What are the digital humanities, what do they do, and how does digital history fit in?

· by admin

What are the digital humanities, what do they do, and how does digital history fit in? It’s a valid question and one that I think has several answers.Northwestern University’s “A Guide to Digital Humanities”confronts this question and attempts to make sense of the many different definitions that exist for Digital Humanities. The consensus seems to be that the Digital Humanities are centered on scholarship.  The digital humanities are both a methodology and a presentation technique.  Building and using digital tools, presenting research in digital form, and critiquing and experimenting with digital technology are all within the field of Digital Humanities.  Digital History then aims to build tools that enhance historical research, make historical documents and records more accessible, and to present historical scholarship in digital form.

The web offers new opportunities for historians, museums, and professional organizations to both connect online in a virtual community and to present and preserve history in a way that is more accessible to the general public.  The authors of _Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web_offer five categories or genres of historical websites: archives, exhibits and scholarship, teaching, discussion, and organizational websites.  Digital History, as it is discussed by Cohen and Rosenzweig, seeks to make scholarship open and accessible by connecting both historians and the public in new ways.

The digital humanities, however, are not without criticism and skepticism.  Tom Schienfeldt discusses a important criticism of the Digital Humanities in his article “Theory, Method, and Digital Humanities.” [1. Tom Scheinfeldt, “Theory, Method, and Digital Humanities,” in _Hacking the Academy]_  Do the digital humanities need to answer questions and make arguments?  And if so when?  Schienfeldt argues that they absolutely do, however with the caveat that in many cases the tools have to be built first.  He argues that questions and arguments are often on the back burner while the tools, methods, and techniques are being developed.  The arguments and questions will and must come because they are at the very heart of the humanities however; Schienfeldt argues that we must first develop the methodologies and tools to aid the investigation of those questions and arguments.

So what is digital history and why do it?  It can be a tool and also a presentation technique.  As a tool it seeks to use technology to improve historical research and to do so in a manner that might help to visualize historical trends and answer historical questions in new ways.  As a presentation technique it seeks to present historical evidence, arguments, and sources in an interactive, accessible, and open manner.