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Research methods and digital humanities

A month after THATCamp, where are the digital humanities headed? The community is all atweet on various interesting discussions. But here is one I haven’t seen: what would a single scholar’s research look like if it took full advantage of the methods of digital humanities?

Technology can improve the humanities in many ways: by making information more accessible to non-academics, providing visualizations and other technology- centered interactions not previously possible, or allowing us to take a broad overview of too much information to review carefully. But let us strictly consider the digital humanities as research methods: how to obtain the best information, communicate it as fully as possible, and have it reviewed and eventually included in the shared knowledge of a scholarly community.

The old new methods

One THATCamp participant suggested that the transition from print to digital culture illustrates something of the historical nature of the change from oral to print culture. The same is true of our scholarship: the transition from print to digital texts is very similar to the transition from manuscript to print text. Our text search and web mashups are every bit the rightful heirs of print concordances and comprehensive dictionaries.

Both generations of research tools are measured by how they improve the availability of accurate information. In both cases, there is a certain tradeoff: the scholar need not memorize as much, but must have a greater dedication to knowing and practicing certain humble methods. We may guess that a word meant roughly what it does today, or that an apparently orthographic difference is merely that, but the scholar checks carefully anyway, and sometimes finds something spectacularly unexpected. Similarly, we may guess that two places with the same name are really the same, or that we have found all available information about a certain topic, but online databases might allow us to disambiguate two places with the same name or locate research otherwise

Both methods also both require a good deal of work. Print reference materials involve collaboration and submissions from many scholars, each of whom spent some extra time so that these discoveries would not be buried inside one article, but shared in a relevant index or dictionary. Using print sources requires painstaking work in bibliography so that readers can find the information again. In contrast, most digital projects have not learned to provide their data to other sources so nicely, or make it available but do not take the time to “push” the information to sources that might use it. Projects that do succeed in using digital data from others will often cite it in print formats rather than providing links or other information that is the rightful digital equivalent of bibliography. (cyberography?) Digital methods don’t make our work easier, they just make the end result more useful.

Evangelization or self-help?

THATCampers are discussing how to convince others to use digital methods. But being a digital humanist is something like being religious: if people can’t see a difference from your works, they won’t be converted by your words. So how can we improve the accuracy, accessibility, and speed of our research by using digital methods?

First, we must forget the distinction between digital and traditional scholars. It doesn’t exist. Everyone uses an online library catalog, searches for articles in online databases, uses text search to find relevant materials, and produces their final result in a word processor.

The real question is: how fully are we using the tools of digital scholarship?

Many researchers who consider themselves digital humanists are actually traditional scholars who happen to publish their results online. Having plain text on a web page with print-formatted citations is not digital scholarship. Having a Java applet that lets users see your data, at least until the APIs change, your grad student programmer is gone, and the information is lost forever, that’s not scholarship at all.

What makes work “digital” is its use of research methods and materials that are fundamentally digital in nature and therefore have certain advantages for interconnecting and consulting. I would argue that the use of these materials entails certain obligations analogous to their print counterparts:

  1. Identify the best sources of information. All projects involve at least some geography, library science, chronology, lexicography, or phonology. All of these fields have moved to the digital distribution of research results. To use print research materials (other than articles on very specific subjects), is willful ignorance of new information. I often see online archives of digital texts that identify historical places or people with only names, probably obtained from print atlases and biographical dictionaries, even though better data exists in authoritative datasets.
  1. Don’t lose information! For research that comes from digital sources, standard citations are not sufficient. These sources may be updated or contain other information useful to the audience. Links are a good start, but may change. Consider adding information like internal id’s from datasets. Citing a web resource without a url, or a database without a record number, is as useless as citing a book without a chapter or page.
  1. Share all small research results obtained in the course of a project with relevant digital resources. Any English professor who happened upon what appeared to be a neologism or early usage of a word would consider it a duty to send the citation to the OED. Yet I often see digital research projects that have gone to great trouble to print plain-text definitions or pronunciation glosses, rather than using lexicographical standards or adding the relevant information to electronic dictionary projects. These minor discoveries are useless if they are not added to the appropriate indexes and research materials. We should all consider pushing data to these resources as an integral part of our projects’ digital publication.

By focusing on the simple methodical elements of digital scholarship, we can slowly change the rhetoric surrounding digital humanities. Let’s stop arguing that scholars should use digital resources instead of print ones, and start arguing that scholars should do what they are required to: use the most accurate, accessible information available. If you want to bring others to the digital humanities but you aren’t actively contributing to improve the available digital resources, what exactly are you doing?

What am I doing?

I am especially lucky to be able to ask these questions. I am not immediately in search of a job, have an advisor very accepting of digital methods (so long as they’re accurate), and get to start working on my thesis research this summer.

I have a basic check-list of items that I consider myself required, as a digital scholar, to produce for this research.


I would be curious to hear if other scholars have considered digital-born projects and the scholarly obligations entailed by the power of digital resources.

· Jun 30