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

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.

Stay informed

  • 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,

Pursue training.

Workshops and Institutes

Online tutorials

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:

Find collaborators

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

Let me end with a plug for NITLE (the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education), my (relatively) new employer. One of the reasons I wanted to join the organization as the director of NITLE Labs is because I was impressed by its digital humanities initiative, which my colleague Rebecca Frost Davis leads. Among NITLE’s activities in the digital humanities:

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.

About Lisa Spiro

As director of NITLE (National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education) Labs, Lisa Spiro works with the liberal arts community to explore emerging technologies and develop collaborative approaches to integrating learning, scholarship and technology. Lisa has presented and published widely on the digital humanities, including contributions to Debates in the Digital Humanities, Collaborative Approaches to the Digital in English Studies, #alt-academy: Alternate Academic Careers for Humanities Scholars, The American Literature Scholar in the Digital Age, and Digital Humanities Pedagogy (under review). She is the founding editor of Digital Research Tools (DiRT) and authors the Digital Scholarship in the Humanities blog. Before coming to NITLE, Lisa directed the Digital Media Center at Rice University’s Fondren Library and worked at the University of Virginia's Electronic Text Center. Lisa serves on the Executive Council for the Association of Computers and the Humanities, the Board of DHCommons, and the Program Committee for the Joint Conference on Digital Libraries.