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Why the Digital Humanities Matter

digital-humanitiesBy Mark D. Bowles, Ph.D.
Professor of History at American Public University

Those of us who live in the humanities wing of the academic mansion constantly hear people telling us that we are “in crisis.” In June 2013, the Wall Street Journal featured the article “Humanities Fall From Favor.” Four days later, the Chronicle of Higher Education presented a counter-argument that stated “’humanities in crisis’ story is seriously overrated.” It is clear that there is a perception that a crisis exists and, in fact, this perception has existed in various degrees since the 1920s.

One of the ways that I believe we can overcome this perception is with a relatively new discipline called the Digital Humanities (DH). DH practitioners experiment in the area “born of the encounter between traditional humanities and computational methods.”

Though the DH name did not exist prior to 2004, pioneering efforts began by Jesuit priest Roberto Busa who, working with IBM in the 1950s, developed a computer generated concordance to the writings of Thomas Aquinas that can be found today at http://www.corpusthomisticum.org/. Digital Humanities projects increased dramatically with the advent of the World Wide Web and more powerful computer technology. Today we are seeing important DH projects that focus on curating knowledge that was actually “born digital.”

Why are projects like this needed more than ever now? Research is fundamentally different than it was just a short time ago. As David Berry wrote in Understanding Digital Humanities, “it is becoming more and more evident that research is increasingly being mediated through digital technology.” Technology is bringing a revolutionary change to what it means to conduct research in the humanities and across all scholarly disciplines.

Here are two personal examples. When I was working on my M.A. in History at the University of Akron in 1992 one of my professors told me not to use the computer system in the library to find books. She said it was much more thorough to use the paper-based card catalog system because the computer system failed to account for many books in the physical collection.

Things began to change when I moved to Case Western Reserve University to work on my Ph.D. I completed my Ph.D. in history in 1999 and at that time Yahoo Internet Life ranked the university as the “Nation’s Most Wired Campus.” Nevertheless, when writing my dissertation on the history of the information explosion, I spent all of my time in a physical library and archives. There were simply no digitized databases that could assist me with my research.

Today almost everything has changed. I am a professor of history at a leading online university, we have a wonderful digital library (especially with the new Summon tool), and new primary sources are digitized and made available online every day.

We desperately need a discipline whose sole purpose is to investigate, experiment, and create meanings for this new electronic world of information. That is the role of the digital humanities today.

I devote all of my research time to the digital humanities. This includes my website, my experiment in tweeting an academic book on NASA, and the APUS history Facebook page Quill & Musket.

I firmly believe that the growing vigor and sophistication of DH will serve as an antidote to the persistent rumors that the humanities are in crisis. As Mark Twain famously said in 1897, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” I can assure you, the humanities are alive, well, and thriving in the digital world of the 21st century.

About the Author

Dr. Mark D. Bowles is Professor of History at American Public University. He has authored or co-authored 14 books that focus on the history of science and technology. His most recent book is a college-level textbook on digital literacy. You can contact him at http://about.me/MDB.

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