On the Path to a Framework for Examining Digital Humanities Initiatives


Some thoughts in progress spurred by Don Waters, a program officer at the Mellon Foundation, who has written an overview of the digital humanities.  Waters has had a distinguished career as Associate University Librarian at Yale, then as the first director of the Digital Library Federation, and has served Mellon for nearly fifteen years as a key decision-maker in what the foundation funds in the area of scholarly communication and digital content. Considering his stature in the profession it’s worth reading closely what he has to say about digital humanities (DH).

He dismisses the notion of digital humanities as a distinct discipline based on his own experience of funding many humanistic projects that centered around technology. Instead, he focuses on the tools and methodology approach in referencing DH. And that’s fine even though I don’t entirely agree. The key, however, is not to get bogged down into the “cloud chamber” attempting to define digital humanities.  Waters clearly points out that a significant problem in the debate over DH is that “[p]art of the definitional problem is that more needs to be said about the nature of the tools and methods for interrogating evidence in the digital humanities.”

As librarians and technologists with expertise in those tools and methods our obligation is to ensure that we advise faculty and students appropriately as to which approaches to use when addressing research problems. This is an extension of our traditional mastery of research tools (e.g., databases, specialized resources) and how to use that material as part of the research process. Advising which approach to take in a DH project is similar to our advisory function at the research desk. Just as some questions at the research desk may best be answered from a set of ready reference materials while others require more in-depth consultation and research, some DH inquiries are relatively simple projects handled by a small set of available tools while other DH-based research questions are best served by more complex approaches.

In reflecting on the ways that critical intelligence is applied in humanistic research Waters identifies that the tools and methods of DH fall into three strands: textual analysis, spatial analysis, and visual studies. (Waters correctly pinpoints visual analysis as emerging from the field of media studies.) “As a rule of thumb, those who refer to the digital humanities, or to the use of digital tools and processes in humanistic study, are almost always pointing to activities and the types of tools needed in one of these three areas.”

Waters provides a brief, though admittedly simplified, intellectual history of each area, starting with how language and literary studies in DH emerged from the work of Jerry McGann at UVA. Spatial analysis emerged from GIS with one of the key humanists adopting mapping strategies being Ed Ayers in the Civil War history project at UVA. (Ayers is now President of the University of Richmond.)

While Waters doesn’t mention a specific person catapulting a change in media studies, a key figure in that  area is Lev Manovich, author of The Language of New Media. Waters stresses that “the scholarly toolkit must include a suite of specialized digital tools including various kinds of visual representations, both because the visual objects of study are digitized or born digital, and because words alone may not be sufficient to understand visual evidence and communicate an argument about that evidence.”

If you don’t read any other part of Waters’ essay, then read the last two pages (8-9) that start under the heading Future Prospects in which he outlines “several areas that colleges and universities, particularly their libraries, might consider for possible additional investment.” In fact, these aspects have essential relevance to our own initiatives:

  • Be alert that each strand of research (literary, visual, and spatial analysis) has distinct requirements.
  • Preservation of digital media is critical across those three broad areas.
  • Increasing need for tools and infrastructure that span the three areas.
  • Investment in textual analysis tools are “now well advanced.” More concentration is needed on tools that support visual and spatial analysis as well as audio.
  • Build capacity to support publishing and curating scholarly products that arise from DH-based research.
  • Develop the creative impulse within scholars and students for engaging in the ways that tools open new modes of inquiry.

Waters ends this essay with “But we must also think broadly about curricular interventions, for it is only when the tools and processes for answering ‘why possible?’ questions are reliable enough to be introduced to and used productively by scores of students at once that the digital humanities could be said to have reached maturity.” Clearly, a challenge is figuring out how to adapt DH tools and methodologies for use in an undergraduate curriculum.

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