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Beyond the Digital Humanities

The second day of Digital Humanities Australasia 2012 starts with a panel on the ‘Big Digital Humanities’ involving Peter Robinson, Harold Short, and John Unsworth. Peter begins by noting the fairly recent history of humanities computing, and the rapid development of this area. This has led to many initiatives to teach more digital humanities methods to graduates – but is this actually useful? The aim must be to get better, not necessarily bigger. Just getting bigger would mean to fail.

There is a substantial push towards the digital – more and more of our culture (including existing works) is being transferred to digital formats. Scholars will need to be able to deal with this – but this requires a number of scholars well beyond the humanities itself. We’re not ready for this – and in fact, we’re moving in the wrong direction.

Success for the digital humanities is not increasing the number of digital humanities scholars and facilities, at great cost, as prestige objects, but linking up digital initiatives in the humanities with those in other disciplines, in order to maintain quality rather than quantity. The aim cannot be to be a universal scholar with comprehensive knowledge of all technical aspects of the project – but to maintain deep humanities domain knowledge and connect meaningfully and beneficially with those who do have those other forms of knowledge.

What do we do, then? More technical training courses for humanities scholars won’t do – there are too many scholars and not enough courses. Rather, it’s necessary to make the tools more easily usable and accessible – to reduce the technological complexity in order to enable more humanities scholars to use such technologies as part of their everyday lives. Any humanist in any discipline should be enabled to do the scholarly work they want to do – a need for digital humanists with special skills should be the exception rather than the rule.

If this project were successful, it also requires better models for dissemination and circulation – Creative Commons licences, for example. Such licences should not exclude commercial exploitation, though: such licences, Peter claims, actually reduce the circulation of digital humanities work, because they mean that commercial publishers won’t be interested to be involved. We should charge as little as we can, and make it as easy as possible for our work to be circulated.

Further, all digital humanities data should be made available in so structured a format that it can be easily studied, searched, retrieved, and published in automated ways. This facilitates greater interaction between different scholars and their projects, and better syntheses of their scholarly activities.

(Hmm, interesting polemic – but so much to disagree with…)