Seventeen years ago, with the birth of the internet, we entered what historians are calling the “fourth information age.”  Yet, as Cathy Davidson notes, we in the academy are still very much part of the “third information age,” which began in the eighteenth century with mass printing and which spawned many of the institutions with which we grew up.  What will the university, and more specifically the humanities, look like in this new age?  What will we gain, and what will we lose?

The “digital humanities,” as it is now widely called, is very much a product of this new age.
There is no question that it is quickly gaining strength inside and outside the academy.  There is also no question that it opens enormous possibilities in research and accessibility; despite the ubiquity of the web and the amazing speed with which it has changed how we do business, most of its potential has yet to be tapped or in many cases even discovered.  Digital humanities could well be the primary or only kind of humanities practiced in the future.

But what is it?  As an evolving field (perhaps analogous to post-modernism before it got that name), the digital humanities, its shape and pressing issues, remains difficult to pin
down.  Are we talking about simply applying computers to what humanists do, or to a fundamental transformation of the humanities?

One way to get a pulse of the present state of the digital humanities is, as always, to follow the money.  There are a few – surprisingly few – major funders of digital humanities.  Except for the few universities with robust centers devoted to the digital humanities, most fund such faculty projects in a relatively ad hoc way.  The ACLS funds a few projects a year, as does the Mellon Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation.  By far, though, the biggest funder of these projects is the National Endowment of the Humanities.  The Office of Digital Humanities is devoted to promoting such scholarship, and the centerpiece of their funding programs is their digital startup grants – about fifty of which were awarded this year.

Today, the directors of the funded projects met at the NEH in Washington to present their projects to each other.  (The full list is here.)  The session was open to the public, and I went.  The projects were presented in “lightening rounds”; each director had two minutes to present their project, with no more than three Powerpoint slides.  The experience of sitting through these staccato presentations was both fascinating and exhausting.  I cannot possibly summarize each of the presentations, but to my subjective eye most of the projects clustered around only five themes.  These, it seems to me, represent the directions in which the NEH is helping to steer the digital humanities in the U.S.  The themes are:

  • Creating Accessible Corpora: These projects usually seek to digitize a variety of material and make it publicly accessible.  This group, which might comprise the plurality, is the least innovative, although many of them look fantastic (like the digitization of restaurant menus by the New York Public Library).
  • Linked Data:  These projects take largely digitized materials located in different collections and seek to make them work together. Pictures from one database, for example, might be linked to pictures and GIS data.  Given the wide variety of data encoding, this is much harder than it might seem.
  • Crowdsourcing:  These projects call on their users to contribute to the project, often through transcription of digitized original documents.  They experiment with new modes of doing scholarship.
  • Visualization:  Several projects sought to visualize data in various ways.
  • Games:  These are attempts to create role playing games that help to convey historical experiences.

There were, of course, projects that did not fall into any of these themes, but what surprised me was how few projects were devoted to developing tools and to actually analyzing data.  It is almost as if these projects stand on the cusp, between the third and fourth information age.  Each will move things forward incrementally, but we still seem at least a step away from seeing the transformative potential of the digital humanities.

Two other quick thoughts.  First, the lightening round format was great.  Perhaps there were too many presentations, but these highly structured short presentations forced directors to get right to the point, quickly.  Second, I had never had personal contact with the NEH; despite my respect for their work, to me they were a faceless government bureaucracy.  It turns out that real people work there; that they are highly professional, organized, and knowledgeable; and that they really care about what they do.   It was reassuring.

If there was one top take-away for me today, it is that the field of the digital humanities is the next frontier.  Still unsettled, but full of boundless, maybe transformative, potential.

Now just a final word of self-promotion.  I have one advanced digital project, a collection of ancient inscriptions from Israel/Palestine.  I am also organizing a workshop in February entitled, “Ancient Religion, Modern Technology.”  More information can be found here – the call for papers is still open!