RLI 284 An Overview of the Digital Humanities 4 RESEARCH LIBRARY ISSUES: A REPORT FROM ARL, CNI, AND SPARC 2013 28 characteristic of the digital humanities? There is considerable irony that this collaborative work published in traditional print format by authors from several different disciplines is silent on this essential question. Kathleen Fitzpatrick, an English professor who currently serves as the director of scholarly communication for the Modern Language Association, is one who has dared to offer a straightforward definition of the digital humanities. She defines the digital humanities as a specialist interdisciplinary area that can be characterized by (a) asking traditional and sometimes new humanistic questions using digital resources and methods or (b) subjecting computing technologies to interpretation and critique by humanistic methods and strategies of questioning.5 This definition usefully recognizes that multiple senses sometimes attach to the meaning of words. In this case, the first or primary sense emphasizes the use of digital methods in scholarly inquiry in the humanities the second sense highlights critical questions about the increasing pervasiveness of digital networks and media in human discourse and social interaction. Not all scholars are comfortable with the semantic complexity of multiple sense definitions. Let us concentrate for a moment on the second sense that Fitzpatrick identified in her definition. Inspection of the social and cultural dimensions of “the digital” milieu raises important questions including: the nature of contemporary social roles and identity the meaning of privacy in a culture of government and corporate surveillance of personal behavior and communications and the new forms of relationships between capital and labor, such as those that exist when wealthy Internet firms benefit from (or exploit) contributed information or unpaid work under the guise of activities such as so-called crowdsourcing. Scholars who are pursuing these increasingly important and serious questions clearly qualify as digital humanists under the second sense of Fitzpatrick’s definition, but it is a matter of recent debate whether these activities are really sensible to include under the rubric of “digital humanities.”6 I wish to avoid the heat of these discussions by acknowledging that the meaning of the digital humanities in this sense is simply different from the primary sense identified in Fitzpatrick’s definition and that care needs to be taken when using the term to ensure that subjecting “the digital” to critique from various perspectives in the humanities is not confused with study in the humanities that employs digital tools. Scholars may, of course, engage in both pursuits, but one activity does not imply or require the other. When we subject the various definitions of digital humanities to scrutiny, it is thus hard to escape the conclusion that the primary sense of the term is as Fitzpatrick clearly defined it. That is, the central, defining feature of the digital humanities is the application of digital resources and methods to humanistic inquiry. I predict that the phrase “digital humanities” will not long endure in what Baker calls the “cloud chamber” of usage, but to understand the contemporary significance of the phrase, one can reasonably ask: What about the application of digital resources and methods deserves such special attention at this moment in time? Why, unlike other forms of humanistic inquiry driven by other kinds of methodologies, do the digital humanities require a special marker? Why is it necessary for our colleagues to invoke the digital humanities as if they were raising a flag to signal their allegiance to a particular cause? What exactly is the cause that they are flagging?
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