Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Digital Humanities

The New York Times published an article today dealing with the rise of digital sources in Humanities scholarship, a subject I am passionate about and have written on in this blog.  There are those who see this increasing trend of 'data mining' as just that, a trend, and dismiss such efforts as quantifiably impressive but lacking in qualitative analysis.  Here is a quote from the article that exemplifies this point:
Digital humanities scholars also face a more practical test: What knowledge can they produce that their predecessors could not? “I call it the ‘Where’s the beef?’ question said Tom Scheinfeldt, managing director of the Center for New History and Media at George Mason University. 
What amazes me is that this question is being asked at all.  If I told you that the volume of a potential source base will increase to proportions only dreamed about in past generations, would that make you question the validity and applicability of the increase in sources simply because there was an increase?  Scholars who are quick to dismiss these new archives and digital sources are akin to those who upon discovering a back room in an archive refuse to enter the room or view its contents simply because previous knowledge of the room didn't exist.  Another quote to show how this attitude is prevalent in my own profession:
Most humanities professors remain unaware, uninterested or unconvinced that digital humanities has much to offer. Even historians, who have used databases before, have been slow to embrace the trend. Just one of the nearly 300 main panels scheduled for next year’s annual meeting of the American Historical Association covers digital matters.
 This is ridiculous!  We finally have the capability to view larger networks of human interaction and thought, and only one panel will even discuss digital sources.  Yet the article goes on to discuss Humanities projects that are using digitization to great effect.  Martin K. Foys, medievalist, undertook a project to bring the Bayeux Tapestry to the digital realm, and his efforts have made this traditionally difficult source to view easily viewable by anyone with interest.  Or take this example:
When the collected published works of Abraham Lincoln were posted online a few years ago, the director of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln, Daniel W. Stowell, said he expected historians to be the most frequent visitors to his project’s site. But he was surprised to discover that the heaviest users were connected to Oxford University Press; editors of the Oxford English Dictionary had been searching the papers to track down the first appearance of particular words.
Bingo- in my post on the Geocities Archive I mentioned that with the increasing nature of available, digitized sources, the 'expertise' of the traditional historian is quickly being surmounted by the efforts of several 'citizen' historians.    I believe we will discover that in-depth knowledge cultivated by professional historians will be degraded to a large extent by the ability of the 'crowd-sourced' model to, over time, produce equally quality interpretation of available sources.  Historians need to step up and take charge in this newly emerging digital humanities, if only to ensure that our work and ideas are fed by the most up-to-date sources.  

I will leave you with a small example of how digital humanities could impact a field near and dear to my own heart- Russian peasant studies.  Recently in Science magazine an article appeared explaining the workings of an online social networking experiment that used an online health community to bring participants in and monitor their networking activities.  They concluded that 'clustered networks', containing several duplicating or reinforcing links, spread information much faster than de-centralized, or random, networks.  This kind of data has relevance today, as everybody knows, because social networking is very hot in terms of user participation and potential advertising targeting.  

But guess what?  This behavior is not new and easily could have been studied by looking at Russian peasant activities in the 19th century during a rent hike or other, similar, social crisis.  My own studies into the Inventory Law Reform of 1848 in the right-bank Ukrainian provinces demonstrated networking behavior in the organization of collective defense, when villagers from several neighboring locales gathered in one village to pressure reform, or spread of rumor, such as the often presented complaint that peasants in other Ukrainian villages paid less in rent or were free from labor obligations.  I would love to have a project that goes through known printed reports on peasant disturbances and maps out the location of disputes, the area of 'collective defense' evidenced by gathering of neighbors, the travel distance and speed of rumors vs. the post, etc...  Digital Humanities could greatly impact Russian scholars interpretation of a group of people often considered backwards and immobile; an interpretation I believe to be largely false and one that could be decisively argued with the introduction of mapping models and digital databases.     

Digital Humanities, for me, is more than a passing fad or trend.  It is the force that will reshape the profession of History and the practice of its craft at a fundamental level.


  1. I agree with you that this approach has real potential -- certainly I use a very simple form of it in my dissertation (and am currently rather excited about the possibility of greatly expanding the data base so as to expose the familial networks of the British aristocracy over space and time). But I will say that one of the problems lies in the understanding of what you find there. Ok, so there's a 4% shift from the 18th to the 19th century. So what? Is the fact that it's statistically significant significant? How do you interpret the data? This does not mean that we should not do this type of work, but it does mean that we are going to have to be very thoughtful and, I think, transparent in our approach.

  2. I think the first part of your response is really the excitement I feel about the potential for Digital Humanities work. Increased source base is always welcome in our work- but you are correct, in that it can be difficult to establish just what the 4% of change your found actually means. I would liken the problem to one that medical researchers face in their tasks- a lot of their initial findings are more correlative until they gather enough data to engage in more focused research. Right now our use of digital sources or data dumps is very preliminary and certainly only covers very small areas in the humanities, so we should expect our initial findings to be somewhat unattached to larger issues. Yet, as more and more scholars engage in this work we can begin to see the larger picture of links and connections.

    Interpreting the data IS the hard part and if we want to make serious gains in this area of research we need to take cues from our medical and science colleagues and begin structuring our analysis more like their approach and share, share share the data.