RLI 284 3 RESEARCH LIBRARY ISSUES: A REPORT FROM ARL, CNI, AND SPARC 2013 28 An Overview of the Digital Humanities Donald J. Waters, Program Officer, Scholarly Communications and Information Technology, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation I n 2008, Ammon Shea published Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages. The book chronicled his effort to read the whole of the Oxford English Dictionary in one year. In his review in the New York Times, novelist Nicholson Baker characterized Shea’s work as “oddly inspiring.” Baker went on to observe that “Shea’s book resurrects many lost, misshapen, beautifully unlucky words—words that spiraled out, like fast-decaying muons, after their tiny moment in the cloud chamber of English usage. There’s hypergelast (a person who won’t stop laughing), lant (to add urine to ale to give it more kick), obmutescence (willful speechlessness) and ploiter (to work to little purpose)—all good words to have on the tip of your tongue,” Baker wrote, “when, for example, you’re stopped for speeding.”1 Here, I want to focus your attention on a phrase that is not “misshapen” or “beautifully unlucky,” and its utterance will certainly not impress a traffic cop. However, it is a phrase that is enjoying a vigorous moment in the “cloud chamber of English usage,” at least in the chamber that many scholars, librarians, and academic technologists now frequent. I refer to the much-used but ill-defined phrase, the “digital humanities.” Defining Features of the “Digital Humanities” If the advantage of a standard is that there are so many from which to choose, then the same is true of the definition of the digital humanities. Each year since 2009, the sponsors of the annual Day in the Life of the Digital Humanities event have invited participants to respond to the question: “How do you define the digital humanities?” One senior scholar wrote simply, “I try not to.” However, there are now hundreds of attempts at a serious answer on three different websites.2 Some of these scholars make the case that the digital humanities is an interdisciplinary field in which computer scientists and humanists find new questions to address at the intersection of their respective specialties. Unfortunately, I have found little evidence to support this definition. As a program officer at the Mellon Foundation, I have spoken with and provided funds for numerous humanistic scholars in various fields of study who have looked for common ground with computer scientist collaborators. They have all been quite clear that they were not seeking to create or participate in a new field of specialization. Rather, they were merely undertaking the normal process of negotiating the terms of a partnership. In the compilations, there are also definitions that evade the enumeration of distinctive features but focus instead on the effects, or the desired effects, of the digital humanities. An example of this approach can also be found in a self-styled manifesto recently published by the MIT Press. The authors say that “Digital Humanities refers to new modes of scholarship and institutional units for collaborative, transdisciplinary, and computationally engaged research, teaching, and publications.”3 They provide a useful inventory of new modes of scholarship that include augmented scholarly editions, so-called distant reading, and virtual reconstructions.4 However, in what ways are collaboration and transdisciplinarity distinctive to or
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