Digital Humanities (101) 3

The following, “Digital Humanities (101),” was presented on Wednesday, March 12, 2013, by Josh Honn, Digital Scholarship Fellow, Center for Scholarly Communication & Digital Curation, and Geoff Morse, Coordinator of Humanities and Social Sciences, to librarians and staff at Northwestern University Library. This presentation was also a chance to quasi-officially launch “A Guide to Digital Humanities” and Chicago DH.


Thank you all for coming out for our presentation on digital humanities (which I’ll also be calling simply DH). Geoff and I are hoping that this talk will work both as an introduction and a catalyst to further discussion within the library as we all continue to understand the role of digital technology in the scholarship of humanists, and the roles of librarians within digital humanities. None of this is really prescribed or even defined, and so this fluid field can often enable anxiety more than action, but through all of us sharing our experiences, both past and present, we’re hoping to facilitate an active praxis of digital humanities within the library, the university, and the greater DH community.

For my part of the presentation I want to very quickly introduce the backstory of digital humanities and share an update on recent developments on campus. From there, we’ll explore some definitions and values of digital humanities and examine examples of DH projects and tools. At that point Geoff will present on his experience becoming interested in digital humanities and further discuss what subject librarians can do to keep up with and become involved in DH. We’ll end the presentation by sharing some recommended resources, including a guide to digital humanities I’ve created for the Northwestern University community. Finally, we plan on leaving plenty of time for opening up the floor to questions, comments and discussions.


Origin stories are never as neat as we’d like them to be, but it’s always easiest to perpetuate a single story or source, and so it goes with the digital humanities. Most tend to agree that the digital humanities (a term that would not come to exist until 2004) began in the late 1940s when Father Roberto Busa, an Italian Jesuit priest, started working with early IBM computer technology to construct his vastly ambitious Index Thomisticus, a project that resulted in the complete concordances of the entire corpus of the writings of Thomas Aquinas. Completed nearly 30 years later, the Index Thomisticus was published as a 56-volume work and later turned into CD-ROM, DVD, and, in 2005, a web version was released. Busa’s work was made possible through an early collaboration with IBM founder Thomas Watson and his work included a myriad of associates, the number of which increased greatly with each new technologically advanced version of his concordances. Indeed, the scope of Father Busa’s project continues to be relevant today (as we’ll see later), in that it included the methods of the curation, editing, remixing, and remediating of cultural objects and texts, and its iterative, ever-evolving form.

Heading into the 1970s and 80s, this kind of work was increasingly known as “Humanities Computing,” a term that is less active today but whose influence is seen in seminal and still-leading organizations like the Association for Computers and the Humanities. It was during this period that Susan Hockey combined the work of a computer programmer and literary historian and SGML—Standard Generalized Markup Language—and TEI—Text Encoding Initiative—came to the fore, laying the groundwork for the early web-based digital humanities projects of the 90s such as Jerome McGann’s Rossetti Archive. Fast forward into the 21st century and a whole host of new digital methodologies, theories, critiques, practices, and forms, gave rise the the NEH launching the Office of Digital Humanities and the founding of major DH research centers and labs at the University of Virginia, University of Nebraska, Stanford University, MIT, George Mason University, and others.

Northwestern University has had a role in digital humanities throughout much of this history, probably best known through the work of Martin Mueller with text encoding, corpus building, and the building of digital tools for textual analysis such as WordHoard. In the library, nearly every department has had some role in the digital humanities (whether it’s been called that or not is another story), including, but certainly not limited to, metadata and digitization work, data and GIS services, systems administration and programming, and the creation of digital collections, online projects and websites, usually in close collaboration with humanities scholars.

This rich history continues to inform the most recent digital humanities activities at Northwestern University, activities which are the impetus for this presentation. With the caveat that the following examples of DH projects and initiatives on campus are limited to my personal knowledge and involvement, here’s a selection of some things that are currently happening:

  • Faculty members Michael Kramer in History and Jillana Enteen in Gender Studies have co-convened NUDHL, the Northwestern University Digital Humanities Lab which has been very popular with graduate students across the disciplines, particularly history, english, art theory and practice, and philosophy.
  • Michael Kramer’s Digital Folk Music History course, an upper-level undergraduate course where students use digital tools to annotate, interact with, and remix items from the Berkeley Folk Music Festival collection, housed here in Special Collections and that have been digitized by Digital Collections.
  • Various other faculty digital humanities projects, including Tracy Davis and her team of grads and undergrads who are performing the transcription of 19th century diaries online; and Jillana Enteen who is archiving and analyzing Thai sexual reassignment surgery websites. So, in other words, researchers are looking to do more than simply read digitized historical objects, and increasingly it is also born-digital material that is the primary source material of scholarly research.
  • In August, there will be a digital humanities summer faculty workshop, funded by the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, in which 5 scholars will further develop digital humanities skills and their own pedagogy and research projects. This workshop will be hosted by the Kaplan Institute for the Humanities, and organized by the Center for Scholarly Communication and Digital Curation and the Multimedia Learning Center, in collaboration with NUIT Academic & Research Technologies and Weinberg IT.
  • Lastly, in collaboration with faculty Steve Jones at Loyola University’s Center for Textual Studies and Digital Humanities and Marie Hicks at IIT’s Department of Humanities, we’ve launched Chicago DH, an informal group of scholars, technologists, librarians, and others dedicated to sharing digital humanities events, announcements, questions, and discussions in and around Chicago.


Let’s backup a bit now and ask the question: What is digital humanities?

In 2009, Matthew Kirschenbaum wrote a now oft-cited article titled “What is Digital Humanities and What’s it Doing in English Departments?” In it, he refers his readers to the, at that time current, Wikipedia entry for Digital Humanities, which he liked well enough:

“The digital humanities, also known as humanities computing, is a field of study, research, teaching, and invention concerned with the intersection of computing and the disciplines of the humanities. It is methodological by nature and interdisciplinary in scope. It involves investigation, analysis, synthesis and presentation of information in electronic form. It studies how these media affect the disciplines in which they are used, and what these disciplines have to contribute to our knowledge of computing.”

But that definition, in true humanist fashion, needs to be complicated, which is precisely what Peter Lunenfeld, Anne Burdick, Joanna Drucker, Todd Presner, and Jeffrey Schnapp did in their book Digital_Humanities, published this past November by MIT Press. They write,

“Digital Humanities represents a major expansion of the purview of the humanities, precisely because it brings the values, representational and interpretive practices, meaning-making strategies, complexities, and ambiguities of being human into every realm of experience and knowledge of the world. It is a global, trans-historical, and transmedia approach to knowledge and meaning-making.”

So, it’s clear that defining DH is not an easy proposition. Indeed, many have, in so many words, called it a useless and even dangerous term we need to do away with; but like it or not, it’s here and its substantive usage has only increased over the past few years. Maybe a way of better understanding these definitions is to break them down into their constituent parts, in hopes of beginning to see what types of activities shape digital humanities. There parts are not necessarily mutually exclusive and most DH projects consists of one of more. Later in the presentation we’ll see examples of each of these.

  • Scholarship presented in digital form(s)
  • Scholarship enabled by digital methods and tools
  • Scholarship about digital technology and culture
  • Scholarship building and experimenting with digital technology
  • Scholarship critical of its own digital-ness


Whether or not digital humanities, this hard to define field/thing, has certain values inherent to it, may be equally hard to prove, but many DH projects, often due to their digital nature, do have characteristics and traits in common to the point where one can see a community of practice built around, supported by, and interested in building upon, a set of common values. Even if the term “values” is problematic, these threads common to DH are an interesting way in getting to understand digital humanities itself, in both form and content, theory and practice. Some of these values include:

Critical & Theoretical. Digital humanities scholarship is grounded in theory and critical in the way many scholarly practices are also. However, and in addition, DH is also grounded in a humanistic criticism of the very tools, technologies, and platforms that enable its own practices and publications.

Iterative & Experimental. As the authors of Digital_Humanities write, “one of the strongest attributes of [DH] is that the iterative versioning of digital projects fosters experimentation, risk-taking, redefinition, and sometimes failure. It is important that we do not short-circuit this experimental process in the rush to normalize practices, standardize methodologies, and define evaluative metrics.”

Collaborative & Distributed. Digital humanities texts often have multiple authors, but more subtle and robust collaborations are the foundation of many DH projects, involving distributed networks of expertise including scholars, students, programmers, technologists, librarians, designers, and more.

Multimodal & Performative. Not always confined by the strictures and structures of print, digital humanities scholarship embraces many modes—text, audio, video, etc.—while also being expressive and performative in and of themselves. These performative texts use design and multiple modes of expression to put forth an argument, often further blurring the lines between reader and writer in new ways.

Open & Accessible. While not exclusively open access, most digital humanities scholarship embraces open and public forms of publishing, from the pre- and post-publication peer review of Twitter and blog posts, to Creative Commons-enabled digital publications, curated digital archives, and interactive digital projects. The goal, almost always, is access, interaction, and discussion.


Histories, definitions, and values, are all fine and well, but DH is ultimately about doing, making, building, deforming, and other more active approaches. Because of this, most “What is DH” presentations spend a good amount of time showing existing DH projects. We don’t have time to delve too deeply into the following examples, but these six projects show the vast diversity of DH, from its scope to its forms.

Julia Flanders and the Women Writers Project. “The Brown University Women Writers Project is a long-term research project devoted to early modern women’s writing and electronic text encoding. Our goal is to bring texts by pre-Victorian women writers out of the archive and make them accessible to a wide audience of teachers, students, scholars, and the general reader. We support research on women’s writing, text encoding, and the role of electronic texts in teaching and scholarship.”

Franco Moretti and Distant Reading. “Literature, the old territory; but within it, a shift from the close reading of individual texts to the construction of abstract models. The models are drawn from three disciplines— quantitative history, geography and evolutionary theory: graphs, maps and trees—with which literary criticism has had little or no interaction; but which have many things to teach us, and may change the way we work.”

Lev Manovich and Cultural Analytics. “The projects done at Software Studies Initiative are explorations in the growing field of digital humanities. The lab is developing theory and methods for the analysis of massive sets of images and video [also called] Cultural Analytics [which] is the use of computational and visualization methods for the analysis of massive cultural data sets and flows.”

Stanford University and Mapping the Republic of Letters. “Mapping the Republic of Letters is a collaborative, interdisciplinary, and international project in the digital humanities, centered at Stanford University. Since 2008, we have been creating visualizations to analyze ‘big data’ relating to the world of early-modern scholars. We focus primarily on their correspondence, travel, and social networks. While we make use of quantitative metrics to examine the scope and dimensions of our data, we remain committed to the qualitative methodologies of the humanities. We actively encourage collaborations with other projects.”

Lori Emerson and the Media Archaeology Lab. “The motto of this lab is that “the past must be lived so that the present can be seen.” Nearly all digital media labs are conceived of as a place for experimental research using the most up-to-date, cutting-edge tools available; however, the MAL (previously called the AML, or Archeological Media Lab)—which is, as far as we know, the first of its kind in North America—is a place for cross-disciplinary experimental research and teaching using the tools, the software and platforms, from the past.” (An example of the kind of work that could come out of such a lab is the book 10 Print, a book about the Commodore 64 BASIC program, but also about the history of computing and human interaction with programming, mazes, and more.)

Geoffrey Rockwell, Stéfan Sinclair and Text Analysis. “Voyant Tools is a web-based text analysis environment. It is designed to be user-friendly, flexible and powerful.” [Example: Word counts, concordances, raw and relative word frequencies and other visualizations of Luxima, the Prophetess, an 1859 novel.]


Before handing things off to Geoff, I’d like to briefly discuss some of the tools of the DH trade. Often and erroneously confused with methodology, digital tools can be a central focus of DH work, whether it’s understanding and critiquing software, programming new applications, algorithmically analyzing textual corpora, or organizing and presenting research in new digital ways. This by no means is an exhaustive list.

Programming, coding, and meta- languages. When digital humanists debate whether or not everyone should know how to code, what’s often overlooked is the myriad types of coding needed in many DH projects, including: programming in Python or Ruby; coding websites in HTML, CSS, and JavaScript; marking up texts in XML and TEI; and the robust amount of metadata work many projects require. So, whether or not coding is a prerequisite, no one person is well-versed enough in all of these languages, further highlighting the importance of collaboration in this field.

Databases and content management systems. Many digital humanities projects, are database driven and need a way to robustly organize a plethora of data and digital objects. Indeed, much of what we see and experience whether in the digital humanities, our personal lives, or the online content we read, is powered by database technology.

Software applications and virtual research environments. Voyant Tools turns out to be both a digital humanities project and a DH tool, but there are hundreds more, including all-encompassing suites called virtual research environments. If you’re interested in exploring DH tools, the best place to look is Bamboo DiRT, a repository of digital research tools for scholarly use.


What is a Librarian to Do(?)
In April 2012, I attended the Center for Institutional Cooperation’s Digital Humanities Summit at the University of Nebraska Lincoln. This was the first Digital Humanities event I had participated in and it was a great way to raise my awareness of some of the issues associated with Digital Humanities. The opening session had an optimistic view with mention of the potential of Digital Humanities has changed the way history is created and accessed both in terms of the scholarly community and the general public. Digital Humanities has facilitated a ”democratization” where members of the public have submitted archives and resources to scholarly projects. As an example of work of this nature Thomas pointed to the University of Nebraska Lincoln’s History Harvest and Iowa’s crowd-sourcing project on Civil War letters.

A major theme that developed during this event was the need for a new model of peer review. Digital Humanities, by its nature, often includes collaboration both within and outside the discipline. However, most of the participants emphasized that collaborative work was not considered for tenure and promotion in their departments. Another topic discussed was the potential and the logistical challenges of pooling resources for Digital Humanities work. Since Digital Humanities projects can be labor intensive, ways of sharing expertise across institutions were discussed. Although no conclusions were reached these discussions were useful in that they highlighted some of the issues surrounding Digital Humanities projects relating to the need for a wide range of technical expertise.

A humanities librarian who would like to learn more about the Digital Humanities has a number of avenues for learning available to them. In a few minutes Josh will mention some of these such as THATCamps and the ACRL’s dh + lib. In addition, I will mention a few things that the humanities librarian can pursue on their own in this area. First, look at literature that focuses on the Digital Humanities in relation to your discipline. For instance, a blog entry mentions that the American Religious history discipline has not been heavily into the Digital Humanities for the following reasons:

  • Traditionally humanities researchers do not communicate well with computer people
  • Cost of startup of projects and logistical considerations are daunting
  • Questions of peer review are unresolved

If nothing else this blog post provides you with some commonly held perceptions relating to the Digital Humanities in this area of study. An article by Charles Ess (“Revolution? What Revolution?” Successes and Limits of Computing Technologies in Philosophy and Religion in A Companion for Digital Humanities, Blackwell, 2004) mentions that although religious scholars, such as Father Roberto Busa, were pioneers in textual analysis, there are relatively few religious studies DH projects out there. However, religious communities have exploited the web. Another article in Digital Humanities Quarterly describes the challenges of using TEI to markup Tibetan Buddhist texts. These articles provide you with some historical context and some information on current work in the Digital Humanities as it relates to a specific discipline.

Another thing you can do to familiarize yourself with what is happening in your area is to look for recent conferences and see if the programs and / or proceedings are readily available. For instance, Brown University hosted a conference in April 2012 titled Ancient Religion, Modern Technology. This conference focused on digital projects that deal with ancient religion, primarily in the Mediterranean and West Asia. The list of speakers and participants provide several names of people who are active in the Digital Humanities in the area of ancient religion. This can be helpful in terms of searching for works they have authored and for looking at some of their current work in the Digital Humanities.

All of the above can help a subject liaison librarian become better versed in work that is happening in their area which will better prepare them to speak with faculty and better able to assist students. However, in addition to doing literature searches and seeing what has been discussed at conferences it is important to look for examples of work in your discipline. One can start with searching to see if faculty at your home institution are working on but it is also very helpful to go further afield. For instance the examples below might be of particular interest to a religious studies liaison:

  • Latin Works of John Wycliff: Fordham and Georgetown working on digitizing decaying 19th century works published by the Wycliff society.
  • Virtual Paul’s Cross project: An interesting recreation of 1622 sermon by John Donne.
  • Clergy of the Church of England database: This database contains records of clerical careers from over 50 archives in England and Wales with the aim of providing coverage of as many clerical lives as possible from the Reformation to the mid-nineteenth century.
  • Spiritual Mapping Project: This blog post describes a proposed project by a University of California Santa Barbara student.

One thing to point out with all of these projects is that it is fairly easy to see that librarian support is necessary to most of these endeavors. The traditional skills of librarianship are still fundamental to helping locate and identify sources for use in Digital Humanities projects.

Finally, if you have time and interest, experiment with some Digital Humanities tools. Check out online transcription software by participating in a crowd sourcing project, try your hand at TEI or try digitizing some audio tapes. Working with the tools necessary in Digital Humanities work will give you a better feel for what is needed to start and complete a project and may help you provide better feedback when a faculty member approaches you for information on where to start a project.


Before opening things up for questions, comments, and discussions, we’d like to highlight just a few resources particularly useful for Northwestern University librarians.

Thank you.


Josh Honn

Josh Honn is Digital Scholarship Librarian at the Center for Scholarly Communication & Digital Curation, Northwestern University, where he works with faculty and graduate students in the humanities on digital pedagogy and research projects.