Digital Humanities – the First Steps

After I finished my thesis at the end of last year, I used my free time to start exploring the world of digital humanities.  I started out my professional life as an accountant and as part of our university degree back in the 1980s we were required to do programming in COBOL, dabble with databases (structured, not relational!) and we were exposed to spreadsheets in the days before excel.  In year 12 at school I did computer studies which included a fair amount of programming in Basic.  Throughout my career in accounting and later working in public relations, I have had to work with spreadsheets, databases etc, but I have not done any programming since the 1980s.

Then I went back to university and studied history.  I was astonished.

I was given the impression that quantitative analysis and use of technology to analyse texts were frowned upon. Google searches were definitely disapproved. The sad thing was that I have since discovered that a small number of academics in the department where I was studying are dabbling in digital humanities and doing good work but I was unaware of this.  I would have appreciated an opportunity to learn about digital humanities from them.

I loved the course that I did and it taught me valuable skills and knowledge, but I was aware that so much more could be done if historians embraced technology. Digitisiation of historical material was proceeding rapidly, but if historians are discouraged from using Google they will be unaware of this.  This is particularly important for us in Australia because we are so far from other countries.  If we want to research in the archives overseas we face hefty plane fares and accommodation bills – and large doses of jet lag.  It is particularly important that historians in Australia become proficient with technology to help their research.

I have been prompted to write this post because of a helpful post by Dale Winling about getting started in digital humanities.  I encourage you to read it and add your comment.  He is writing with PhD students in mind but his advice is relevant to anyone thinking about learning to use technology in their research.  He says that the dissertation must remain the number one priority when a student is exploring the digital humanities.  This is what I regard as the number one rule in digital humanities:

Technology should serve our research in the humanities, it should not govern it.

Number One Rule of Digital Humanities

The use of technology will only give us better history if we remain in charge of it and force it to serve our research goals.  It is very easy to become enamoured with the cool stuff that we can do with technology and loose perspective on our projects.  I think this is why some historians are so cautious about the use of technology in the discipline.  They have seen some really bad history produced by people who have been dazzled by the myriad tools and techniques that technology offers.

I am currently focusing on text analysis as it is so pertinent to my current research, but I am still experimenting with it.  At this stage I don’t know whether the technology I am playing around with will allow me to do sound historical analysis that will stand up to rigorous review.  I am continuing to use more traditional historical analytical techniques and I don’t think I will ever abandon these.

My aim is to learn how to use tools provided by others first before producing my own tools.  There is so much out there that is made freely available – why not use them?  To use these tools you may have to tinker a bit to get them to work in the way you want.  This is great because with every tinker you learn something useful.

I have started this blog to record my learning in this area and share links to resources I have found helpful.  It is very, very basic and I hope will help others learn the ropes.  I think there is a great need for more blogs like this, because we need to provide a stepping stone for those historians who have virtually no background in using technology and encourage them to get started.  It can be confronting for people who are leaders in their field but who realise that they are behind most people in use of technology.  It is important to provide people in this situation with the basic tools and techniques that they need and an environment where they can learn without feeling intimidated.  I hope that my blog can contribute towards this.

All my learning in the area of digital humanities has stemmed from blogs and twitter.  If you want to learn more about digital humanities you should follow good bloggers in this area – I have provided some links in my blogroll to get you started.  Make sure you read the comments.  Click on the links to the blogs of the people who comment and you will discover more.  These bloggers are on Twitter too.  You should also follow them on Twitter because they share links to what they are reading through Twitter which will lead you to more great resources.  Because I am starting out the links I tweet tend to be about basic issues and techniques which should be useful to others who are starting this journey.

I have found the digital humanities community very generous and supportive. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and comment on blogs.  You will get a lot more out of them if you do.  People will respond and help you out.  Start your own blog so you can help others get started.  By writing about what you are learning you will reinforce what you have learned.  Get onto Twitter, start following some of the people I have suggested in my Twitter Roll and also follow the #digitalhumanities tag.

Soon you will be on your way in digital humanities and part of an exciting development that I am certain in the future will be regarded as an important movement in the humanities.

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