by Greta Bahnemann, Johan Oberg, and Justin Schell

The digital humanities is one of those things, like maker spaces, that we’ve all heard about, a trend we have to jump on, but that always seems vague and shadowy and tough to pin down. What is it? How do you get started? Will there be promotional bookmarks? This session made the concept of the digital humanities seem inviting, approachable, and actually quite familiar.

In simple terms, the digital humanities means using computational tools to deal with subjects in the humanities, and vice versa. One example is oldbaileyonline.org, which makes over 200 years of records from London’s central criminal court available to view and search online. Analyzing the text of these records allows historians to trace changes in clear quantifiable ways. For example, place names in the records can be mapped, showing where crimes were happening in any given year, and how those areas shifted over time.

Another terrific project is through zooniverse.org, a website originally devoted to crowd sourcing analysis of astronomical information. Using the same tools that let casual users classify various types of galaxies in the Galaxy Zoo project. Scholars are crowd sourcing the transcription of ancient Greek texts by mapping letters from a virtual keyboard onto high resolution scans of decaying papyrus. We were told that this project has allowed the transcription of what would have taken hundreds of years using more conventional methods – impressive to consider.

Obviously these are just a couple of examples. There are many, many more than would fit into a one hour presentation, coming from universities and libraries around the world.

The presentation focused on academia, which is understandable. That’s where the concept of digital humanities originated, and it’s where a lot of the work and innovation in this field is happening. I realized, however, that not only is there a place for public libraries in all of this, but that we’re already wading into these waters.

There may be some debate over the precise boundaries of what is or isn’t digital humanities, of course. The litmus test seems to be the extent to which data is made analyzable or quantifiable. So, for example, the first morning keynote speaker talked about making decades of NPR recordings available online. Some might not consider that, strictly, to be in the realm of “digital humanities.” But that’s a pretty pedantic distinction, really.
So, my main take away from this session (beyond simply being agog at the cool things people are doing) is that while digitizing a medieval manuscript might seem much more exciting than digitizing an old church newsletter or school yearbook, the concept underneath is the same: using modern tools to open up our bountiful resources for exploration. We’ve been doing this for years in public libraries. Everything from online genealogical resources to historical photo galleries could fall under the umbrella of “digital humanities.” And public libraries hold a ridiculous bounty of local resources. This is information that might not always seem particularly glamorous, but that is difficult to find anywhere else. Making it all available online, searchable and taggable and accessible, is no doubt going to continue, as the tools and resources to do so become more affordable and ubiquitous.