What Is Digital Humanities, and Why Does It Matter?

Toward a Definition of Digital Humanities for Fairfield University

Digital humanities starts from a humanistic, rather than mechanistic, understanding of digital technologies in a variety of cultural contexts. It examines how those technologies undergird the creation of knowledge and how new knowledge feeds back to technical advances in a reciprocal and recursive way. As such, DH extends the essential work of the Humanities departments by giving us new tools to analyze texts, to write, to teach writing, to think, and to solve problems. Digital humanities also offers new ways of exploring the idea of what constitutes a "text."

As a field, digital humanities encourages us to think about the relation between print, media, internet communication, and traditional disciplines of study. As scholars, we use digital technologies for the following goals:

Accessibility: New digital archives make texts accessible and available that were not before, giving us access to primary texts that in the past were only available in specialized libraries. See UCSB's English Broadside Archive.

These online archives also open up new ways to involve students in the actual presenting and editing of texts. Work with digitally reproduced archival material enables students to understand and work with the original texts and the process of transforming those texts for readers: suddenly scholarship and teaching become more closely connected.

Textual analysis: DH tools offer ways to search and collate texts –for example, when preparing an edition, DH tools enable us to analyze a wide corpus of texts for comparison of textual variants.

Analysis of data: DH tools offer us the ability to analyze large masses of data, and categorize them into useful formats that can be shared with and used by other scholars.

Presentation: Digital formats offer us ways to present our work in new formats, and to update it constantly. For example, digital editions of texts can be made available for classroom use; students find them attractive and easy to use because background information can be attached through hyperlinks.

Collaboration: Digital formats allow us to crowd-source information. For example, a web project that presents a bibliography of specific writers and translations of their work (e.g., French and English women writers in the eighteenth century, who often read and translated each other’s work) can solicit new pieces of information from readers around the globe, thus producing a far more complete product than any single researcher could efficiently find. Such a bibliography could be constantly updated, and thus become a tool for all scholars in the field. See Canada’s Interactive Language Rights Bibliography

New modes of knowledge: DH tools offer us new ways to conceptualize information. Mapping projects, for example, can spatialize knowledge in ways that old formats did not. See the Map of Early Modern London project.