The Digital Humanities does not exist. Or rather, it does not exist as a separate field, a bounded up box distinct from traditional disciplines.

Rather is it a metaphor, a powerful connector that allies existing disciplines with nascent ones. It is a connector that suddenly injects disparate subjects across the humanities with common concerns. Concerns over infrastructure, public engagement, scholarly communication. Over method.

Interdisciplinarity has always existed in the humanities, but the digital turn strengthens bonds in new ways. Archaeologists and linguists share needs for powerful processing infrastructures; philosophers need to reconsider their publishing strategies; theologians and historians suddenly have new audiences for their research opened up. A Sinologist suddenly has common cause with an historian of the book over XML mark up.

Grand Challenges

While this instinctive interdisciplinarity has influenced the restructuring of humanities faculties to include DH components, there is still doubt as to the effectiveness of the digital humanities. What have these ‘technological insurgents’ done to help answer the grand intellectual challenges facing the humanities? Therefore, an essential component of any contemporary digital humanities vision is helping address such challenges.

Aonach Tailteann Athletics- Croke Park: Hurdles Race | Independent Newspapers PLC
Hurdles Race (taken by Independent Newspapers PLC), National Library of Ireland, Rights Reserved

 

Any lasting vision for the Digital Humanities needs to strike a common basis with the broader faculty. It needs to be a venue to form teams not just in interdisciplinary sense but in the sense of methods and knowledge. A DH centre that wishes to thrive cannot content itself with tinkering with technological expertise and digital innovation.

Rather it needs to employ this knowledge in the framework of larger intellectual questions. A DH Centre must strike out and find common cause with those who are currently pursuing cutting edge themes but without incorporating digital methods. The task is not necessarily easy, but it is essential for the digital humanities to attain the respect it deserves.

Internationalisation

The Digital Humanities is a connector. Up until very recently it has failed to tap into global perspectives, with an emphasis on first world cultural history. This has relegated narratives from the global south, with the sundry effect of denying the relationships that exist at a global level.

Terrestrial pocket globe
Terrestrial pocket globe, Royal Museums Greenwich, CC-BY-NC-SA

 

By tackling questions of global import (often related to the grand challenges above), and by deploying open technical infrastructures and standards (for metadata, licensing, and via linked data), creating connections between the global objects of study in the humanities becomes much more feasible.

There is a softer side to this as well. The failure of the digital humanities to become truly global has practical roots; units in the global south can lack the finances, access to technology and general cultural to support DH. DH Centres can help in creating the alliances and sharing the infrastructures that would allow a global DH to blossom.

Scholarly Communication and Public Engagement

Inside and outside the academy, the humanities is undergoing a crisis. Public opinion is sometimes characterised by mistrust or disdain; government loathe the ambiguity, non-commercial and ideological aspects of the humanities. This has an obvious knock on effect in many ways – threatening student numbers and reducing government investment. The digital humanities can play a critical role in tackling this crisis.

Erasmus of Rotterdam
Erasmus of Rotterdam, Austrian National Library, Public Domain

This goes hand in hand with the changing landscape for scholarly communication. For the active DH centre, reconceptualising modes of scholarly communication is not an afterthought but an intrinsic part of examining how the humanities communicates amongst itself and with a wider public.

The adoption (and critical awareness) of new platforms for writing, visualisation, crowdsourcing, multimedia, and online resources themselves – allied to the reformed use of traditional outputs such as articles and monographs – can radically alter the humanists’ engagement with its audiences.

Any DH Centre must explore and build on these change, as well as tacking the grand international challenges of our time.