Digital Humanities is (are?) a Service!

*This week I've edited and republished several previous posts as part of my LBSC 751 Final.

I decided to earn an MLS because I want to work on Digital Humanities projects. As a high school humanities teacher I frequently searched the web for primary sources to make history and literature more engaging for my students. I knew there should be tons of resources online but I just couldn’t find them! I decided to go to back to school to learn the technology skills necessary to increase the number and findability of quality primary sources on the web. Basic digital collections are useful for instruction but DH projects are more suited to educational ends. I left teaching to find a place for myself merging educational technology and digital collections in order to better the teaching of others.

I enjoyed Trevor Muñoz's blog post about DH and was excited to hear what he would have to say in class. Listening to students ask questions and the answers Muñoz provided I found myself having difficulty supporting DH as he articulated it. I have experienced this frustration before when I hear DHers explain DH with an (over) emphasis on computational research. At such times I find myself struggling with my desire to do DH. Which makes me question why I came to UMD. As I was processing Muñoz and my classmates conversation, I started writing out the following questions in an effort to make sense of what I think DH is and should be:

  • If DH is not a service, then how is it relevant?
  • Is DH supposed to be useful to anyone other than the creators/researchers?
  • If DH is only useful to its creators, then how can we justify the expenditure of public funding for it?

Which led me to the following question:
  • Who is humanities research for? Who benefits?
This is the real question and I think it’s currently the crux of humanities research in general.

(Warning! Blatant generalizing is about to occur!!) Much of humanities scholarship is intended for consumption by a small similarly scholarly audience. Humanities scholars research texts, films, images, etc. attempting to parse them for meaning. Their research examines questions that they and their community find interesting. Social scientists study the human condition and interactions between people and nature or people and things in an effort to understand and improve human interactions. Scientists study the world around us and the systems within us in an effort to better understand life (human, animal, plant, nature, etc.), to reduce or eliminate illness, to expand the limits of human knowledge. Scientists and social scientists frequently write for their own scholarly circles but are more often writing for the public (open access) and their research is concerned with the betterment of humanity. What similar contributions are humanities scholars making? How can humanities scholars become more relevant in the 21st century?*

Digital Humanities.

At the beginning of the evening last week, Muñoz’s perspective of DH came across as another academic only interested in personal research when it comes to DH projects. It seems like he, and others I’ve read, keep insisting that DH is research in an effort to be accepted by the ivory-towered, navel-gazing, academy. DHers snap out of it! You don’t want to be like them. Humanities scholars must adapt or die. If Humanities scholars cannot find a way to make their research interests relevant or of some benefit to the general public then they will go the way of CDs and Blockbuster.

DH isn’t just about “the research.” It’s about making the humanities relevant and accessible to the public. It’s about creating new learning opportunities for individuals who otherwise might never come into contact with humanities content. DH is a public service!

*I ask not to be critical but because I don't think enough humanities scholars ask these sorts of questions of themselves on a regular basis. I consider myself a humanities scholar and part of returning to school for me is to find a job where humanities research is part of my responsibilities.