Skip to Main Content

Digital Humanities

This is a very basic guide for those new to digital humanities to help point you towards good DH resources to build from.

Despite the emphasis on digital methodologies in recent years, the Digital Humanities are not new. Debates about the usage of computing technologies to enhance the traditional methods in the humanities have rung through the halls of academia since the advent of the computers themselves. In fact, some of the early intellectual debates about the power of computing and the implications for artificial intelligence have centered around humanistic questions. For example, Alan Turing, a pioneer in early computing wrote his work on the Imitation Game in part to understand the nature of human thought as it differs from pure logic [1]. Additionally, in historical studies, the Annales School had popularized a form of statistical and computational history that demonstrated trends in economic, political, and social events in history (a vast over simplification, of course [2]. Margaret Masterman wrote about the potential for a deeper understanding of humanity using computing technologies in her 1962 Times Literary Supplement essay in which she compared the computer and its potential for vast mining and analysis to the microscope and the 17th century scientific explosion possible by being able to see a new depth into a structure thought to be known [3]. For more on this history, I recommend the chapter "A Telescope for the Mind?" by Willard McCarty from the long running Debates in the Digital Humanities series edited by Matthew Gold [4]. A common theme among early theorists and researchers in the Digital Humanities is trying to cope with a vast amount of data and make sense of it. In literary studies, Franco Moretti revolutionised the notion of "distance reading" (despite personal problematic behaviour which is worth understanding in the context of his legacy) which built on the traditional method of close reading (i.e. in-depth analysis and of a specific text with an eye towards a developed theory such as New Historicism or others). Moretti's work opened the door to a new validity in corpus analysis and text mining which demonstrated relationships amongst texts to illustrate thematic instances and highlight forgotten works [5]. Scholars began to work in these directions both on the individual textual level, the authorial level, the genre level, the time-period level, and other areas of comparative analysis. In related fields like Digital History (a digital humanities field sometimes distinguished from other forms due to its methodologies and aims) historians began to develop projects that incorporated fields like Geographical Information Systems mapping (GIS) to add a dimension of both historical and modern geographies to better illustrate a facet of history such as the movement of peoples, goods, ideas, etc.( a recent project is Historians have also used tools like Network analysis modelling, traditionally used in telecommunications research and virology, to understand the vast networks of influence and connections. This is most clearly illustrated in the pioneering project Six Degrees of Francis BaconDigital Humanities also allows for the display of objects otherwise too fragile or geographically disbursed for use. An example of this would be the Slavery, Law, and, Power Project which has been developed by University of Maryland researchers. Other researchers such as UMD's Matthew Kirschenbaum have looked at the reverse angle of the central questions of DH by looking at the technology with the lens of a literary scholar. Kirschenbaum thinks about the power of instantiation, the role of textual display, the fragility of digital memories, and much more as he probes the technology we take for granted [6]. While this is a simple sketch of a vast and deep field, one thing that is clear is that Digital Humanities can mean many things to many different people and that it is not a new field despite its more recent popularity. 

A couple central questions to consider when putting together a DH project: 

1) What is my central question and how is it best answered through a digital humanities project? Why digital? Why computational?

2) What are my outputs? How will data be displayed? What will the data be?

3) What skills do I need to learn?

4) What projects can inspire my progress and offer help?

5) What resources are there available to me (people and money)?


[1] Turing, Alan, Computing Machinery and Intelligence, Mind, Volume LIX, Issue 236, October 1950, Pages 433–460,

[2] for more on the Annales School see Peter Burke's excellent study on the history of this important historiographical moment, The French Historical Revolution : The Annales School, 1929-89. Key Contemporary Thinkers. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1990, 

[3] Freeing the Mind : Articles and Letters from the Times Literary Supplement during March-June, 1962. London: Times Pub, 1962. 

[4] Willard Mccarty. “Debates in the Digital Humanities.” Essay. In A Telescope for the Mind? University of Minnesota Press, 2012.

[5] Moretti, Franco. Distant Reading. London: Verso, 2013, and Moretti, Franco. Graphs, Maps, Trees : Abstract Models for a Literary History. London: Verso, 2005, 

[6] Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. Track Changes : A Literary History of Word Processing. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2016, and Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. Bitstreams: The Future of Digital Literary Heritage. Material Texts. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021,