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What’s “digital humanities” and how did it get here?

October 9th, 2012 · 2 Comments

dh trending

Google Trends for “digital humanities” as a search term (worldwide, 2004 – present)

Ten years ago, nobody used the term “digital humanities”: now it seems to be ubiquitous, to the point of attracting the sarcastic attention of academic job-seekers on Tumblr:

“The English department at Regional U invites applications for a tenure-track position in the digital humanities. Selected candidate will be responsible for explaining to everyone what ‘digital humanities’ is, and teaching a 4/4 load of composition, literature surveys, and Shakespeare”

and the wrath of Quentin Tarantino fans:
from @frankridgway via @tedunderwood

So, how did we get here?  When I first became involved in digital humanities, it was called “humanities computing,” and while people agreed on a few elements of a creation story, there was no coherent account of where this “new” field came from.  Over the years, I’ve pieced together some of the significant events leading up to the current state of digital humanities, a timeline that I’ve shared in list form, below.  From that series of events, we can also deduce that digital humanities has at least four distinct lines of descent, with different periods of ascendancy:

  1. Computer Centers, late 1940s through the present (Tuebingen, Oxford, NCSA)
  2. Scholarly Societies and Journals, mid-1960s through the present (ACH, ALLC)
  3. Standards efforts, late 1980s to present (TEI)
  4. Library Digitization & Digital Humanities Centers, 1990s to present (esp. research libraries)

Whatever mystery has attended the evolution of digital humanities, there is general agreement that it has a founder–a father, literally, in Padre Roberto Busa, an Italian Jesuit who began working with Thomas Watson, CEO of IBM, in 1949, on a punch-card concordance of the works of Thomas Aquinas.  Fifty-five years later, Father Busa contributed the foreword to the Blackwell Companion to Digital Humanities (the publication that introduced the term “digital humanities” into the academic vocabulary, in 2004). Understandably, given technology trends over that fifty-five years, Father Busa saw the history of digital humanities as a history of miniaturization:

I began, in 1949, with only electro-countable machines with punched cards. My goal was to have a file of 13 million of these cards, one for each word, with a context of 12 lines stamped on the back. The file would have been 90 meters long, 1.20 m in height, 1 m in depth, and would have weighed 500 tonnes. In His mercy, around 1955, God led men to invent magnetic tapes. The first were the steel ones by Remington, closely followed by the plastic ones of IBM. Until 1980, I was working on 1,800 tapes, each one 2,400 feet long, and their combined length was 1,500 km, the distance from Paris to Lisbon, or from Milan to Palermo.

And given the sheer magnitude of the technical challenge a project like this presented, it’s not hard to see why, at this stage, digital humanities was first addressed in emerging university-based computer centers.  Here, then, are some of the milestones that have marked the way from then to now, organized chronologically and labeled according to where the leading-edge challenges were being addressed over time:

1949-1970: DH in Computing Centers:

1973-1992: DH and Scholarly Societies:

1992-2004: DH and Libraries:

 2005-2012: DH mainstreamed:

That brings us up to the present.  If you’re interested in following the story from here, I recommend a twitter search on “digital humanities,” or the THATCamp at Northeastern before MLA 2013, or the HASTAC conference in Toronto next April, or the Digital Humanities Summer Institute in Victoria, British Columbia next June, or the DH2012 Conference in Nebraska next July.  More locally, you could follow DH in Boston and Beyond, or get in touch with Dave Wedaman about joining the Brandeis Digital Humanities Working Group!  I hope to see you there…

Tags: Faculty · Graduate Students · Learning, Teaching, and Scholarship · Staff · Undergraduate Students

2 responses so far ↓

  • “Mainstreaming” the Digital Humanities at the WBA « The Cynic Sang: The (Un)Official Blog of the William Blake Archive // Oct 15th 2012 at 1:26 pm

    […] Blake Archive gets a shout-out in John Unsworth’s blog post about the history of the digital humanities. Share […]

  • cats and ships « Bethany Nowviskie // Nov 2nd 2012 at 5:51 pm

    […] “DH” is a new name for an old gathering. When I first encountered it in the 1990s the conference was called ACH/ALLC, after two professional associations (themselves dating to the ’70s) that had been sponsoring a joint meeting on computer-assisted humanities scholarship since 1989. The Digital Humanities name came in the mid-aughties, with the formation of a broader Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations. ADHO has expanded, over time, to include Canadian and Australasian DH associations, as well as an international consortium of digital labs and centers. Shortly, we’ll welcome a Japanese association to the fold as well. (For a whirlwind history of big moments in DH, see John Unsworth’s “What’s ‘digital humanities’ and How Did It Get Here?“) […]

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