Getting Started in Digital Humanities
When I presented at the Great Lakes College Association’s New Directions workshop on digital humanities (DH) in October, I tried to answer the question “Why digital humanities?” But I discovered that an equally important question is “How do you do digital humanities?” Although participants seemed to be excited about the potential of digital humanities, some weren’t sure how to get started and where to go for support and training. Building on the slides I presented at the workshop, I’d like to offer some ideas for how a newcomer might get acquainted with the community and dive into digital humanities work. I should emphasize that many in the digital humanities community are to some extent self-taught and/or gained their knowledge through work on projects rather than through formal training. In my view, what’s most important is being open-minded, experimental, and playful, as well as grounding your learning in a specific project and finding insightful people with whom you can
discuss your work.
Determine what goals or questions motivate you
As with any project, a research question, intellectual passion, or pedagogical goal should drive your work. Digital humanities is not technology for the sake of technology. It can encompass a wide range of work, such as building digital collections, constructing geo-temporal visualizations, analyzing large collections of data, creating 3D models, re-imagining scholarly communication, facilitating participatory scholarship, developing theoretical approaches to the artifacts of digital culture, practicing innovative digital pedagogy, and more.
Get acquainted with digital humanities
- The CUNY Digital Humanities Resource Guide, which was produced collaboratively, offers an excellent introduction to digital humanities, covering sample projects, syllabi, “hot topics,” journals, and more.
- Nebraska’s Digital History Project offers “a number of essays, interviews, and lectures by practicing digital historians along with a Directory of Digital Historians, project reviews, tool reviews, and digital history course syllabi, undergraduate class projects and graduate student digital research projects.” (Hat tip Doug Seefeldt.)
- Ask or answer a question on DH Questions & Answers, “a community-based Q&A board” where people weigh on everything from designing a digital history curriculum to computational analysis of perspective in art.
- Look through Blackwell’s Companion to the Digital Humanities, which collects essays from some leading thinkers in the digital humanities (and based on my preliminary research seems to be the most commonly assigned text in digital humanities courses). Another frequently assigned text is Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig’s Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web.
- Look through journals in the digital humanities, including Digital Humanities Quarterly, LLC, and Digital Studies / Le champ numérique.
Participate in the digital humanities community
Frankly, I think that the energy, creativity, and collegiality of the digital humanities community offer powerful reasons to become a digital humanist.
- Attend a THATCamp. At a THATCamp, participants spend the first session setting up the agenda, drawing from blog posts they contributed prior to the event. They devote the rest of the time to hands-on workshops and discussions about topics such as pedagogy, text visualization, and collaboration. These inexpensive, interactive, non-hierarchical unconferences typically are organized regionally (Toronto, New England, Bay Area, New Mexico) or by theme (pedagogy, publishing, liberal arts colleges, games, museums). You can learn a lot just by browsing the session proposals and summaries from past THATCamps, so I’m excited that PressForward, the innovative publishing venture from the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, will soon publish Proceedings of THATCamp. (I enjoyed my THATCamp experience so much that I worked with Andrew Torget and Anita Riley Dryden to organize THATCamp Texas.)
- Go to a digital humanities conference. The annual Digital Humanities conference sponsored by the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations (ADHO), features the latest research and a lively community. Disciplinary conferences such as the Modern Language Association and American Historical Association include a number of digital humanities-related sessions.
- Participate in–or start up–a regional group, such as Decoding Digital Humanities (with chapters in London, Melbourne, Bloomington, and Lisbon), Toronto Digital Scholarship (DISC), Digital Humanities in Boston & Beyond, or Digital Humanities Southern California.
- Support a professional organization in digital humanities, such as the Association for Computers and the Humanities (I’m privileged to serve on the Executive Council) or the Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing.
- Participate in an online community, such as the Digital Americanists (I’m one!), Digital Classicists, Digital Medievalists, HASTAC, EighteenthCentury.org, and Romantic Circles.
- Take part in crowdsourcing projects that engage the public in contributing to scholarly work, such as Transcribe Bentham.
- Review work in the digital humanities, such as by participating in an open peer review process (e.g. for the Journal of Digital Humanities) or by signing on to be a reviewer for a grant program, journal, or conference.
- Follow and interact with digital humanities folks on Twitter. Not only is Twitter a great way to keep tabs on what’s going on in the community, but it can help connect you with people, so when you meet them for the first time at a conference you already feel that you sort of know them.
- Read and respond to blogs.
- I always learn something from ProfHacker, a fantastic group blog focused on teaching, tools, and productivity. (By the way, ProfHacker was hatched at a THATCamp.)
- GradHacker covers software reviews, discussions of professional issues, and more, from a grad student perspective. (Hat tip Ethan Watrall.)
- Subscribe to the Humanist Discussion Group, which is expertly facilitated by Willard McCarty and has supported conversation and information sharing since 1987.
- Check out Digital Humanities Now, which brings together current discussions and news in the digital humanities community “through a process of aggregation, discovery, curation, and review.”
- Follow what people are bookmarking on Diigo or Delicious. (I’m a compulsive bookmarker, but not so good about annotating what I come across.)
- Join the Digital Humanities Zotero group, which collects resources on the digital humanities. (Hat tip Mark Sample.)
- Explore what’s going on at digital humanities centers. Check out CenterNet, an “international network of digital humanities centers.”
- Connect with local digital humanities centers. For example, in the Great Lakes region, Michigan State University’s MATRIX builds digital collections, hosts H-Net, offers training, and more. (Hat tip Ethan Watrall).
Explore examples for inspiration and models
To find projects, see, for example,
- NEH Office of Digital Humanities’ library of funded projects, browsable by type of project (e.g. toolbuilding, public projects, education).
- NINES lists peer reviewed projects in 19th century studies; 18thConnect is doing the same for 18th century studies.
- Arts & Humanities.net allows you to browse projects by discipline, funding body, and content type.
- The Institute for Enabling Geospatial Scholarship’s catalog of Spatial Humanities Projects.
- Patrick Sahle’s Catalog of Scholarly Digital Editions.
Workshops and Institutes
- The Digital Humanities Summer Institute, hosted at the University of Victoria, has an excellent reputation and offers week-long workshops on topics such as text encoding, multimedia, Geographical Information Systems, project management, and digital pedagogy, taught by leaders in the field. Scholarships are available, and the ACH provides travel bursaries for graduate students.
- The Nebraska Digital Workshop, sponsored by the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities (CDRH) at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln (UNL), enables a select group of early career scholars to present their work to and get feedback from senior scholars.
- NEH Institutes explore key topics in the digital humanities and often cover travel costs. Upcoming institutes focus on TEI, spatial humanities, linked ancient world data, working with digital text, digital cultural mapping, and high performance computing.
- The NINES Summer Workshop offers in-depth training to scholars in 19th C British and American literature.
- Oxford University offers a week-long summer workshop in digital humanities.
- The University of Virginia’s Rare Book School often includes sessions of interest to digital humanists, such as “Born Digital Materials: Theory & Practice,” “XML in Action: Creating Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) Texts” and “Digitizing the Historical Record.”
- The Women Writers Project (WWP), which has significant expertise in the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI), provides seminars and workshops.
- The Michigan State University Cultural Heritage Informatics (CHI) Fieldschool brings together students to collaborate on cultural heritage projects, developing skills in project management, design, programming, etc. (Hat tip Ethan Watrall.)
- Overviews: Stanford’s Tooling Up for Digital Humanities provides helpful introductions to digitization, pedagogy, data visualization, and more.
- Doing online research: William J. Turkel’s Going Digital.
- Geographical Information Systems: the Institute for Enabling Geospatial Scholarship’s tutorials on Spatial Humanities Step by Step, UCLA’s GIS tutorials.
- Text Analysis: TAPoR Portal Recipes (I’m a fan of TAPoR, which provides tools for analyzing and visualizing texts, and a member of the TAPoR advisory group.)
- Text Encoding Initiative/ XML: TEI by Example; the WWP’s Resources for Teaching and Learning about Text Encoding; Laura Mandell, Brian Pytlik-Zillig, Syd Bauman, et al, XSLT-for-Humanists; John Bradley, Elena Pierazzo and Paul Spence, An XSLT Tutorial.
- Programming: William J. Turkel and Alan MacEachern, The Programming Historian; Jason Heppler, The Rubyist Historian.
Learn standards and best practices
If you want your project to have credibility and to endure, it’s best to adhere to standards and best practices. By talking to experts, you can develop a quick sense of the standards relevant to your project. You may also wish to consult:
- Arts & Humanities Data Service’s Guides to Good Practice
- The NINCH Guide to Good Practice in the Digital Representation and Management of Cultural Heritage Materials
- Peer review standards for NINES and 18thConnect
- Grant guidelines (e.g. from the NEH) for technical standards, particularly regarding data management and sustainability
Most digital humanities projects depend–and thrive–on collaboration, since they typically require a diversity of skills, benefit from a variety of perspectives, and involve a lot of work.
- Digital Humanities Commons serves as an online hub (or matchmaking service) where people can identify projects to collaborate with and projects can discover collaborators. (I’m a member of the advisory board.)
- Talk with library and IT staff at your own institution. Although many library and IT professionals are necessarily focused on the day-to-day, there is also an increasing recognition that what will distinguish libraries and IT groups is their ability to collaborate with scholars and teachers in support of the academic mission. Be a true collaborator–don’t just expect technical (or content) experts to do your bidding, but engage in conversation, shape a common vision, and learn from each other. (Steve Ramsay offers great advice to collaborators in “Care of the Soul,” and the Off the Tracks Workshop devised a useful “Collaborators’ Bill of Rights.”) If you can bring seed funding or administrative backing to a project, that might make it easier to attract collaborators or garner technical support.
- Reach out to others in your community. By attending a THATCamp or corresponding with someone who shares your interests, you may discover people who can contribute to your project or help shape a common vision. You could also find a colleague in computer science, statistics or another field who has common research interests and would be eager to collaborate. You might able to hire (or barter with) consultants to help out with technical tasks or provide project advice; I understand that Texas A&M’s Initiative for Digital Humanities, Media, and Culture is exploring offering consulting services in the future to help advance the digital humanities community.
- Engage students. While there can be risks (after all, students graduate), students can bring energy and skills to your project. Moreover, working on digital humanities projects can give them vital technical, project management, and collaborative skills.
- Consider a DIY approach. As Mark Tebeau of Cleveland Historical wisely observed at the New Directions workshop, if your institution doesn’t provide the support you need for your DH project, why not strike out on your own? As Trevor Owens suggests in “The digital humanities as the DIY humanities,” it takes a certain scrappiness to get things done in digital humanities, whether that’s learning how to code or figuring out how to set up a server. If you don’t think you have the time or skills to, say, run your own web server, consider a hosted solution such as Omeka. In the long term, it’s a good idea to affiliate with an institution that can help to develop and sustain your project, but you may be able to get moving more quickly and demonstrate the value of your idea by starting out on your own.
Plan a pilot project
Rather than getting overwhelmed by trying to do everything at once, take a modular approach. At the New Directions workshop Katie Holt explained how she is building her Bahian History Project in parts, beginning with a database of the 1835 census for Santiago do Iguape parish in Brazil and moving into visualizations, maps, and more. This approach is consistent with the “permanent beta” status of many Internet projects. Showing how a project moves from research question to landscape review to prototype to integration into pedagogy, Janet Simons and Angel Nieves of Hamilton’s Digital Humanities Initiative demonstrated a handy workflow and support model for digital projects at the workshop.
Where possible, adopt/adapt existing tools
Explore open source software. Too often projects re-invent the wheel rather than adopting or adapting existing tools.
- Find tools via Digital Research Tools (DiRT) wiki (which I founded. Bamboo DiRT now has a new home and provides better browsing and sharing capabilities, thanks to the hard work of the fabulous Quinn Dombrowski and Bamboo).
- SHANTI’s UVa Knowledge Base offers useful information about technologies, teaching, and research approaches. (Aimed at the University of Virginia, but more widely applicable.)
- You can also poke around GitHub, which hosts code, to identify tools under development by members of the digital humanities community such as CHNM and MITH.
NITLE Can Help
- Hosting a (free) online Digital Scholarship Seminar Series. Archived sessions include Joining the National Digital Humanities Conversation: Communities, Conferences, Centers and Digital Scholarship in the Online Archive.
- Producing white papers, book chapters, and blog posts focused on digital humanities at liberal arts colleges, including
- Rebecca Frost Davis, How to engage in digital humanities at small liberal arts colleges?
- Rebecca Frost Davis and Quinn Dombrowski, “Divided and Conquered: How Multivarious Isolation is Suppressing Digital Humanities Research” (PDF)
- Offering (through collaboration between Rebecca and Kathryn Tomasek of Wheaton College) a workshop on “Integrating Digital Humanities Projects into the Undergraduate Curriculum.”
If you’re a veteran digital humanist, how did you get started, and what do you wish you knew from the beginning? If you’re a newcomer, what do you want to know? What worries you, and what excites you? What did I leave out of this overview? I welcome comments on my blog.
Originally published by Lisa Spiro on October 14, 2011. Revised March 2012.