What We Think We Will Build and What We Build in Digital Humanities

After five years “workin’ on the railroad,” I find myself confronting one of the central paradoxes of doing digital humanities–what Jerome McGann, one of the leading scholars of electronic texts, calls the problem of imagining what you don’t know. In digital humanities, what we think we will build and what we build are often quite different, and unexpectedly so. It’s this radical disjuncture that offers us both opportunities and challenges.

The Railroads and the Making of Modern America digital project, as it turned out, became my sub sub-library to borrow a phrase from Herman Melville and Moby Dick. And the work of the sub sub-librarian became one of classification and interconnection–it required getting out in the world too, talking with other collectors and librarians. In a way it required a different scholarly identity. Even so, as Melville warned, the archive “however authentic” offers only “a glancing bird’s eye view of what has been promiscuously said, thought, fancied, and sung of Leviathan, by many nations and generations, including our own.”[1]

When we produce a work of scholarship in whatever form, Jerome McGann reminds us that “to make anything is also to make a speculative foray into a concealed but wished for unknown.” The work that we make, McGann tells us, “is not the achievement of one’s desire: it is the shadow of that desire.”[2]

I am particularly aware of McGann’s disjunction right now, (and of Melville’s caution), I suppose, because my project on Railroads and the Making of Modern America is at the end of five years. With the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, we have created a large digital archive, databases, visualization models, and some scholarly research publications. We have a cohort of graduate students in digital history trained and experienced. We have an audience of users.

But McGann’s comment keeps raising its head. He tells us that that with which we conclude is only a shadow of the desired object. What we think we will build and what we build are not the same thing in digital humanities. We have only a “glancing bird’s eye view.”

This is as true of a book, a film, a painting, or a symphony as it is of a digital work. But right now, at this moment in the development of the digital medium, I think we can see how far we are from understanding the genre–of how far we are from being able to say send me “a prospectus” or its equivalent. The distance between our wish and our object is often so great because the forms and practices and procedures of creation in the digital medium remain profoundly unstable and speculative.

McGann’s premise might be restated: if you have produced what you thought you would, perhaps you’ve not created anything really; if a digital project becomes what was specified it might not be a digital humanities work.

A series of questions have presented themselves, but what we really are asking in the broadest terms is how does scholarly practice change with digital humanities?

1. Is an archive an argument? And a related question, where is our scholarship?

Most projects in digital humanities begin as a digital archive, creating a collection of documents that are digitized. I want to encourage this–in the disciplines we need more attention to this work as scholarship. But digital scholars also seek to both assemble and analyze, both examine and interpret.

Five million books might be digitized, but the millions and millions of cubic feet of archival railroad records, well that was something else. What is a representative sample of railroad records?

We built a digital archive topically arranged for easy access and usability by the widest audience possible. Railroad texts were structurally so dissimilar that we confronted a major classification problem, one that we could not effectively address.

The architecture and encoding of a digital archive–what Johanna Drucker calls “creating the intellectual model” – must be undertaken speculatively.[3] It must be adjusted, changed, explored. Interpretive archives cannot be built to spec.

Digital history has yet to fully confront the diversity of document types that we might wish to archive. We can build models from long runs of legal case files or printed texts or runaway slave newspaper advertisements, but when we turn to a domain such as railroads, or slavery, or genocide, or the family, the intellectual model behind an archive, so often expressed in encoded texts, becomes unwieldy. We have tended to make archives of homogeneous document types, when the study of railroads, or slavery, or genocide demand much more capacious archives, with multiple, perhaps arbitrarily many, document types, as well as searchability across those types. In other words, we have tended to build archives that did not force us to confront these document-type problems, rather than the archives we truly need.

This challenge is our opportunity to reconsider the “digital archive” as intentional and interpretive–in our case to offer a new way to encounter the railroad. Rather than focus attention on the board room, or the directors, the archive can open up a diverse array of railroad users and interfaces. Its argument would be to expose the ways railroads were used and thought of. We want to create a new history of the railroad.

But as we create interpretive archives we need to be able to answer the question: Where is our scholarship? This is where we need allies–libraries in particular–as partners in modelling, preserving, and making available this scholarship.

The second question we face in digital humanities at this juncture is: How do we work differently?

2. How do we work in teams of scholars in the humanities?

Digital humanities projects are often characterized as collaborative. In many respects this is the most obvious change in scholarly practice–we work with librarians, programmers, and colleagues in other disciplines.

The opportunity here seems self-evident. But the model of historical and humanities scholarship has been sole-author, sole-researcher for a long time, and for most universities the evaluation for hiring, promotion, and tenure proceeds to assess candidates on this basis.

In the Railroads project I wanted a team of graduate students to have the opportunity to gain experience in digital work, to advance their own scholarship, and where possible to participate in research publications. The challenge for digital humanities now is to make this work count where appropriate. We have begun keeping track of all research publications associated with the project–and we will be co-authoring new articles for the project with teams of researchers. In the early phase of digital humanities we built teams, and teams built projects. But now we are seeing teams contributing to publication streams.

The social structures for these contributions are not as yet settled. At the beginning of the project, I had only a vague idea how student colleagues would participate beyond building the digital project. Now, we are beginning to see projects build in publication objectives and contributions at the start.

A third question we face in digital humanities right now concerns the form of born digital scholarship.

3. What does scholarly argument look like in digital form?

My colleagues at the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities and my graduate students in the Department of History patiently bore with me on this one. From the first I hoped to experiment with a new form for our historical interpretative work, and this is what we began to call an “assemblage” or a “view.” The view is a framed set of materials on a given subject that integrates sets of evidence and data around a specific historiographical problem or question, without directly narrating the subject. We wanted the views to inspire investigation and focus attention, to serve as interrelated starting points. We could have hundreds of views that build out of the collection.

The tools to assemble a view proved challenging to create–we were after all asking for an authoring tool for the digital medium. The rise of the blog in this same period reduced the incentive for experimentation with scholarly argument and hypertext.

The humble footnote is still the mark of scholarship and now we need to consider how we will migrate footnotes–the links and scholarly apparatus of a work–to digital form. This challenge and opportunity is surprising because the web is so good at linking. But we’ve not experimented as much as we could with discursive notes, linking, and narrative argument in digital form.

The changes in publication models should be an opportunity. We are on the cusp of a new genre of hybrid digital and print publishing. Books are and will be supported with digital sources and verifiable links to the elements that went into the study. Journals will move into the publication of born-digital work also, integrating print and digital formats.

In the humanities scholarly practice might shift toward a more fluid and open exchange of ideas and arguments characterized by a different sequence of activities:

      • from openly available original research
      • to pre-print presentation
      • to peer review publication
      • to a period of open verification
      • to a period of adjustment and re-examination.

We know that opportunities and challenges here remain. We are in the early stages of this medium. We should look for ways to enchant readers, to hold attention, and to create long-form argument. Here we might be working against the medium (jumping through links) but the iPad and tablets appear to be opening up new opportunities for our scholarship.

Finally, we are in a transition phase. We call what we are doing “digital humanities” or “digital history” but really we are doing humanities in the digital age, we are doing history in the digital age. This work might be characterized increasingly by three qualities:

  1. increasing the scale of research and data involved: 5 million books, 100,000 newspaper articles–this is the least important characteristic actually because it is limited to scholars, but the challenge will be not only to support this research with infrastructure but to come up with intellectual models for such large scale interpretation. Imagine how these “distant readings” fit in a U.S. history or literature survey.
  2. addressing the global distribution of discourse and materials: sources all over the world need to be brought together and the challenge will be to create new linkages in the cultural records of the world, from Cairo to Seville to London to Chicago. Language differences, copyright, and sheer distance will need to be overcome.
  3. using new models of production: we have students as colleagues and citizens as colleagues, and the challenge here will be to validate and credit their contributions, integrate their work, and do so in a way that enables further scholarship.

We are doing nothing less than redefining our practices and at the same time the relationship of our society to the past, our literature, history, and culture. Our digital age presents a different medium in which to convey multiple sources of information and to render interpretive arguments. It is instantiating different ways of knowing, different ways of seeing, reading, and learning. What we think we will build and what we build are not the same but we can and should celebrate and inquire into the difference.

Much has been made in our circles about Charles Joseph Minard’s map of the Napoleonic March, but Minard drew his first such graphs for railroads in France and developed his technique in works combining traffic and distances. In 1845 he published what he called his first “figurative map.” Minard’s work, however, took more than 15 years to reach the sophistication we so admire. These 15 years years witnessed the vast expansion of railroad culture in Europe and the U.S. Minard experimented with the forms for conveying multiple sources of information, but the disjunction between what he wished to build and what he built took time to resolve. We are, Robert Darton argues, perhaps in a similar position—15 years into what he calls the fourth great Information Age in human history. Like Minard, we are still learning how to adjust.


Originally published by William G. Thomas on October 15, 2011. Revised March 2012.


The above was originally given as a talk at the 6th Annual Nebraska Digital Workshop on October 14, 2011. I’m grateful to Kay Walter and Ken Price for the invitation to serve as a presenter at the workshop and to Susan Brown for participating on the panel, and to Kirsten Uszkalo, Jentery Sayers, and Colin Wilder for their participation in the workshop.

  1. [1]Herman Melville, Moby Dick or The White Whale (New York: Signet Classic, 1961), x.
  2. [2]Jerome McGann, Radiant Textuality: Literature After the World Wide Web (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2001), 15.
  3. [3] Johanna Drucker, SpecLab: Digital Aesthetics and Projects in Speculative Computing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).

About William G. Thomas

William G. Thomas is the Angle Chair in the Humanities and Professor of History at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He is the author of The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America (Yale University Press, 2011). He held a Digital Innovation Fellowship in 2008 from the American Council of Learned Societies, and a National Endowment for the Humanities Digital Humanities Digging into Data research grant for "Railroads and the Making of Modern America." Thomas also served as the Visiting Professor of North American Studies at the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library in London, England in 2008. He was the Director of the Virginia Center for Digital History at the University of Virginia from 1998-2005, and a co-editor of The Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War.