More Information


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Walter C. Langsam Library
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What is DH?

An Introduction

Many scholarly works have been written on the topic of defining “digital humanities” (often abbreviated as “DH”), a selection of which is listed below in the bibliography section. A simplistic definition is that digital humanities represent the intersection of traditional humanities research and digital/computer-based technologies. An earlier term for digital humanities was “humanities computing”. Susan Hockey, in The History of Humanities Computing, describes the development of this interdisciplinary academic area of activity and begins with an account of the work of Father Roberto Busa. Father Busa began his work on a computer-compiled concordance of the works of Thomas Aquinas in 1949 and the first volume of the Index Thomisticus was published in 1974 (Hockey, 2004, 4).

Father Busa, in an article published in Computers and the Humanities, provides an early and broadening view of the scholar’s use of computers:

“Using computers will therefore lead us to a more profound and systematic knowledge of human expression; in principle, it can help us to be more humanistic than before.” (Busa, 1980, 89).

More recently, digital humanities scholars are identifying the social, interdisciplinary, and collaborative aspects of DH. In his oft-cited article “What is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?”, Matthew Kirschenbaum provides the following definition:

Whatever else it might be then, the digital humanities today is about a scholarship (and a pedagogy) that is publically visible in ways to which we are generally unaccustomed, a scholarship and pedagogy that are bound up with infrastructure in ways that are deeper and more explicit than we are generally accustomed to, a scholarship and pedagogy that are collaborative and depend on networks of people that live an active 24/7 life online.” (Kirshenbaum, 2010, 60).

The Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations co-sponsors an international annual digital humanities conference. An examination of the papers, panel topics and poster sessions presented at the 2015 conference in Sydney Australia shows scholarly contributions from a wide array of disciplines including literary studies, geography, history, archeology, classical studies, library and information studies, mediaeval studies, women’s studies, and gender studies. The research presented encompasses a broad range of approaches including IT platforms, tools, crowdsourcing, collaborations with cultural heritage institutions, the global DH community, inclusiveness (or lack thereof), open source publishing, big data, GIS, DH advocacy, cross-disciplinary research with the social sciences and sciences, and data modelling.

Josh Honn, digital scholarship librarian at Northwestern University, arrives at a “description of DH that embraces multiplicity” and outlines five broad categories of digital humanities work:

  • humanistic scholarship presented in digital form(s)
  • humanistic scholarship enabled by digital methods & tools
  • humanistic scholarship about digital technology & culture
  • humanistic scholarship building and experimenting with digital technology
  • humanistic scholarship critical of its own digital-ness (Honn, 2013, 6)

Lastly, the annual A Day in the Life of the Digital Humanities (Day of DH) provides a unique insight to the wide range of definitions of the digital humanities. The Day of DH is an open community publication project that brings together international DH scholars to document what they do on one day. Jason Heppler has created a website with a rolling screen of hundreds of definitions culled from Day of DH participants from 2009-2012.



Busa, R. 1980. “The Annals of Humanities Computing: The Index Thomisticus.” Computers and the Humanities.14:2. 83-90.

Gold, M.K., ed. 2012. Debates in the Digital Humanities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Hockney, S. 2004. “The History of Humanities Computing.” In Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, and John Unsworth , eds. A Companion to the Digital Humanities. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004.

Honn, J. 2013. Never Neutral: Critical Approaches to Digital Tools & Culture in the Humanities. Retrieved Nov. 7, 2013.

Kirschenbaum, M.G. 2010. “What is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?” ADE Bulletin. 150. Retrieved Nov.6, 2013.

McCarty, W. 2005. Humanities computing. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.Spiro, L. 2011. “Getting Started in Digital Humanities.” Journal of Digital Humanities. 1:1. Retrieved Jan. 30, 2014.

Svensson, P. 2010. “The Landscape of Digital Humanities.” DHQ: Digital Humanities Quarterly. Retrieved Nov. 6, 2013.



Arlene Johnson, Associate Senior Librarian. June 1, 2015.