Seven reasons why we need an independent Digital Humanities

Gregory Crane
Professor of Classics and Winnick Family Chair of Technology and Entrepreneurship
Tufts University

Alexander von Humboldt Professor of Digital Humanities
Open Access Officer
University of Leipzig

April 28, 2015

Draft white paper available at

This paper describes two issues, the need for an independent Digital Humanities and the opportunity to rethink within a digital space the ways in which Humanists can contribute to society and redefine the social contract upon which they depend.

The paper opens by articulating seven cognitive challenges that the Humanities can, in some cases only, and in other cases much more effectively, combat insofar as we have an independent Digital Humanities: (1) we assume that new research will look like research that we would like to do ourselves; (2) we assume that we should be able to exploit the results of new methods without having to learn much and without rethinking the skills that at least some senior members of our field must have; (3) we focus on the perceived quality of Digital Humanities work rather than the larger forces and processes now in play (which would only demand more and better Digital Humanities work if we do not like what we see); (4) we assume that we have already adapted new digital methods to existing departmental and disciplinary structures and assume that the rate of change over the next thirty years will be similar to, or even slower than, that we experienced in the past thirty years, rather than recognizing that the next step will be for us to adapt ourselves to exploit the digital space of which we are a part; (5) we may support interdisciplinarity but the Digital Humanities provides a dynamic and critically needed space of encounter between not only established humanistic fields but between the humanities and a new range of fields including, but not limited to, the computer and information sciences (and thus I use the Digital Humanities as a plural noun, rather than a collective singular); (6) we lack the cultures of collaboration and of openness that are increasingly essential for the work of the humanities and that the Digital Humanities have proven much better at fostering; (7) we assert all too often that a handful of specialists alone define what is and is not important rather than understanding that our fields depends upon support from society as a whole and that academic communities operate in a Darwinian space.

The Digital Humanities offer a marginal advantage in this seventh and most critical point because the Digital Humanities (and the funders which support them) have a motivation to think about and articulate what they contribute to society. The question is not whether the professors in the Digital Humanities or traditional departments of Literature and History do scholarship of higher quality. The question is why society supports the study of the Humanities at all and, if so, at what level and in what form. The Digital Humanities are important because new digital media and automated methods enable all of us in the Humanities to reestablish the social contracts upon which we always must depend for our existence.

The Digital Humanities provides a space in which we can attack the three fundamental constraints that limited our ability to contribute to the public good: (1) the distribution problem, (2) the library problem, and (3) the comprehension problem. First, all Humanities have the power to solve the distribution problem by insisting upon Open Access (and Open Data) as essential elements of modern publication. Here the Digital Humanities arguably provide a short-term example of leadership because of the greater prevalence of open publication. The second challenge has two components. On the one hand, we need to rethink how we document our publications with the assumption that our readers will, sooner or later, have access to digital libraries of the primary and secondary sources upon which we base our conclusions. At the same time, developing comprehensive digital libraries requires a tremendous amount of work, including fundamental research on document analysis, optical character recognition, and text mining, as well as analysis of the economics and sociology of the Humanities. Third, the comprehension problem challenges us to think about how we can make the sources upon which base our conclusions intellectually accessible — what happens when people in Indonesia confront a text in Greek or viewers in American view a Farsi sermon from Tehran, artifacts of high art from Europe or of religious significance from Sri Lanka, a Cantata of Bach or music played on an Armenian duduk?

The basic questions that we ask in the Humanities will not change. We will still, as Livy pointed out in the opening to his History of Rome, confront the human record in all its forms, ask how we got from there to where we are now and then where we want to go. And we may still, like Goethe, decide that the best thing about the past is simply how much enthusiasm it can kindle within us. But the speed and creativity with which we answer the distribution, library and comprehension problems determines the degree to which our specialist research can feed outwards into society and serve the public good.
The more we labor to open up our work — even the most specialized work — and to articulate its importance, the better we understand ourselves what we are doing and why. Non-specialists include other professional researchers as well as the general public.  We may think that we are giving up, in practice if not in law, something of our perceived (and always only conditional and always short-term) disciplinary autonomy but, in so doing, to win the freedom to serve, each of us according to the possibilities of our individual small subfields within the humanities, the intellectual life of society.


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