Humans are comforted by the organization of information. After all, the sturdy Tupperware provided by clear definitions, typologies, rubrics, and classifications are intended to allay that most human of emotions: doubt. Our love of knowledge organization explains the enduring popularity of texts like Pliny the Elder's Natural History or perhaps Isidore of Seville's Etymologies, but it also goes a long way toward explaining the enduring obsession with defining what, exactly, the field of digital humanities is or is not. In 2012, when Digital_Humanities was first published by MIT Press, the authors sought to provide a definition and exploration of the digital humanities (henceforth DH) that could, in their opinion, serve as a guidebook, a field report, a harangue, a vision statement, and a tool with which to position new scholarship. To their minds, such a book was an imperative as we continue to experience “one of those rare moments of opportunity in the humanities” (vii). The unrevised paperback edition of the book—published in February of 2016—is the volume currently under review. While we may still be experiencing the aforementioned “rare moment” in humanities research four years later, it must be said that the landscape and arguments surrounding DH have changed since the book was first published. Still, the book still has value in its ability to conceptualize the role of both the humanities and the digital in the modern world.
Digital_Humanities begins with a preface (vii–x) that lays out the goals for the book before it moves on to its four chapters titled: “Humanities to Digital Humanities,” “Emerging Methods and Genres,” “The Social Life of the Digital Humanities,” and “Provocations.” From the beginning, the authors warn that this is not a “standard-format” academic book, nor is it conceived of as a textbook (though, earlier, it is referred to as a guidebook). The fonts and page layouts change frequently; the aesthetics apparently attempting to resemble a digital interface. In large bold letters, the first chapter shouts: “Digital humanities is born of the encounter between traditional humanities and computational methods” (3). Throughout the opening chapter, the authors stress the fact that, unlike most academic publications in the humanities, DH tends to be a collaborative endeavor. This assertion stands in contrast to publications in fields like History, Classics, or Religious Studies, where monographs are often written by one author and edited volumes usually have stand-alone chapters. The first chapter also successfully argues for a need to pay attention to other issues not typically placed at the fore in academic projects: design, protoyping, testing, and reworking. Here, DH projects are presented as opportunities to listen to user feedback, to go back and edit, and—most importantly—to learn from failure.
The chapter on emerging methods and genres makes several connections between past and present forms of knowledge organization, concerned as it is with the “recognizable form” that “humanities knowledge used to have” (29). It also points out something that committees evaluating DH projects for the sake of tenure and promotion have long struggled with: assessment. Humanities publications have, up until now, had a familiar, standardized form in print that was formulated over centuries. Because DH deviates from the enduring model of what humanities scholarship looks like, many would-be reviewers encounter confusion or skepticism in the face of alternative publishing formats. While the authors explore many methods in this chapter, classicists and patristics scholars will want to home in on new advances in the area of critical editions. As the authors point out, some of the earliest critical editions were created for the New Testament and Hebrew Bible, and the movement of such a genre to a digital environment now allows the display of multiple manuscripts, the tracking of textual changes, the noting of variants, and the tagging of various entities (e.g., place, person, date) when creating a digital transcription of a text. Medievalists and classicists were in fact some of the first digital humanists; in the late 1980s and 1990s, the development of XML markup standards for manuscripts like TEI (the Text Encoding Initiative) helped to standardize the movement of texts from a physical to a digital form that was machine-readable. Another relevant portion of the book discusses the merits of close readings of texts emphasized in traditional philological approaches, versus distant reading methods described by people like Franco Moretti.1 Not much energy is placed into explaining these approaches, but a recently-released book, Ancient Worlds in Digital Culture, explores how many of the methods briefly mentioned in Digital_Humanities could be applied to antiquity.2
In an arguable enactment of the issues mentioned above, the authors include a portfolio of case studies, the articulation of which is considerably hindered by the print format. The case studies do helpfully walk the reader through the project management involved in DH projects: setting up a mapping project, the publication of a textual corpus, the critical curation of heritage objects, virtual reconstructions, or the development of an application for tablet users. However, the incredible amount of DH jargon in these case studies and the book's lack of a glossary will present some tough sledding for beginners. By contrast, the section on the social life of DH provides some splendid reflection, abstraction, and explanation of how the humanities in the 20th century divided itself between knowledge and analysis on the one hand, and practice and application on the other, and the ways in which DH reunites the “how” with the “what.” Additionally, the development of networks and the de-siloing of knowledge—through open-source tools, the sharing of data, and the dissemination of code—receive due credit for bringing more people into the DH fold. An updated version of this book would likely point to the current import of code repositories like GitHub.
The authors do a great amount of theorizing on the social life of the humanities, with a high degree of success. Their ideal vision of a university that is not an ivory tower, but rather a “nodal point within a fluid, porous, and dynamic landscape” (82) certainly seems increasingly achievable, though, as they point out, it will require us to revise what authorship and intellectual ownership truly mean today. This manifesto-like portion of the book provides an encouraging look at the ways in which the digital holds the potential for revitalizing the cultural record, creating new networks of knowledge, and giving academics a way to more successfully engage with the public. The most useful section of the “provocations” section explores how to evaluate digital scholarship (128-129). In June of 2015, the American Historical Association went to great lengths to articulate and answer this question in their freely-available and widely used, “Guidelines for the Professional Evaluation of Digital Scholarship by Historians.” The creation of standardized assessment models by professional associations in order to review digital work brings us a step toward broader acceptance of DH projects within the academy, but also provides a manual of “best practices” for the field in general.
Like most DH projects (and, we would point out, this book review), Digital_Humanities was crafted as a collaborative project. The book's five authors come from various areas of the humanities, though it must be said that each of the writers serve, in their respective institutions, as faculty members rather than as librarians, technicians, or graduate students. Despite claiming that part of DH's promise lies in its ability to bring in marginalized communities, the writers of this book are distinctly academic, despite the fact that librarians, graduate students, and developers all facilitate, publish within, contribute to, and strengthen the field. This array of intellectuals often allows the ideas of faculty members to become navigable digital projects.
Back in 2008, digital humanist Cathy Davidson noted the continued import of the humanities in today's culture: “In a time of paradigm shifts, moral and political treachery, historical amnesia, and psychic and spiritual turmoil, humanistic issues are central—if only funding agencies, media interests, and we humanists ourselves will recognize the momentousness of this era for our discipline and take seriously the need for our intellectual centrality.”3 Nine years later, we can see that funding institutions such as the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation have indeed taken more notice and invested heavily in creating a brighter, more stable future for DH. During that same period, some have taken issue with such expansion by criticizing the strong institutional focus on DH as the “facilitation of the neoliberal takeover of the university.” In the end, no single, satisfying definition of the field of digital humanities exists nor does any one way to “do” it stand out as optimal. Digital_Humanities offers us an expansive view of the field as “the digitization of the world's knowledge and its movement across global networks” (26). However, continued criticism, experimentation, and institutional acceptance are necessary if this work is to continue.