Defining DH: Tools, Texts and Metaphors

My first inclination in defining the digital humanities is to say that DH goes further than just digitization, and that the purpose of DH is not to compare online texts to those on paper, but to rethink the nature and purposes of scholarly communication and the tools that encircle the processes of learning and the sharing of information—especially now in a computerized, networked era.

The digital humanities seem to be a lens through which we can study the world around us—but also its infrastructures. To look at the tools that we use beyond just how they function on the user level but to try to take them apart and to see them from a variety of vantage points. I think this is part of the beauty of the digital humanities—the ability, as Rafael Alvarado points out, of seeing digital projects as “tools, texts, and metaphors.”

How does one then become a digital humanist? It seems that in a practical sense, that in order to be a DH’er, you must also be something else (first?)—an art historian, someone interested in English perhaps, or a librarian, for example. It seems to me that interdisciplinarity is at the heart of DH, much like in my own field of librarianship.

Although I don’t think I have seen it explicitly iterated in our reading, I also feel that research is at the center of DH. Understanding how and where to find data or how a search engine or database works does seem to be part of DH. Roxanne linked to an article from Inside Higher Ed this week which discussed the connections between Information Literacy (a concept historically tied very closely with librarianship) and DH, which had me comparing the two fields quite a bit—and also wondering how research might be a central component of both fields and yet how they still differ. I think perhaps DH is more focused upon process and projects than systems and organization, but this is something I hope to continue to think about this semester.

Further, in my first paragraph, I used the term “scholarly communication.” I think that DH is involved in picking apart what scholarly communication consists of, and also is realizing that important work and collaboration is being done outside the walls of the academy. I think that DH does speak specifically to scholarship, with the caveat that DH’ers are (or should be) involved in creating more fluid and inviting communities of scholars–outside of old traditions and hierarchies.

Finally, in thinking about defining DH, I’ve also been thinking about the field at this moment. Perhaps since the digital humanities is still a developing field, we might think more about what we want DH to be, rather than documenting what it is or has been. To that end, my hope is that DH can be defined by embracing some of the values that Lisa Spiro describes. One of the most important values that I hope DH continues to embrace (in addition to the collaborative, or “nice” nature), is openness. I think that openness in terms of an approach or a value is important (and especially in welcoming in underrepresented voices/perspectives), but also in a technical or even perhaps pedantic sense—in terms of striving to make DH projects licensed without standard copyright restrictions or according to free software standards so that these projects can be further used, expanded upon and preserved by others. My hope is that through this work toward openness and through further explorations of process and reflection, DH can continue to be a voice advocating for alternatives and discovery.

About Alycia Sellie

Alycia Sellie is the Associate Librarian for Collections at the Graduate Center Library.
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