What is digital humanities?

By Jerid Francom

Dr. Jerid Francom

Jerid Francom

What is digital humanities? Having participated in the digital humanities seminar group I’ve come away with a greater sense of how complex a one-size-fits-all definition really is. On the one hand, in it’s more low-level form, ‘digital humanities’ makes reference to a growing interest among humanists to leverage and/or repurpose emerging technologies to add to and share knowledge about the human experience — in other words, a digital approach to humanities. On the other hand the term ‘Digital Humanities’, says something more than just ‘I do humanities work with digital tools and resources’, rather it appears to represent a popular movement to forward digital approaches to humanistic study as an academic, administrative and/or political entity —a more ambitious, and perhaps necessary enterprise.

The text we used as the foundation for our seminar meetings, Debates in the Digital Humanities, by and large approached the discussion from an political, organizational perspective —spending less time discussing ‘doing’ digital humanities. If this text is to be taken as reflection of the current state of the discussion, this moment appears do be defined more by posturing than by practicing. Another salient, but most likely unintended, theme in the Debates on Digital Humanities concerns the difficulty that Digital Humanists have encountered creating a specific definition of Digital Humanities that encompasses the wide variety of methodological methods, research goals and pedagogical applications that practitioners of digital approaches to the humanities employ.

To me, detailed definitions about what is or is not work in the Digital Humanities is counter-productive. The really strength of a ‘digital humanities’ comes from three key, more broadly defined characteristics (potentially overlooked as innovative):


Enhancing our limited physical abilities as humans, technology opens possibility to peruse massive quantities of knowledge, visualize patterns hitherto unseen and juxtapose otherwise disparate information in new contexts. Adding approaches, not replacing current practices, to extend, to corroborate and to collaborate in new ways as we, together, pursue a deeper understanding of what makes us human using all tools and techniques that are available.


The creation of digital media produce resources that can be shared in various levels of refinement: from raw data to summarized data, tools and scripts for collection and manipulation to analysis and publication. These can be seen passively as ‘by-products’ of individual scholarship and research, or more actively as ‘seeds’ to be passed to future practitioners to provide a more seamless, efficient progression towards deeper understanding. Providing access and sharing knowledge is the hallmark of the digital age, and as in other arenas where digital access and knowledge has taken root (i.e. the internet) there are many aspirations, ambitions and plans that often meet real conceptual and practical challenges, boom and bust periods and tangible apathy in definitions, mission statements and goals which digital humanities has and will too continue to face —yet these challenges do not diminish the need nor the future of digital approaches to the humanities.


The etiologies of digital scholarship can often be more complex that those of traditional scholarship; often including many methodological steps and conceptual hurdles that require skills that fall outside a scholar’s accepted area of expertise. This may primarily concern proficiency in particular digital technologies (and require collaboration with colleagues of staff with technical skills), but that is not the only case where scholars search out colleagues for collaboration. Digital scholarship is inherently interdisciplinary and digital projects tend to branch out and touch larger themes within and outside the humanities.

Attempts to enumerate more detailed descriptions that lay out particulars about what “Digital Humanities” is, run the risk of alienating the numerous disciplines, fields, subfields, etc. that vary widely in their approach to digital humanities as well as the inherent culture of said group. Beyond tools and methods, a group’s culture can provide more and less ideal situations and incentives for recognition of scholarly and pedagogical based on digital media.