Digital Humanities at 30: A Roundtable

By Molly Minturn | November 9, 2022

With the click of a mouse, fans of William Faulkner can listen to the author carefully explain the pronunciation of “Yoknapatawpha,” the fictional Mississippi county where many of his novels are set, his reedy voice seeming to time travel into the 21st century. University of Virginia students in disciplines ranging from architectural history to civil engineering are digitizing the past by taking 3D scans of local historic buildings to preserve cultural heritage data for future generations. And earlier this fall, the work of an eighth-grade civics class in North Andover, Massachusetts, led to the exoneration of the last remaining convicted “witch” in the Salem Witch Trials using documents from a UVA archive.

These are just a few examples of digital humanities (DH) projects supported by the University of Virginia Library. Through the Scholars’ Lab and the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities (IATH), Library specialists help scholars and students use digital tools to conduct humanities-based research, offering fellowships to graduate students and faculty members. The Library also offers an extensive guide for those interested in digital humanities research.

On Saturday, Nov. 12, the University of Virginia will celebrate 30 years of digital humanities with a day-long conference in the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library. The conference will feature scholars from across the country as well as representatives from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The conference is open to the public; in-person and virtual seats are still available (registration is required).

We reached out to UVA Library staff members who are deeply involved with digital humanities work to learn more about the discipline. An edited version of our conversation is below:

Q. How do you define “digital humanities,” exactly?

A. Sarah Wells, Scholarly and Technical Communications Officer, IATH: In general, digital humanities involves using digital tools to carry out humanities-based research, which seems like a fairly simple task. But for much of what is done at IATH and other DH groups at UVA, there is a transformative aspect: it allows you to approach and think about materials in new ways, possibly in ways that were previously impossible. You can bring together fragments of information and disparate sets of data and collaborate much more effectively and deeply with people outside your discipline, institution, and country.

Brandon Walsh, Head of Student Programs, Scholars’ Lab: I’m a big fan of a definition that I’ve heard articulated by [scholars] Roopika Risam, Liz Grumbach, and others. It’s a prepositional one. Digital humanities consists of asking humanities questions with technology as well as asking humanities questions of technology. There’s also a strong activist element that serves to surface the humans behind the work that we do, critiquing labor structures especially.

Sherri Brown, Research Librarian for English and Digital Humanities: Defining digital humanities has long been bemoaned in the DH community. The understanding I gravitate toward comes from the goals of DH discussed in the introduction to the 2004 book “A Companion to Digital Humanities” by Susan Schriebman, Ray Siemens, and our own Dean of Libraries John Unsworth: “Using information technology to illuminate the human record, and bringing an understanding of the human record to bear on the development and use of information technology.”

Q. Why do digital humanities matter?

A. Amanda Visconti, Managing Director of the UVA Scholars’ Lab: DH is a field that not only connects folks with the necessary ethical, technical, and disciplinary skills to address urgent questions around data and social justice — it’s also a home for many folks who uniquely have both technical and research skills.

DH is also an active international scholarly community that values collaboration, credit, openness about failure, open access, and sharing research progress publicly (success and failure) in real time rather than just when a study is concluded. This includes lots of blogging and tweeting and attention toward improving social justice.

Alison BoothProfessor of English and Academic Director of the Scholars’ Lab: Scholarly communication and more democratic access to resources for learning will foreseeably depend on digitized resources and new media in the coming century. Most areas of humanities research are transformed by digital means of accessing archives and collections. And digital humanities students gain skills useful for many kinds of careers; they are not only learning STEM subjects but the full range of liberal arts.

Walsh: Digital humanities can help us make sense of the vast cultural record we possess, critique the digital landscape as it unfolds around us, and project a better, more equitable future for higher education.

Worthy Martin, Director of IATH: Computationally mediated scholarship matters across almost all disciplines because it can allow for research questions that have long been of interest but not previously practical to undertake. For example, The Chaco Research Archive makes possible comparative analysis of archaeological sites in Chaco Canyon that were excavated decades apart and for which the documentary records of those excavations are held in multiple archives and repositories.

Q. What are some of the most important projects that have come out of the Scholars’ Lab?

A. Visconti: I’m going to make a numbered list to respond.

  1. The Scholars’ Lab itself has been a significant model to other institutions; we usually have one to three requests per month to advise external leaders and organizations on digital scholarship initiatives and research. We have an active social media presence — more than 6,000 followers on Twitter, and an active research blog. Our staff are leaders in their fields, with frequent elected and appointed service in international scholarly organizations and research publications.
  2. Our Neatline software for telling stories in time and place.
  3. Our Praxis Program, now over a decade old, proved you could bring a cohort of graduate students from knowing nothing about DH/tech to releasing a collaborative DH project over the course of a year — many current DH graduate training programs are informed by this work.
  4. We started one of the early humanities-focused makerspaces.
  5. We regularly provide cutting-edge spatial technologies fieldwork, training, and research, partnering with UVA faculty and students and regional community members to tell stories about, discover, and preserve our past history.

Walsh: Bar none our most important projects are the people we’ve worked with, especially the students and early career scholars. Our fellowship programs are in their second decade and represent our best efforts to help prepare future generations of scholar-practitioners. The Praxis Fellowship, our soup-to-nuts introduction to digital humanities by way of project-based pedagogy, is especially well known as a teaching intervention. More than any individual research project, our efforts to support others and pay forward our own training will be how we are remembered.

Q. What are some of the most important projects that have come out of the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities?

A. Martin: The “importance” of IATH projects comes in several varieties:

Q. What does the future of digital humanities look like?

A. Brown: Although we’re celebrating 30 years of DH at UVA, I still think digital humanities is in its infancy in terms of how much can be done with it. I am always amazed by the creativity I see in DH projects, methods, and tools. We have centuries of human cultural production to view through a DH lens and hopefully to share more widely. Take any one novel, and you could use DH methods and tools to look at it critically hundreds of different ways, depending on your interest. And that’s just one novel.

Booth: I foresee ways to get beyond data visualizations indebted to medicine or sociology. I hope for even more innovative use of virtual reality, sound, and even smell to enhance historical representations, performances, and creative expressions of all kinds.

Visconti: The future of DH relies on it not being just about its mixture of tech and cultural research, but in its attention as a community to building better systems that support more people having the material means to participate in its learning and research.

Walsh: Given the multiple, ongoing crises in and out of academia in the present, the future of digital humanities is one that further engages in the pursuit of equity and justice in higher education. The future belongs to the students we equip to help shape it, and we have a responsibility to help ensure it is a livable one.

Click here to see a full schedule for this Saturday’s “Thirty Years of Digital Humanities” conference and register to join in person or online.