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Digital humanities: humanities research in the digital age
Digital humanities: humanities research in the digital age

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1.1 What is digital humanities?

When you think of scholars researching the digital world that surrounds us, you might imagine computer scientists writing code or engineers constructing robots. However, the digital revolution is opening new challenges and possibilities for researchers focusing on Humanities perspectives.

If you’ve recently studied a university course in Humanities, you will have encountered the digital: searching digital library catalogues, reading digital articles or books, examining online museum or archive collections and using digital tools to write assignments. You may have wondered how a manuscript or print book was transformed into text that you can read and search online, or what more can be done with such digital artefacts beyond reading or browsing.

You may have come to this course because you are curious about the digital world that permeates everything we do. Almost all our activities, from booking a flight to connecting with our friends, are done digitally and leave digital traces. The past thirty or so years already provide relevant digital material to Humanities scholars, such as email archives or electronic artforms. So how we can study the digital texts, images and traces we are creating to provide evidence of social, economic and cultural patterns?

Both perspectives, using the digital to study the documentary record of the Humanities (books, archives, artworks, etc.) and using Humanities perspectives (history, literature, art history, etc.) to study new digital documents, are legitimate. This course will both familiarise you with Humanities research in the digital age and help you ask questions of digital materials and tools. Understanding the provenance of your records, their conditions of use, their capabilities and limitations are vital to becoming a proficient reader and creator of digitally-aware research, as you will learn in this course.

‘Historians … may be facing a fundamental paradigm shift from a culture of scarcity to a culture of abundance’ (Rosenzweig, 2003, p. 739). Pioneering digital historian Roy Rosenzweig realised that the digital provided a fundamental challenge to the Humanities, whose students are trained to investigate and extrapolate or infer larger contexts from the traces that survive from the past. Today presents the opposite problem: an overabundance of evidence that is impossible to analyse for a lone scholar.