In response to a state humanities council question: What are the digital humanities, and what should we do about them?

Digital humanities has three areas:

  • Digital tools that give us new ways to answer traditional questions: new tools to examine traditional texts and images, and perhaps open up new kinds of texts for examination
  • The traditional questions of the humanities, applied to help us to interrogate and understand the contemporary digital world
  • Public digital humanities: new forms of outreach using the web and other digital tools. This would include interactive presentations, mobile devices, and so on. works

These overlap in interesting ways, but it’s useful to think about each of them as you think about how the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities might support digital humanities projects and bring digital work to humanities institutions, and to bring the humanities to the digital world.

I’d suggest that the first category above, new digital tools (tools like visualizatiaon, text-encoding, and the like), is more the realm of academic humanities than of a public humanities agency. It’s pretty far outside of what RICH traditionally does. It might make traditional topics seem more exciting, and perhaps showing off some of the exciting new work in this area is a way for RICH to connect university research with the public. But I’m not sure I’d go that way – you have the possibility of scaring away audiences not only with the impenetrable academic questions of critical analysis, but also with high-tech digital incomprehensibility!

The second category – how can the humanities interrogate the digital world – seems ideal for an organization like RICH that wants to reach out to the younger, cooler, crowd, the so-called digital natives. How does the web change the way we think about the past? How does it increase or decrease our feelings of community? How does a world where everyone has a digital camera change the way we think about landscape? How does literature change in the age of ebooks and online fan fiction? There are no end of programs that might be done here. It might be a good way for RICH to show the relevance of the humanities to a new audience.

New forms of outreach, my third category, also might  be a field in which RICH might invest. it would be a way of supporting the traditional organizations that RICH has supported, the historical societies and libraries and small groups that have great material but have always had a hard time getting it out to a broad audience. A smartphone tour of historic landscapes is a good example. Web access to collections is another. (There’s a digital field that is internal to museums as well, new and better collections management systems, digitization, and the curation of digital collections. That’s something the IMLS and NEH have traditionally supported, but I don’t think that’s really digital humanities. Might be worth thinking about whether its something RICH should support, though.)

As this kind of digital humanities increases, it will reconfigure the constellation of groups you work with. Digital work not only makes cooperation easier; it also demands it. Data standards and systems interoperability means that groups have new reason to work together. RICH should think about how to use the resources it puts into digital work to increase cooperation and coordination between the groups you fund.

You asked about what the Board might read.

It might be interesting to scroll through the Day of DIgital Humanities to get a sense of the diversity of the field. The best beginner’s introduction I’ve found is at the CUNY Academic Commons, the Digital Humanities Resource Guide. Teresa Mangum’s short essay is a good introduction to digital public humanities – something all of the board should read. THere’s a series of New York Times articles (summarized here) that covers the more academic side of the field. The Center for History and New Media has a good guide to digital history projects, a little out of date. I’ll keep thinking about this.

Three videos might be useful. In this video from Northwestern, three speakers (Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Tara McPherson, and Katherine Rowe) are asked to address the question: “where do humanists have the most scope for action as our traditional practices migrate to digital platforms?” – academic humanist practices in publishing, for the most part, but still useful. This one, from Colombia, is a little more general; Dan Cohen’s talk is perhaps most useful. The effect of the new tools of the digital humanities in museums is the topic of this crowd-sourced video organized by Neal Stimler, of the Metropolitan Museum, and featuring a wide range of responses. Many more, similar, are to found on YouTube, of course.

Finally, you asked about infrastructure. I don’t think that infrastructure is the place to start, at least not technological infrastructure. You don’t need to provide the tools. What you need to do is provide the information, perhaps some shared structures, and most important, the enthusiasm. With your help, the organizations you’re supporting will figure out the technological infrastructure that works for their projects.


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