US: Members of a new generation of digitally savvy humanists are digitally mapping civil war battlefields to understand what role topography played in victory, using databases of thousands of jam sessions to track how musical collaborations influenced jazz, searching through large numbers of scientific texts and books to track where concepts first appeared and how they spread, and combining animation, charts and primary documents about Thomas Jefferson’s travels to create new ways to teach history.
This alliance of geeks and poets has generated exhilaration and also anxiety. The humanities, after all, deal with elusive questions of aesthetics, existence and meaning, the words that bring tears or the melody that raises goose bumps. Are these elements that can be measured?
Digital humanities is so new that its practitioners are frequently surprised by the developments, observes an article published in New York Times.
“The digital humanities do fantastic things,” said the eminent Princeton historian Anthony Grafton. “I’m a believer in quantification. But I don’t believe quantification can do everything. So much of humanistic scholarship is about interpretation.”
Digital humanities scholars also face a more practical test: What knowledge can they produce that their predecessors could not? “I call it the ‘Where’s the beef?’ question said Tom Scheinfeldt, Managing Director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.
Hoping to find the “beef,” the National Endowment for the Humanities teamed up with the National Science Foundation and institutions in Canada and Britain last year to create the Digging Into Data Challenge, a grant programme designed to push research in new directions.
As Brett Bobley, Director of the endowment’s office of digital humanities, explained, “Analysing unprecedented amounts of data can reveal patterns and trends and raise unexpected questions for study. He offered the human genome project as an example of how an area of study can be transformed: Technology hasn’t just made astronomy, biology and physics more efficient. It has let scientists do research they simply couldn’t do before.”
Bobley said the emerging field of digital humanities is probably best understood as an umbrella term covering a wide range of activities, from online preservation and digital mapping to data mining and the use of geographic information systems.
“The humanities and social sciences are the emerging domains for using high-performance computers,” said Peter Bajcsy, a Research Scientist at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
In Europe, 10 nations have embarked on a large-scale project, beginning in March, that plans to digitise data of arts and humanities. Last summer, Google awarded one million dollar to professors doing digital humanities research, and in the previous year, the National Endowment for the Humanities spent USD2 million on digital projects.