Digital humanities is a spectrum; or, we’re all digital humanists now

Digital humanities is a spectrum. To put it another way, all humanities scholars use digital practices and concepts to one degree or another, even those who do not identify as digital humanists. Working as a digital humanist is not one side of a binary, the other side of which is working as a traditional scholar.

Consider a few examples: one historian keeps notes and transcribed documents in MS Word documents so that they can be searched. A literary scholar uses a print-on-demand machine to get a physical copy of a book or newspaper scanned by Google. A medievalist uses a library or archive website to read a document that would otherwise require a trip to Europe. A professor making assignments for a class posts readings to Blackboard. A graduate student in a hurry uses Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature to verify a footnote. A history department circulates papers for a workshop via e-mail.

These examples are all done by scholars every day. The examples are unremarkable: using these methods does not imply that the scholar works in the digital humanities. They are unremarkable, though, because they are ubiquitous.

Moving from these practices to the digital humanities is a difference of degree, not of kind. It’s only one step from searching Word documents to using Zotero, and from there it is only a few more steps to text mining. A scholar who uses online digital collections is that much closer to curating an online collection, perhaps using A professor who can post readings to Blackboard can create a course website using WordPress. Circulating papers for comment via e-mail might be a second cousin to posting your manuscript online for comment, but the two types of review are related.

My argument that all scholars now use digital practices to some degree is not to miss how the digital humanities fundamentally transform scholarship. I’m simply arguing that we’re already being transformed—all of us.

Defining digital humanities as a spectrum might help resolve one of the contradictions I see in discussion of the digital humanities. On the one hand, these discussions often lament the barriers between digital scholars and traditional scholars, with worries about how new scholarship can be recognized as valid and how digital humanists can be tenured. I do not want to minimize these concerns at all; they are some of the pressing problems of the digital humanities. But the solution to these problems is not a rhetoric of binary. I think the answer will come from what is, on the other hand, digital humanities’ ethos of inclusion. It’s the ethos that says, I’m a coder and you’re not, so let me teach you, or let me build the tools you need. It’s the ethos that says texts and tools should be available for all and that publicly funded research and instruction should be publicly accessible.

This concept of a spectrum can turn the ethos of inclusion into a tool of persuasion. Does someone question whether digital humanities work counts as scholarship? Demonstrate how the work advances or refines techniques implicit in more traditional scholarship. Does a scholar doubt the value of identifying as a digital humanist? Point out how that scholar is already using digital methods and concepts.

In other words: we’re all digital humanists now. Persuading other scholars of that is a way to spread what is best in the ethos of digital humanities.