What’s the Right Toolset for Digital Humanities?

Female Carpenter 18th centuryWe live in an age of invention, with so many people participating in the act of creation.  This creates a multiplier effect – the more tools people create, the easier it becomes to create more.

So it is in academia…where, in particular, one’s job is more dependent than most on being able to bring something new into the world, and sharing the results of human thought and ingenuity with students and the rest of the academic and/or wider world.

There are many tools available to help academics be more productive, and we have spent, now, almost two years in talking about them.  We have mostly concentrated on tools useful to any academic, or librarian.  Now, however, I would like to start a series of posts discussing the tools for specific disciplines.

Why?  While most of you in our readership are academic librarians, we do have some researchers and other kinds of librarians.  Any of you researching or helping a researcher find and use information might benefit from finding out what tools are useful in a particular discipline.  The truth is that different areas of studies differ widely in what they are trying to accomplish and so in the tools they need to get their work done.

First we are going to take a look at the digital humanities (DH).  It is an exciting field, one that has grown enormously in the last few years, although its antecedents go back to around the 1940s.  Because it is such a big field, we will look at defining the field and at identifying resources for getting started in it.  Later on we will look at notable subfields.

Digital Humanities – What is It?

Definitions of the humanities differ,  so it follows that definitions of digital humanities will also differ.  The Wikipedia definitions will serve as a starting point.  First the definition of humanities:

The humanities are academic disciplines that study human culture, using methods that are primarily critical, or speculative, and have a significant historical element—as distinguished from the mainly empirical approaches of the natural sciences. The humanities include ancient and modern languages, literature, philosophy, religion, and visual and performing arts such as music and theatre. The humanities that are also sometimes regarded as social sciences include history, anthropology, area studies, communication studies, cultural studies, law and linguistics.

And next Digital Humanities (DH):

The Digital Humanities are an area of research, teaching, and creation concerned with the intersection of computing and the disciplines of the humanities. Developing from the fields of humanities computing, humanistic computing, and digital humanities praxis (dh praxis) digital humanities embrace a variety of topics, from curating online collections to data mining large cultural data sets. Digital humanities (often abbreviated DH) currently incorporate both digitized and born-digital materials and combine the methodologies from traditional humanities disciplines (such as history, philosophy, linguistics, literature, art, archaeology, music, and cultural studies) and social sciences with tools provided by computing (such as data visualisation, information retrieval, data mining, statistics, text mining) and digital publishing.

Starting Points for the Digital Humanities

Given that the digital humanities include both literature and computing power, it isn’t then surprising that the marriage of the two has produced a voluminous number of how-to documents and articles.  One of the best is the post Getting Started in the Digital Humanities, by Lisa Spiro,  on her blog Digital Scholarship in  the Humanities.  Spiro is executive director of Digital Scholarship Services at Rice University’s Fondren Library and founding editor of the DiRT wiki, which is now Bamboo DiRT (a tool we have talked about before and will again).  The post is a great roundup of ways to get started, from deciding what interests to pursue in DH scholarship to guides, social media, DH examples, tutorials and training opportunities, and more.  Includes a variety of links to specific resources.

One that it mentions is the CUNY Digital Humanities Resource Guide, another excellent place to get an overview of DH.  It includes DH definitions, examples, readings, hot topics, online discussion forums, DH on Twitter, blogs, journals, conferences and events, training/professional development, scholarships/fellowships, funding/awards/competitions, DH centers, organizations/associations, tools and methods, data management tools, research and citation management tools, writing process tools and methods, DH programs and syllabi, Git and GitHub, jobs, tips, and other resources.

Another good introduction is aimed at librarians, and is from ACRL’s current awareness trend watching service Keeping Up With.  In Keeping Up with …Digital Humanities, it discusses definitions and controversies over what DH is, the opportunities it provides for collaborations outside the library, training and skills librarians need for DH work, and types of contributions librarians can make.  After the conclusion, it has a section of resources, including recommended reading, associations and centers, courses and continuing education, all about data, tools and tutorials, and other sites of note.

Jeffrey McClurken, of the University of Mary Washington, put together a 20 page Google document Digital Liberal Arts Workshop Links and Resources, which was updated in January 2014.  It includes links to definitions of DH and digital liberal arts, links to projects.  Categories of tools are digital publishing tools, research/bibliographic tools, collaborative writing tools, geography and geospatial visualization tools, data visualization and analysis tools, video/audio resources for class, multimedia editing tools, social media tools, and other tools/concepts.  Then it discusses Google Docs for classroom use, integrating technology into teaching, digital literacy, and making the case to others.

The Chronicle of Higher Education takes a journalistic view of DH in its article How the Humanities Compute, which examines how some professors are using the topic and how they got involved in it.  Lists a few good resources at the end, including the CUNY guide already mentioned and UCLA’s Introduction to Digital Humanities Coursebook.  The description of the coursebook is:

Based on the Introduction to Digital Humanities (DH101) course at UCLA, taught by Johanna Drucker (with David Kim) in 2011 and 2012, this online coursebook (and related collection of resources) is meant to provide introductory materials to digital approaches relevant to a wide range of disciplines. The lessons and tutorials assume no prior knowledge or experience and are meant to introduce fundamental skills and critical issues in digital humanities.

The four sections are (1) Concepts and readings; (2) Tutorials; (3) Student projects, and (4) Advanced Topics.

Finally, there are a couple of resources about tools that should be mentioned.  The first is Bamboo DiRT (Directory of Research Tools), which we have mentioned before because it is the best directory of such tools we know of.  Its intended audience is digital humanists, despite the fact that it also serves the needs of researchers in many disciplines.

ProfHacker has a fascinating post ‘Ready to Eat’ Academic Computing Infrastructure.  It describes AMIs (Amazon Machine Images) designed by James Smithies of the University of Canterbury in New Zealand.  It is a way of setting up a DH web server that includes a number of ready-to-use programs such as Omeka and Omeka plugins, Open Journal Systems, GeoServer, Drupal, and Ushahidi.  This ready to eat server is designed for the new-to-DH academic to use as a sandbox to learn how to use these tools.

The digital humanities is an exciting field that is producing many new ways at looking at human culture, and creating new tools and new concepts about that topic.  Researchers interested in adding to this rich field, and librarians who support them, need starting points for getting involved, and the items mentioned above are examples of good ways to explore DH.  In the next posts on digital humanities I plan to explore the subfields of digital literature and then digital history.

Works Cited

Adams, J. and Gunn, K. (2013).  Keeping Up With…Digital HumanitiesACRL Keeping Up With … online current awareness column.

Edwards, C. and Gold, M. (nd).  CUNY Digital Humanities Resource GuideCUNY Digital Humanities Initiative (DHI).

Lawson, K.  (2014).  ‘Ready to Eat’ Academic Computing InfrastructureProfHacker blog, Chronicle of Higher Education.

McClurken, J. (2014)  Digital Liberal Arts Workshop Links and Resources.    Google Docs.

Parry, M. (2014). How the Humanities Compute in the Classroom. Chronicle Of Higher Education, 60(17), A28-A30.

Spiro, L. (2011).  Getting Started in the Digital HumanitiesDigital Scholarship in the Humanities (blog).

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