Oct 04 2014

Defining Digital Humanities

The intention behind this post, besides getting past the ominous blank page, is to synthesise my understanding of digital humanities based on the first week readings and lecture for AFF601 ‘Digital Humanities: Theory and Practice’.

Day of DH

One of my first forays into the world of Digital Humanities was taking part in Day of DH 2014; as part of this I had to answer the question: ‘How do you define DH?’. My definition was this: “DH is where the traditional fields of the humanities meet the technological advances, and increased accessibility, made possible by computers. It enables researchers to combine traditional methods with the processing power of computers.” Looking back several months later, although the repetition of ‘traditional’ and ‘computers’ makes me cringe a little, I still agree with the core of my definition, although feel it doesn’t go into enough detail.

The Day of DH 2014 website has a page where all the member’s definitions are included, as well as links to definitions from pervious years. This is a fascinating read, not just because so many of those who have taken part over the years are now on my reading list, but also because of the sheer variation in the definitions themselves. This is at the heart of the problem of coming up with a single definition of Digital Humanities.

 The Challenge of the New

As a field, if that is indeed what we decide to define it as, Digital Humanities is still relatively new. With links to technology which bring new tools and possibilities, it is not surprising that there are disagreements over an exact definition and the need to redefine.

This video, from Oxford University, shows specialists discussing the impact digital technology has on the humanities and the scope for new areas of research. However, this is only one way of looking at what Digital Humanities is, as demonstrated by Svensson. In the second part of ‘The Landscape of Digital Humanities’ he gives four examples of Digital Humanities in action. Through these examples we see digital technology used as: an expressive medium, a tool, a laboratory and a study object.

However, there are a number of difficulties faced by this new field, beyond definition and scope. Firstly, the problem of legitimation, within academia, and especially within a relatively ‘traditional’ field like humanities. Presner explains:


The normative medium for conveying humanities knowledge…is print…the knowledge it conveys is legitimated by the process of peer review, publication, and citation.Todd Presner

In a new field decisions have to be made as to what type of work is recognised at an academic level, how authorship is attributed, and how it can be reviewed. Due to the speed of technological change, those working in Digital Humanities may fall victim to the gap between possible outputs and the “institutional structures” (Presner) necessary to legitimate them. Part of this is because:


it does not seem that the digital humanities has yet developed a comprehensive framework, design sensibility and assessment methodology that will allow us to design, critically discuss and evaluate different kinds of tools in the best possible way.Matthew Kirschenbaum cited in Patrik Svensson

To change this may require a culture change, where tools, data and results are openly shared and peer reviewed as they are in the sciences, allowing replication.

A second challenge, and one which faces any field which uses technology, is that of obsolescence. As technologies develop, so many formats become redundant or are replaced with more powerful versions. Anyone who has stored work on a floppy disk, has a collection of video tapes or remembers the ZX Spectrum (complete with 16K of RAM!) can see the potential impact of this.

To militate against this, careful planning is needed from the start of a project to ensure the sustainability of code and interoperability.


Finally, Unsworth, in a lecture given at Wentworth Institute of Technology, gives a detailed overview of the Digital Humanities and what it is:


Oxford University. The Digital Humanities In Oxford University. 2014. Web. 4 Oct. 2014.

Presner,Todd.  ‘Digital Humanities 2.0: A Report on Knowledge‘. Connexions. Online.

Svensson, Patrik. ‘The Landscape of Digital Humanities‘. Digital Humanities Quarterly. 2010.4.1

Unsworth, John. What The *$%@ Is Digital Humanities? Lecture. 2013. Web. 4 Oct. 2014.



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