For me it still feels premature to attempt my own definition of DH at this stage, but taking a cue from the agile development school, I guess I should get a working definition on screen and then iterate as the semester goes on.
Before I do that, however, a few words by way of introduction: I am a student in the MIM program in the iSchool, and I also have a second (or first?) life as a medieval historian, having completed a Ph.D. in history at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2006. Prior to my doctoral studies, in the late 90s I took an M.A. in Medieval Studies from Western Michigan University, which is where I first started working on digital projects, doing some web design for the Medieval Institute and SGML tagging for an electronic review journal (The Medieval Review, or TMR, see http://quod.lib.umich.edu/t/tmr/). Back in those days — ‘the before times’ my kids like to call them — TMR’s cubicle also housed a special UNIX terminal, the sole purpose of which was to serve images from something called “The Electronic Beowulf” — still available, now in its 3rd edition! See http://ebeowulf.uky.edu/studyingbeowulfs/overview. The Electronic Beowulf’s images were too large to be opened on a typical PC of that time, but today I’m sure could be handled by the average smartphone. After I moved to Chapel Hill, digital skills were mainly a way to make ends meet between teaching assistantships rather than an integral part of my dissertation research, though already then I was starting to recognize how important and useful digital libraries could be. For someone who primarily studies manuscripts, most of which are housed in European repositories, many of which are still minimally and poorly described in print, the prospect of having large numbers of primary sources digitized and made freely available looked to be a game changer (though in practice it hasn’t necessarily played out that way for a combination of reasons, but some sense of the riches that are out there today can be gained from http://manuscripts.cmrs.ucla.edu/index.php). After completing my degree, I held various temporary appointments, both full and part-time, including the better part of a year working on a project that actively engaged in the enterprise of making medieval manuscripts more widely available: Carolingian Culture at Reichenau and St. Gall (http://www.stgallplan.org).
My experiences working on the St. Gall project really helped to drive home for me how the field of digital libraries/digital cultural heritage was where I wanted to be, and that realization in turn is what has led me to UMD and the MIM program, which in turn brings this blog post back around to the question of defining DH. With the exception of the St. Gall project, I don’t really consider most of what I have done through my scholarly career to have been digital humanities per se, though there hasn’t really been a time in all these years that technology has not played some role in my academic life, whether it be in facilitating scholarly interaction and exchange, a practical way to access primary and secondary research materials, or a means of keeping body and soul together, i.e. a paycheck. And while I wouldn’t dispute many of the definitions and characteristics put forth in earlier posts and in this week’s readings, especially the idea that DH is a particularly collaborative, social, and experimentational flavor of modern scholarship, I am left wondering whether we haven’t reached a saturation point where there is in practice virtually no humanities scholarship that is not, on some level at least, digital.
That having been said, while there may be no analog humanities these days (except perhaps that practiced by castaways on desert islands), not every scholarly project is equally digital. So what makes some more digital than the others? Ramsay’s idea of building, which so may posts have touched on, rings true to me, as does the idea that digital humanities is particularly collaborative and social (in contrast to the solitary and isolated monographers of the ‘before times’). I recognize that these are descriptive characteristics rather than the elements of a definition — perhaps come May I’ll have learned enough to venture the latter?