By Aleen Leigh Stanton

And just like that, it’s #TechTuesday again. If you’re new here, welcome; if you’re visiting again, welcome back. This is the third post in the Kitchen Table series, and the second half of our discussion about Digital Humanities.

Aleen is the Digital Heritage Specialist for Language in Lyrics.

Last week we introduced the field of digital humanities, and talked about the various ways to define it. We looked at crowd-sourced definitions, definitions from academia, classic “textbook” definitions, and more. In the end, we decided the simplest definition was the best. Digital humanities does exactly what the humanities do: using technology, it tries to understand, explain, and shed light on the human experience of the world and our collective place within it.

We stopped last time on the edge of a precipice, right before jumping headfirst into some of the debate surrounding digital humanities. Now, let’s pick up right where we left off.

The Digital Humanities Debate

When the digital humanities create projects in order to understand the human experience, they strive to focus on openness and accessibility – which is exactly what we are trying to do at Language in Lyrics. However, not everyone agrees with how successful this approach has been in the past or will be in the future.

Even though the 2010s could be dubbed the ‘digital humanities decade,’ some scholars take issue with the field. We hinted at this tumult in the last blogpost. Honestly, before I started doing the research for these blogposts, I had no real sense of the debate within digital humanities. I had no idea that some scholars debated the effectiveness of digital humanities for solving real-world problems, or thought big data could solve it all just by its very nature, or argued that not enough was being done to restructure the field to welcome everyone, or considered some digital humanities projects as hokey, fad-ish, superficial, and not critically rigorous.

If you read some of the sources I linked in the last post, you might have run across some of the dissent. Now, it’s time we gather round and gather all these threads together to discuss them.

Critiquing Digital Humanities: MadLibs Edition

Photo by Erin Stevenson O’Connor on Flickr

Criticisms are complicated. But let’s play a little fill-in-the-blank game to sum them all up (call it nerdy MadLibs if you’d like). It’s a fun, succinct way to show the ways in which digital humanities can be sometimes negatively seen.

Digital Humanities is . . .

. . . a fad.
. . . a gadget.
. . . a QR code.
. . . superficial.
. . . not rigorously researched.
. . . not critically argued.
. . . “a handmaiden to STEM.” (see Adeline Koh’s article)
. . . structured to impede diversity (Posner’s article and Bailey’s article)
. . . data-mining like “browsing in a store.” (see Stanley Fish’s article)
. . . “tinkering” without ultimate meaning. (see Leon Wieseltier’s article)
. . . a “cult of data” and arrogant scientism
. (again, Wieseltier’s article)
. . . alienated from real world problems.
. . . a bandwagon for the technologically illiterate.
. . . just plain hokey.

The tide of criticism seems to have been at the high water mark in the early 2010s, just as Digital Humanities was itself experiencing exponential growth in tandem with technology’s growing grip on our everyday lives – especially mobile technology, apps, and Web 2.0. (Side note: Web 2.0 essentially means the social, interactive way we use the web now).

Digital Humanities: more than a QR code?

Although the harshest criticisms have faded a bit, the core issues of utility, diversity, and purpose remain. As with any academic field, it’s a constant balancing act of approaches, attitudes, and priorities. And as with any new field, there are growing pains.

The full debate over Digital Humanities (and there’s even debate over whether to call it that anymore) is too complex to tackle in these blogposts, but, again, reading the linked articles in these last two blogposts or the articles in Debates in the Digital Humanities will give you a fuller sense of the contrasting views that are out there.

All this back-and-forth disagreement could easily make you start singing the chorus of a familiar 1970s classic:

But We Can Agree on Some Things…

You’ll probably be relieved to know that there is some agreement, especially now. Despite the debate, most scholars can agree that digital humanities is an umbrella term. It remains faithful to its humanities roots by approaching problems and questions that affect all facets of our human experience. But in its approach, it uses the “digital” (in whatever form that takes) to help make sense of our world and our collective lives. Not replace it, as some have feared, but just to help understand it.

Most importantly, the underlying philosophy of digital humanities has also emerged from the noise as a clear chorus: openness. Open source, open access, open approaches, accessibility, public engagement, etc.

What a relief, to have that clear chorus! It’s a song we all can sing.

The underlying philosophy of digital humanities has also emerged from the noise as a clear chorus: openness. Open source, open access, open approaches, etc.

Types of Digital Humanities Projects

By now you’re probably tired of exploring an esoteric academic field’s mysterious identity, so let’s move on to some more concrete examples of DH projects. This is only meant as a quick survey, but if you’re interested in more detail and more examples, the Topics page of The Digital Humanities Literacy Guidebook has lots of information on digital humanities projects divided into similar categories.

Textual Analysis

The very first digital humanities project was actually an index, just like our project – indexing every word of the works of Thomas Aquinas, led by Father Roberto Busa with IBM in 1949. As John Simpson, the Humanities and Social Sciences Specialist at Compute Canada, explains in an interview: “The Digital Humanities is often said to have come into existence when the production of the Index Thomisticus (a tool for searching the entire works of Thomas Aquinas) began in the late 1940’s through a 30+ year collaboration between Fr. Roberto Busa, a Jesuit Priest, and IBM, who provided the computing resources to make the project possible.”

(For more on digital humanities history, see Duke University’s chronology here; and Cambridge University’s detailed history here).

With its own song index, Language in Lyrics is following a good tradition.

But textual analysis in the digital humanities can be more than indexes. Literary projects often run large datasets of text through software in order to find patterns that otherwise would be missed. Or, they publish new editions with long-lost marginalia. Or, they use technology to salvage books that otherwise would be lost. For the latter, good examples are the scanning and virtual unfurling of fragile Biblical scrolls, or an initiative by Omeka to virtually repair Broken Books.

Digitization and Online Archives

In digitization and online archives projects, museums, archives, and galleries come alive. They are online exhibits that let you interact with the artifacts, or they make primary sources like historical texts and photos available to view. Like we talked about a couple blogposts ago, these kinds of projects would be similar the British Library’s Flickr (by the way, the British Library also has a great blog about digital humanities) or the Association of Nova Scotia Museum’s NovaMuse.

This is one of the most popular categories of Digital Humanities activity, and like textual analysis, has been around since the nascent days of the field. Increasingly, full exhibitions are hosted online after they begin their life as a digitization project. Some award-winning project examples include Medieval Swansea and Mapping Hiroshima. I bet you can find many more on your own, too.

Cultural Analysis

Digital humanities projects in the cultural analysis category are a little more complex to explain than digitization projects or online archives. They are often based on large datasets, and use online maps, graphs, and other interactive elements to convey their findings with the public.

And those findings, in turn, often shed light on underlying cultural phenomena that we might not notice or be able to illustrate without the big datasets. Of all the categories, this is the one aside from textual analysis that “crunches the numbers” the most. A good example is Linked Jazz, which uses the open source software Linked Open Data to illustrate interpersonal connections between jazz musicians. This then shows how ‘loose networks’ play a large role in both history and our experience of the world around us.

Online Publishing

We’ve actually already talked about some of the best examples of online publishing projects. As previously mentioned, Blackwell’s Companion to Digital Humanities is free to read online. And it’s more than a digitized PDF; it’s a structured website based on the book. The other example we’ve mentioned is Debates in the Digital Humanities. Debates is powered by an open source publishing platform called Manifold. This enables the authors of the series to interact with their readers by allowing them to add highlights to passages and add terms to a crowdsourced index. As an additional plus, the interface is one of the cleanest, easiest-on-the-eyes online reading experiences out there.

Online Networks and Directories

You might have heard of HNet, a well-known example of digital humanities in the networking realm. Then there’s the Humanist Discussion Group, which has been going strong since 1987. Other major DH initiatives and organizations include University of Victoria Digital Humanities Summer Institute and centerNet. Another chance to learn and connect comes through The Programming Historian, where you can find tutorials on how to do pretty much anything related to digital humanities, and brush up on tech skills. There are also annual Digital Humanities Awards – you can explore past years to find other great examples of projects.

But Why Are We Talking About This?

By now, you may asking why all of this context matters. You’re probably wondering why we’ve spent so much time going through the ins and outs of an unfamiliar academic subfield. Why are we talking about this?

That, at least, is a fairly easy question to answer. Language in Lyrics owes its philosophy and methodology to the digital humanities. It has inherited digital humanities’ goal of public engagement, openness, and accessibility. Our song index won’t be data for data’s sake – it’s meant to be used as a tool by our Gaelic cultural community. And this is completely in keeping with the spirit of digital humanities.

Language in Lyrics . . . has inherited digital humanities’ goal of public engagement, openness, and accessibility.

Our song index won’t be data for data’s sake – it’s meant to be used as a tool by our Gaelic cultural community.

Now that we’ve explored where these digital humanities ideas come from, we can move on to explore other digital humanities projects within the online Gaelic world. Over the next two blogposts, we’ll be exploring what other digital resources are out there for Gaelic, especially music, both here in Nova Scotia and in Scotland, concentrating on how they harness technology. We’ll be comparing their approach and databases to the Language in Lyrics project.

See you next time for more kitchen table technology conversation.

Le beannachd,


Nonrequired further reading:

Association of Nova Scotia Museums. NovaMuse.

Arts and Humanities Research Council, University of Southampton, King’s College London Digital Lab, Queen’s University of Belfast. City Witness: Place and Perspective in Medieval Swansea.

British Library. Digital Scholarship blog.

Cambridge University. “Defining Digital Humanities.” Cambridge Digital Humanities.

Carnegie Mellon University. The Digital Humanities Literacy Guidebook.

Cashion, Debra Taylor. Broken Books. Saint Louis University.

CenterNet (An international network of digital humanities centers).

Compute Canada. “Q & A with John Simpson.” Humanities and Social Sciences Research Portal.

Digital Humanities Awards. Highlighting Resources in Digital Humanities.

Fish, Stanley. “Mind your P’s and B’s: The Digital Humanities and Interpretation.” The New York Times. 23 January 2012.

Gold, Matthew K. and Lauren F. Klein. Debates in the Digital Humanities 2019. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019).

Hiroshima Archive Production Committee. Hiroshima Archive.

HNet (Humanities and Social Sciences Online). Michigan State University.

King’s College London. Humanist (Journal and Discussion Group).

Koh, Adeline. “A Letter to the Humanities: DH Will Not Save You.” Hybrid Pedagogy. 19 April 2015.

Manifold (affiliated with University of Minnesota Press and funded by Andrew W. Mellon Foundation).

Pratt Institute Semantic Lab. Linked Jazz.

The Programming Historian.

Schreibman, Susan, Ray Siemens, and John Unsworth, eds. A Companion to Digital Humanities (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004).

University of Victoria. Digital Humanities Summer Institute.

Wieseltier, Leon. “Perhaps the Culture is Now the Counterculture.” The New Republic. 28 May 2013.

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