Openly Uncertain, Certainly Open

The often noted (and equally often lamented) “vagueness” of the overall digital humanities endeavor points to one of its greatest strengths. Though the boundaries of the field, community, or set of practices known by the name “digital humanities” are difficult to establish (as Barbara Rockenbach points out in her introductory piece to the recent issue of JLA that occasions this post), the need for a clear and uncontroversial delineation of them is questionable.  At some level, even the term “humanities” is needlessly confining when discussing the issues surrounding DH, since the rise of computational methods and the increasing availability of well-organized data that stand to revolutionize humanities scholarship have been equally game-changing in the sciences. In fact, many of the theories and methods associated with the “computational turn” in scholarship are in play regardless of disciplinary focus.

Yet the persistent uncertainty that surrounds the definition of DH can be particularly harrowing for libraries and librarians. The means of entry to the field are so numerous, the points of overlap between DH and the goals of libraries so varied (as Chris Sula along with Micah Vandegrift and Stewart Varner point out with illuminating clarity), a librarian could easily fall back to one of two unhelpful positions: one of complacency that stems from the realization that libraries are already doing, and have been doing for quite some time, a great many projects that are easily categorizable as the “digital humanities”; or one of paralysis brought on by the sheer range of paths one could take to join the field.

DH isn’t monolithic or prescriptive. It’s a term that suggests the momentum of new projects extending the library’s reach into new and potentially innovative directions, whatever form those may take.

It’s here that that notable vagueness can inspire a change in mindset: no matter how deeply engaged your library is with digital humanities projects, the motivating forces behind DH push you to go just beyond. The “vagueness” of DH gives libraries the opportunity to channel these forces in productive directions, building on current strengths and promoting the digital humanities by pushing locally established humanities offerings into digital directions at the level of research, pedagogy, collections, or elsewhere. DH isn’t monolithic or prescriptive. It’s a term that suggests the momentum of new projects extending the library’s reach into new and potentially innovative directions, whatever form those may take. In this sense, the digital humanities is less a field, community, or set of practices than an approach guided by inspiration and, of course, technology. The digital horizon is constantly receding, not simply through the creation of new technologies, which themselves can as easily distract as inspire, but through the possibilities for improved research and access these technologies have pointed toward and eventually made commonplace. Digital means of research and access have continually expanded our notion of what is possible, while leaving behind a trail of previous techniques that have become established and familiar tools we can’t live without.

From a pre-digital perspective, for example, it’s easy to see how the advent of digitized books available to full-text searching would bring about enormous change in how we engage with written material. Content which was previously hidden in layers of pages, with perhaps only an index or less as a guide, could now be scanned quickly and effectively, and displayed with just a few keystrokes. Finding that elusive quote you couldn’t quite place inside an 800-page novel no longer involved copious amounts of (often frenzied) rereading. Instead, typing a word might summon forth every instance of it, a huge advance in efficiency, but also the foundation for new forms of scholarship. Yet in many cases today we take full-text search for granted as a foundational capacity of digital culture, and the technological capabilities we stagger at now are characterized by far more advanced means of engagement with the text. If searching is a tool that takes us immediately to what we want to read (again, a revolutionary function in itself), today we are not required to think of the text as something just to be read, but as the site of potentially far more sophisticated computational analysis, as a multi-layered object to be reconfigured and recombined with other texts to form new ones. In his “Conjectures on World Literature,” Franco Moretti coins the term “distant reading” to describe the new method of scholarly attention text mining allows us to pay to previously insurmountably large bodies of text, such as the canon of a wide-reaching field like “world literature.” Though surely these modes of engagement are not purely new, the speed and scale at which creators and scholars can work in these modes today encourages ambitious projects and copious experimentation.

The form our collections take and the ways we instruct users to access them can inspire creative methods of research to produce new forms of inquiry.

The digital humanities approach, in fact, has encouraged a redefinition of the text, and more broadly, of content, and libraries are strongly encouraged to do the same to keep up. Micah Vandegrift and Steward Varner’s piece offers a persuasive appeal to the library to “function as a place where scholars can try new things, explore new methodologies and generally experiment with new ways of doing scholarship.” Libraries have always endeavored to make resources accessible to their users, and the growing appeal of the digital humanities should remind us that making text as available as possible is only one component of making it usable. In “New Age Scholarship: The Work of Criticism in the Age of Digital Reproduction,” Sean Latham stresses that the digital archive has been crucial in producing new critical attitudes toward history and culture, and goes so far as to claim that the “digital archive” is “the condition of possibility for cultural studies itself.” It’s not the resources themselves that have “activated…a transformative method of scholarly inquiry,” but the ways in which users are able to access them. The library in its core mission of connecting users to information can initiate this type of transformation. The form our collections take and the ways we instruct users to access them can inspire creative methods of research to produce new forms of inquiry–see for instance the relatively recent rise of prosopography, or “collective biography.”

Vandegrift and Varner affirm that the role of the library is to “support the journey of research as a means in itself, and encourage imaginative, new, transformative uses of the products of research.” If the methods of digital scholarship can be off-puttingly dry or technical to some, involving the obscure languages of computer code and databases, here is a reminder that the process and results can also be characterized in terms of play and experimentation. It’s an effort that reminds us that the wide horizons of the digital humanities can find their match in libraries open to new forms of service and collaboration.

Devin Higgins

Devin Higgins

Devin Higgins is Digital Library Programmer at Michigan State University. His current professional interests include text mining, data visualization, and digital collections that promote user exploration.