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Parsing the humanities

Everything you wanted to know about digital humanities.


If you’re old enough to remember a time before the Internet, cast your ears back to this sound: Pshhhkkkkkkrrrrkakingkakingkaking tshchchchchchchchcch*ding*ding*ding.

That’s right. That’s the irritating – and maybe for some nostalgic – ring of an old-fashioned modem connecting your computer to the Internet (with phonetics borrowed from The Atlantic).

Now, imagine yourself back in the era when that sound was a novelty, particularly in the quiet halls of an English or history department, where the loudest ambient noise up to that point may have been the quiet swish of pages turning. Or perhaps a pencil scraping lightly at their margins. If you were that reader, hearing that “ding” for the first time, you might have looked up from your book and wondered what exactly was going on.

You might have heard the birth of a new discipline called the digital humanities.

For most digital humanities scholars, even that time-frame of the mid-1990s is a bit late. They date the field’s origins to well before modems and the Internet, although at first it didn’t really have a name until it was called humanities computing and later, digital humanities.

Ray Siemens, a 20-year veteran, remembers taking undergraduate courses in the mid-1980s that mixed computing into subjects like English and history. He did graduate work in humanities computing at the University of Toronto with Ian Lancashire, one of the field’s pioneers. Dr. Lancashire has worked in digital humanities since the late 1970s and he remembers precursor conferences in the mid-’60s. By that marker, digital humanities has been established for over four decades.

Today, the field is enjoying its moment of wider scholarly acceptance and integration, as well as a potentially broader impact: as a discipline, it models some of the scholarly attributes that are in demand today, including interdisciplinarity and collaboration. Further, Canada has emerged as a leader in digital humanities, in part because of the forward-thinking attitudes of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. That fact makes this country’s scholars among the ones to watch.

One of the first questions that many people ask is: what is digital humanities? Interdisciplinarity is the rock-solid basis of digital humanities, a field so wide that it encompasses history, English, geography, music and other disciplines, as well as the tools of computer science.

Digital humanities scholars – known as DH scholars – seem to want to open the tent as widely as possible. Digital humanities, says Dr. Siemens, is “where humanities meets computing.” Dr. Siemens started the field’s longstanding training facility, the Digital Humanities Summer Institute, at the University of Victoria, where he now holds the Canada Research Chair in Humanities Computing.

Sometimes it’s more accurate to describe digital humanities as “a critical approach” rather than a field of inquiry, says Michael Eberle-Sinatra, French-language president of the Canadian Society for Digital Humanities and professor at Université de Montréal. Kevin Kee, holder of the Canada Research Chair in Digital Humanities at Brock University, calls it an “interdiscipline” where computing is used to express the humanities. Other scholars point to the attribute that turns many DH contributors into “makers” as well as scholars – their work includes creation and their intellectual products endure past their own scholarly involvement.

It’s also a matter of self-definition: Ichiro Fujinaga’s projects in digitizing and analyzing musical scores at McGill University are similar to those of his text-based DH colleagues, although he started collaborating with digital humanities very recently. Nonetheless, music departments have been integrating computer technology into composition since the late 1970s.

Perhaps a better strategy, then, is to define the field through its projects. Early examples include the Canadian Families Project, funded to 2001 with a mandate to allow historians access to the anonymous public by putting five percent of the Canadian census of 1901 (roughly 265,000 people) into a searchable database. For historians and sociologists, to be able to digitize large records and make them searchable accomplished two things: it vastly sped up the process of analyzing data and seeing patterns and it increased sample sizes, allowing wider segments of the anonymous public to be studied.

A  current and very different example is the Canadian Writing Research Collaboratory (or CWRC, pronounced “quirk”), which hosts over a dozen diverse projects in English literature and related fields. These include Editing Modernism in Canada, whose principal objective is to produce critically edited texts by modernist Canadian authors.  Another, called the Cabaret Commons, builds an online research space where feminist and queer artists and audiences can gather. Led by Susan Brown at the University of Guelph (she’s also a visiting professor at the University of Alberta), CWRC involves more than 100 scholars across several universities and shows the scale possible in digital humanities. At the other end of the scale, a single project such as the War of 1812 iPhone app created by Dr. Kee’s students at Brock – a business-like class project aimed at tourists – is also welcomed under the “big tent” of this discipline.

How exactly does computing help realize insights into texts? To take a current example, political scientists are now using tools developed in DH labs to analyze rhetorical tools and consistencies in U.S. President Barack Obama’s re-election speeches, not only after the fact but in real time. This kind of treatment has also been used to trace other author characteristics. For instance, Dr. Lancashire and colleagues, in a widely reported study, ran a computer-based text analysis on Agatha Christie’s canon and pinpointed losses of vocabulary that suggested evidence, in her later novels, of her growing dementia.

Computing gives scholars access to much wider swaths of data than they could parse on their own, especially in a culture that is increasingly based on text. For instance, to study the Nixon administration, Americanist scholars must sort through 2,000 memos. That may sound daunting, until you learn that the Clinton administration produced 40,000 memos. Similarly, population projects like the Chinese Canadian Stories Project at the University of British Columbia are made possible with database searches and analysis. The project’s Head Tax database – including more than 97,000 Chinese from 1885 to 1949 who faced the discriminatory immigration tax – allows scholars to analyze details like village of birth and port of arrival for anonymous citizens whose only official traces may be these public records.

Finally, digital humanities shows the power of computers and “tagging” to expand the scope of seemingly typical projects. The Orlando Project, completed in 2006, helps literary scholars recover and explore links between early women writers. In this way, it transforms a standard biographical dictionary of women writers into one that shows the relationships between a searched writer and other writers through hyperlinks. In the future, scholars (and even the writer’s family) may be able to update the electronic records and, theoretically, make the database endless. Perhaps most charmingly, tools like these make the inclination to engage in scholarly play easier than ever, as endless hyperlinks allow scholars who start looking for Fact X about Writer A to happen across Fact Y and realize unknown connections between texts and writers.

Scholars are mindful of the potential bias that comes from applying machines to such subjective material. “We spend a lot of class time thinking about how a tool changes your object of study,” says Sean Gouglas, director of the MA in humanities computing program at the University of Alberta.

“As soon as you pick up a new tool to convert a census, or put letters into a database, as soon as you try to create a structure like a spreadsheet for source material that’s messy, you’re forcing an order onto an object of study that didn’t have that structure before,” he explains. Unless you’re aware of how the computing tool changes what you’re studying, “you’re going to make a mess of it, not just technically but theoretically.”

The specialized technical skills required by digital humanities projects make collaboration and knowledge sharing almost essential. Scholars pass along their knowledge through communal websites like Implementing New Knowledge Environments (INKE) and TAPoR and as scholars work on subsequent projects they bring both technical skills and lessons learned from legacy projects.

Collaborating makes sense when the work is this challenging. Besides having to learn their discipline’s fundamentals, DH scholars also need to learn the basics of computing – the kind of knowledge that seems unnaturally technical for humanities types. Many practitioners have learned how to code in one or more programming languages, and even those who don’t program are familiar with the syntax around coding.

Digital humanities also promotes collaboration within a single institution, and not just among academic disciplines. At Ryerson University, the head of library information technology services, Fangmin Wang, got involved in the Centre for Digital Humanities’ new children’s literature project, which began as a collection of Excel sheets representing 2,300 books and will be moved to the university’s publishing platform and eventually be made public.

“There’s a natural match between the Centre for Digital Humanities and the library,” says Mr. Wang, who has degrees in computer science and library information science. Librarians, he notes, contribute subject expertise and project management skills, while absorbing DH principles from practitioners. He is the sort of collaborator that DH scholars hope will become even more prevalent.

If DH specialists are enthusiastic by nature, their enthusiasm has been bolstered by the forward-thinking attitudes of Canada’s granting council committees in support of digital humanities. Many scholars name Chad Gaffield, a historian and digital humanities scholar who is now president of SSHRC, for his leadership in making Canada a pioneer and a powerhouse. The council’s early championing of digital humanities helped shepherd the discipline to its current stature, says Dr. Siemens of UVic. The principles that informed the council’s Image, Text, Sound, and Technology research grant program in 2000, says Dr. Siemens, are now being copied by the U.K. and the U.S.

Despite its almost mainstream reputation today, digital humanities wasn’t always regarded in a benign way. “When I was at UVic and got a modem in my office, it was seen as science invading,” recalls Dr. Gaffield. “People interested in computers were seen as interlopers, not historians as much as number crunchers – a dangerous revolutionary thing.”

While Dr. Gaffield says the quantitative versus qualitative opposition has mostly faded away, occasional commentaries – like the 2012 series of blog posts by Stanley Fish in the New York Times, the October 2012 article by Canadian Stephen Marche in the L.A. Review of Books entitled “Literature is Not Data: Against Digital Humanities,” and even some of the discussions at the Modern Languages Association conference in January 2013 about the “dark side” of DH – are reminders that tensions may always surround the field.

Yet, those who have participated in the field’s emergence find the progress exciting. Practitioners are keen to discuss how computing proficiency gives their students an edge in an economy where the practicality of humanities majors is under scrutiny. DH graduates often take up good jobs at gaming firms, as librarians, or in fields where coding, databases, and project management are highly valued.

Perhaps the most looming crisis for digital humanities is the need for sustainability and preservation. Given technology’s constant fight against obsolescence, DH projects face a real risk of languishing on floppy disks or outdated software. The fact that the granting councils fund creation rather than preservation adds another layer of uncertainty.

“If material is not preserved in way that’s readily archivable, I fear that first-generation digital projects will be very susceptible to loss,” says Dr. Brown at the University of Alberta. “We have the production and sustainability model for books well worked out: scholars produce them, presses publish them and then librarians put them on shelves and take care of them. We don’t have that system worked out for digital resources at this point.”

Dr. Gaffield echoes her concerns. “It’s ironic and tragic that the era producing the most resources also has the most potential to be the most absent from the historical record,” he muses. Some worried scholars have established contingency plans: an arrangement has been made with the U of A libraries to ensure that the Canadian Writing Research Collaboratory will be archived and curated if it is no longer able to sustain itself in the future.

While aware of challenges, scholars remain enthused about the possibilities for this field. Dr. Sinatra is keen to see where DH takes mobile technologies now that tablets and smart phones are more affordable. Dr. Gaffield is intrigued by the possibilities for analyzing visual data, as well as by space- or location-based projects. Dr. Lancashire is animated by the potential for asking big questions about literature. No doubt the universe will dole out information formats that we can’t even imagine at this point, and no doubt digital humanities will gladly investigate them.

Suzanne Bowness is a freelance writer and recent English PhD from the University of Ottawa who wrote her dissertation on 19th-century Canadian magazines.

Training: the intermediary frontier

In most fields, a passion for your subject is all you need to get started. Digital humanities also requires a passion for coding. And tagging. And project management.

Fortunately, as the field has grown, so too has the range of training options. SSHRC’s Chad Gaffield sees that variety as a positive. “We don’t need a cookie-cutter solution,” he says. “It’s good we can offer a menu of possibilities.” Here are examples of the current options:

Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) Program

Started: 2002
Location: University of Victoria
Director and founder: Ray Siemens
Date: One week in the summer, annually.
Curriculum: Students sign up for a program of courses, from introductory (Text Encoding Fundamentals and their Application) to intermediate to advanced (Versioning & Collation in the Digital Environment).
Details: Now in its 11th year, the institute began informally but has evolved to attract record turnouts from all over North America and other countries (by January, 430 had signed up for the summer). It now has a more formal structure with a full week of courses, events, and networking. In 2014, UVic will also start to offer a graduate professional certificate program.

Other options: While DHSI is unique to Canada, summer programs exist in other countries, and some universities offer one-day events.

Digital Humanities Graduate Program

Pioneer: University of Alberta MA program in humanities computing
Started: 2001
Location: University of Alberta
Director: Sean Gouglas
Date: Annual admission
Curriculum: Core courses, electives, and a thesis in the student’s discipline or digital humanities. Core courses include Theoretical Issues in Humanities Computing, and Project Design & Management in Humanities Computing.
Details: Now in its 12th cohort, the program admits up to 15 students a year who take courses in programming and theory. The MA can be combined with an MLIS. The U of A had the first MA in humanities computing in Canada, if not North America, but now graduate courses can be taken at the University of Saskatchewan, University of Victoria, and other schools.

For undergraduates: Courses are available at McGill, Ryerson, Brock, Université de Montréal, among others.

Suzanne Bowness
Suzanne Bowness is a Toronto-based writer/editor and part-time professor of writing. Find her online at
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  1. Donna Pennee / March 13, 2013 at 11:35

    For undergraduates: a degree program in Digital Humanities at Western University Canada (formerly UWO). See also at Western, in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, The CulturePlex, a CFI-funded digital humanities laboratory in the study of cultural complexity, developed from SSHRCC-funded research led by Hispanic Studies professor Juan Luis Suarez. And as a member of the SSHRCC-funded Orlando Project, Professor Susan Brown (U Guelph & U Alberta) trained many graduate research assistants in digital humanities in the University of Guelph’s MA programs in English before she became jointly appointed between Guelph and the University of Alberta. Just FYI 🙂

  2. George Tillman / March 13, 2013 at 13:45

    .. and what about Angus Cameron, the visionary behind the Old English Dictionary online and on CD-ROM? GO to, or ask Dr. Lancashire

  3. Claire Carlin / March 16, 2013 at 11:38

    A nice overview article, but listing key areas as “history, English, geography, music and other disciplines” suggests a blind spot all too typical in English Canada. There are numerous digital humanities projects in French underway across this country, to say nothing of projects in foreign languages that share with the discipline of “English” a starting point in literary study.