So you think you know Digital Humanities?

Although I have been enrolled in the Master of Digital Humanities (MDH) for a year by now, the discussion on “What is digital humanities?” remains relevant as there is no single answer to this simple question. In fact, there are several interesting definitions of digital humanities (DH) on the website. Every time you refresh their website you get a different point of view, another attempt at defining DH.

In my opinion, DH comes down to two essential and complementary elements: employing digital tools to study the Humanities and Social Sciences, and criticizing the limits and biases those tools may cause. Unfortunately defining DH brings a whole new set of problems to the table. As Lisa Spiro clarifies in “This Is Why We Fight”: Defining the Values of the Digital Humanities:

Even as the digital humanities (DH) is being hailed as the “next big thing”, members of the DH community have been debating what counts as digital humanities and what does not, who is in and who is out, and whether DH is about making or theorizing, computation or communication, practice or politics (Spiro, 2012).

The same people that try to define DH and therefore select the “chosen ones”, dwell on how wonderfull and revolutionary the community of DH is in comparison to other more traditional academics. Matthew Kirschenbaum noticed this (self)praise of Digital Humanities in his article on What is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments? after the discussion on Croxall’s paper at the 2009 Modern Language Association (MLA).

Many seemed to feel that the connection to wider academic issues was not incidental or accidental and that digital humanities, with a culture that values collaboration, openness, nonhierarchical relations, and agility, might be an instrument for real resistance or reform (Kirschenbaum, 2012).

This brings me to my next topic: “What are the core values of digital humanities?”. Before I discuss these values, I would like to point out that the simple act of defining values, usually means these values do not (yet) exist in reality.

The first value Lisa Spiro discusses in her article is openness on two levels, both in the exchange of ideas, and in the strive for open content and software as well as transparancy (Zorich, 2008). I believe several issues arise from this strive for openness. The first issue regarding the exchange of ideas, will be discussed together with the second value. Secondly, open content and transparancy in humanities research, can violate the privacy of the participants. Once there are clear guidelines, I do believe openness stands at the core of Digital Humanities. You can find DH project guidelines here: Digital_Humanities (Burdick et al., 2012, 122-135).

Spiro goes on to the second value of collaboration, which does not only improve productivity, but also encourages new approaches. However, in the humanities identifying the author is key, since the author should get the credit. Articles from the natural sciences often contain an entire list of authors, contributors, and so on, that are ordered according to their contribution. The first author for example is the person that wrote the article, while the last author oversees the project. Therefore I feel DH needs a clear order of contributors with meaning attached to every position so that every person that collaborated gets the correct recognition for their work. As Bethany Nowviskie already states in het blogpost on monopolies of invention:

The biggest question for you may be how you’ll open potentially awkward conversations about status in a way that strengthens your team, creates – rather than limits – opportunity, and permits the kind of fluidity and professional growth we all want to foster over the course of long-term, collaborative initiatives. (Nowviskie, 2009).

This statement also connects to Lisa Spiro’s third value of collegiality and connectedness. I truly hope that the positive atmosphere from the MDH generation 1.0, will transfer to the generation 2.0. In our program I do feel there isn’t such a competitive spirit as in my previous field of study, and the feedback and encouragement of fellow students is really nice. Whether this atmosphere applies to the broader DH community, I do not know.

The final two values will probably recur extensively in my next blogposts, so I will not discuss diversity and experimentation in this blogpost. However, in the context of experimentation I would like to add that no result, is still a result and should definitely not be hidden. When a certain project fails, describing the steps in the process can actually help other researchers, as well as open the discussion on why it didn’t work and how it could work with another method/tool/dataset.


Spiro, Lisa. ““This Is Why We Fight”: Defining the Values of the Digital Humanities.” Debates in the Digital Humanities. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.

Kirschenbaum, Matthew. “What Is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?”. Debates in the Digital Humanities. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.

Zorich, Diane. A Survey of Digital Humanities Centers in the United States. Washington, DC: Council on Library and Information Resources, 2008.

Burdick, Anne, Drucker, Johanna, Lunenfeld, Peter, Presner, Todd, and Schnapp, Jeffrey. Digital_Humanities. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012.

Nowviskie, Bethany. “Monopolies of Invention.” Bethany Nowviskie. December 30, 2009.