A Definition of Digital Humanities

Digital Humanities, which should be considered both a methodology and a field of study, can be defined as the development, use, and study of digital technologies to better understand and teach about questions central to the humanities, or to what it means to be human. Digital humanists build and use computational tools to do research in the humanities in ways that would not be possible or practical without the use of technology. They transcribe and digitize artifacts—including texts, images, sound, and architectural information—to make them available for analysis using computational tools. Digital humanists use a wide range of digital methods to conduct research and to communicate their findings. That work includes creating databases, encoding text, engaging in modeling and visualization of their findings, and using geospatial mapping technologies to better understand the networks and spatial dimensions of humanities data.

While an increasing number of scholars, teachers, and journalists use digital tools in their research, to publish their work, to build online exhibits, and to disseminate their scholarship to a broad public, just using digital tools does not make one a digital humanist. Digital humanists are those who help develop the tools that others can easily use; those for whom computational tools are central to their research methodology; and those who take as their area the study the impact of technology on doing research in the humanities.

Why I defined DH in this way: One of the things that really struck me throughout the readings was the anxiety about how to define DH as part of a project of gatekeeping or drawing the boundaries that could enable DH to be considered its own specific discipline or field of study. Coming at these readings from a position inside academia, I was not surprised by this concern about boundaries and gatekeeping. Academic legitimacy and status stems in large part from being able to define your area of study as a field with its own methodologies, formal training, and institutional infrastructure. But of course, just about everything about DH in some ways goes against those traditional academic disciplining that is part of being a discipline. Digital technologies are—or can be—democratizing. They make much more material accessible and usable to a wider audience and they offer creative ways to reach a much broader group of people with research findings. In my definition, I tried to resolve some of that tension by suggesting that many people are using the tools of digital humanities, but not all of those folks are digital humanists. I find myself very drawn to Avarado’s definition of digital humanities as a praxis defined by a playful approach to digital representation. I didn’t include that specific idea in my definition, but I do think that likely what distinguishes a digital humanist from someone who is dipping into using digital tools for a specific project is their mindset towards and approach to digital technology. I also thought it was important to list some of the most common digital methodologies, as well as to center the definition on what is really the crux of digital humanities: the use of computational tools of all kinds to better understand the human experience.



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