Digital Humanities and Digitized Humanities: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Having grown up in the age of the internet, it would be disingenuous of me to say that I have no previous experience with digital humanities.  Indeed, working in the College of William and Mary’s library as an undergraduate, I assisted with transcribing and digitizing items in the Tyler family papers.  Later on, writing my undergraduate honors thesis, I was fortunate to live in a time where a huge number of late nineteenth and early twentieth century books are available on websites like Project Gutenberg and HathiTrust, fully accessible and searchable.  In no other era but the present could I have inserted whole paragraphs into my notes by copying and pasting, saving myself the trouble of meticulously reproducing each jot and tittle in my own notes.  Indeed, my notes ended up running into the hundreds of pages, so the fact that they were searchable over the computer was itself a godsend.  But the resources that most caught my imagination in the course of my research were the enormous historical newspaper databases that allowed me to explore the circulation of information and the coverage of certain events with the click of a mouse and the movement of a slider.  Given the choice between that and poring through microfilm newspaper collections in search of the appearance of a particular phrase or collection of words, as someone who has spent time doing both, there is no question which option I would choose.  It’s a wonder to me that any research got done at all in a pre-internet age.

At Michigan State, my first proper introduction to debates over digital humanities stem from a talk given last fall by Lara Putnam, chair of the history department at the University of Pittsburgh, called “The Transnational and the Text-Searchable: Digitized Sources and the Shadows They Cast,” reflections that eventually appeared as an article in the American Historical Review.  In that article, Putnam makes a perceptive distinction between the “digital” and the “digitized” turn, defining the first as the “specialized” arena of digital humanities scholars (who are keen, as our readings have demonstrated, to dissociate from what Bethany Nowviskie has called “supposedly uncritical, antitheoretical, presentist, cheerleading, neoliberal digital humanities culture”), and the second as “one that all historians, however traditional, are enacting, and about which the great majority of us have had nothing to say.”  Recalling Jonathan Sterne’s discussion of the “analog humanities,” in Patrik Svensson and David Theo Goldberg’s edited volume Between Humanities and the Digital, Putnam argues that the increasing popularity of “the transnational” in the humanities is related to the increasing prevalence of digital tools in the average humanities scholar’s toolkit (at least in the global North), and that this has the potential to threaten the place-based “analog” infrastructures scholars have traditionally relied on, from fieldwork to language study and regional studies centers.  Where many scholars both skeptical and supportive of the digital humanities might shrug at the use of search engines and digitized sources, Putnam identifies a revolutionary sea-change that forces us to re-examine the core of our respective disciplines.

When I went to hear Putnam speak about a year ago, I was initially more interested in the “transnational” side of her topic than the “digitized” side.  I came away with a new understanding of how the two are linked.  As Putnam argues, almost all historians today treat as commonplace practices that ten to twenty years ago would have constituted the cutting edge of “digital research methods.”  Yet most such scholars, myself included, would shrink from identifying ourselves as “digital humanities scholars.”

Reflecting on this today, I think of the controversies and debates in our readings from last week, and the recurring motif of digital humanities scholars’ self-indentification as a tight knit subculture within the humanities, struggling for legitimacy and recognition.  If Putnam is to be believed, the overwhelming majority of us are already digital humanities scholars, whether we realize it or not.  Digital humanities and the digitized turn, in reality, are two sides of the same coin.

It seems to me that coming to terms with the tremendous consequences of the digitized turn and accompanying technological innovations has the potential to de-exoticize digital humanities scholars.  If we’re in different parts of the river, but all heading to the same place, does it make sense to stigmatize digital humanities scholars to the extent that they feel as if they have to fight to be understood on their own terms, as Fiona M. Barnett so insightfully recalls in “The Brave Side of Digital Humanities”?  On the contrary, we should understand that digital humanities innovations, to the extent that they prove useful to scholars in a wide array of subfields, constitute the future of our disciplines in the same way that digital innovations will shape our lives in the future.  At the same time, “ordinary” scholars who do not consider themselves to be “techies” can no longer avoid coming to grips with the effect digital technologies and digitized sources have had on their work, as well as the major issues Putnam raises in her article about inequality and bias in digital sources (concerns echoed in many of our readings).  As of 2016, computers themselves are no longer particularly remarkable.  Neither are those interested in new ways to use them in the interest of humanities scholarship.

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