, such as online newspaper collections, journal archives, manuscript collections, online dictionaries, as well as data visualisation and CAD-mapping tools, among others). Mass digitization projects have offered scholars unprecedented, instantaneous access to material that previously was difficult or even impossible to access. They have also allowed scholars to undertake primary data inquiries (e.g. compiling text corpora, modelling artefacts, locations or objects, for instance) that previously might well have been the work of a lifetime.

Creating your own DH tools

Increasingly funders look for some element of digitization as evidence that a project has a lifespan beyond the period of research, and that its benefit will be as wide as possible. The creation of digital humanities tools has been placed at the centre of a recent initiative by the Research Councils UK, which has promoted a ‘Digital Economy’ theme in all of the research councils pertaining to the humanities (AHRC, ESRC, EPSRC, and MRC).

Of course, creating your own digital resource presents technical challenges, not least because anything created must be future-proofed – that is, it must conform to current standards in data encoding to ensure preservation and avoid redundancy. Specialist institutes such as the Oxford Digital Institute and the Humanities Research Institute at Sheffield lead the way in this respect, and are therefore a good place to start when considering possible project partners and or seeking advice.

Building a DH team

A key feature of digital humanities projects is that they are rarely – if ever – the work of just one individual. Digital projects in their nature require teamwork, collaboration, and in many cases, cross-institutional partnerships. In particular you may seek to look beyond your institution for project partnerships (museums and libraries may benefit from digitization opportunities, and even corporate opportunities may exist). The benefits of such collaborations may be great: projects may not only create new digital tools, but may create training and employment opportunities, and new research networks can be forged that bring long-term benefits to all.

So at a time when there is much talk of the ‘crisis’ or even ‘death’ of the humanities, the digital humanities appears to be bucking the trend. But nothing, of course, replaces the core business of the humanities – the process wherein a human being engages profoundly with an object, artefact or text. To fetishize technology runs counter to the humanistic foundations of the humanities. But as a tool to augment and amplify the humanities, the digital humanities are a wondrous and powerful asset. This is no less the case with regard to digital humanities and teaching, which will be the subject of my next post.

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