At Messiah College we have started a “digital humanities working group.” The group includes teacher-scholars with expertise in history, English, film studies, computer science, digital media, foreign languages, religion, and politics. We spent much of last semester reading some introductory material on the digital humanities. Two of our members went to a THATCamp in Philadelphia, a few of us will be attending a session on the digitization of local records, some of us had the chance to pick the brain of former AHA president Anthony Grafton, and later this month we will be consulting with experts in the field via Skype. We have also begun to think seriously about a potential digital humanities project. (Stay tuned).
As we have tried to define what a digital humanities project might look like at a place like Messiah College we have begun to see the difference between mere digitization of data and a true “digital humanities” project. The difference became clear to me recently when I was serving on a selection committee for a travel grant designed to encourage scholars to use the collections of a large historical organization. While many of the grant applications were rather traditional, there were a few that wanted to come to this repository and digitize records for the purpose of placing them online so that they would be more easily accessible to researchers. While most of us on the selection committee were supportive of the idea behind these digital projects, we also came to the conclusion, after some discussion, that they really had nothing to do with history. They lacked any kind of interpretive focus or narrative. They were mere digitization.
As part of our discussions in the Messiah digital humanities group we have come to the conclusion that the digitization of records is a necessary starting point for any such project, but without some kind of interpretation or storytelling or contribution to the overarching question of how the data we collect help us to better understand what it means to be human, we can not truly label such a project “digital HUMANITIES.”
My thoughts above were triggered by Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s essay in yesterday’s Inside Higher Ed. There is a lot that I do not understand in Wardrip-Fruin’s piece, but parts of it were helpful in distinguishing the difference between digitization and digital humanities.