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The Digital Humanities: What are "The Digital Humanities"?

What Are the Digital Humanities?

Each year since 2009, the sponsors of the annual Day in the Life of the Digital Humanities event have invited participants to respond to the question: “How do you define the digital humanities?"  (Includes hundreds of answers gathered since 2009). 

Scholarship in the "Digital Humanities" is necessarily collaborative and interdisciplinary.  It comprises a broad collection of scholarly activities that apply new technologies to humanities research while expanding traditional forms of scholarly communication.   Some of its many facets include:

  • The preservation and sharing of collections that are otherwise difficult to access (e.g., the creation of digital editions, archives, maps, visualizations and exhibitions, often through collaboration between faculty, students, librarians, technologists and others).
  • The fostering of new creative expression by using digital media (e.g., social media, human-computer interaction, and cultural informatics).
  • The use, analysis and/or creation of digital tools for research or in the classroom.

A Short Guide to the Humanities - Chapter 4 in Digital Humanities by Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner, and Jeffrey Schnapp, MIT Press,  2012.

"This final section of Digital Humanities reflects on the preceding chapters, but can also stand alone as a concise overview of the field.  As digital methodologies, tools, and skills become increasingly central to work in the humanities, questions regarding fundamentals, project outcomes, assessment, and design have become urgent. The specifications provide a set of checklists to guide those who do work in the Digital humanities, as well as those who are asked to assess and fund Digital Humanities scholars, projects, and initiatives."

The Digital Humanities - A Historical Overview

Transforming through technology

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The "Digital Humanities" (or DH) began more than sixty years ago as "humanities computing" with the development of projects such as Index Thomisticus in 1949 (Busa, 1980): an electronically-compiled concordance of Thomas Aquinas's corpus which was undertaken by IBM (using punch cards technology) over a period of 30 years.

Since the Index, DH research has developed into broader and more complex directions. A nascent and transformative approach to research and learning in the humaniies, it is now highly collaborative and draws contributors from many backgrounds: the eventual and sustainable forms of directions that it will take continue to evolve.  

The "Digital Humanities" (or DH) are currently seen as an interdisciplinary form of humanities research which has evolved to enhance and to transform traditional humanities scholarship through digital means.

"The particular contribution of the digital humanities, however, lies in its exploration of the difference that the digital can make to the kinds of work that we do as well as to the way that we communicate with one another" (Kathleen Fitzpatrick, The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 8, 2011).    

"The digital humanities today is "a scholarship and pedagogy that are collaborative and depend on networks of people and that live an active 24-7 life online" (Matthew Kirschenbaum, ADE Bulletin, Vol. 150 (2010), pp. 55-59).

For a chronology of DH initiatives (1949-2012) and live links to resources, see John Unsworth's blog entry, "What's 'digital humanities' and how did it get here?" (Oct. 9, 2012).


Busa, R. (1980). "The Annals of Humanities Computing: The Index Thomisticus," Computers and the Humanities 14: 83-90.