Blog Post

What Would Digital Humanists Save?

image of ipad and spiral bound notebook

            I believe the choices presented in this scenario have parallels in our ongoing discussion of what constitutes the humanities, the digital, and the digital humanities. In other words, I would generally expect someone who greatly appreciates or is a student of the humanities to opt to save the book on the shelf. Similarly, I would expect a computer science student or a fan of the digital to take a more practical and reasoned approach to the situation and save the digitally transcribed version of the manuscript. I would therefore expect a practitioner of the digital humanities to gravitate toward the choice that offers the greatest balance between human sensitivity and practicality and save the digital photo of the book.

            There are surely other factors to consider in this problem, but this framework at least holds true for how I would personally act in this scenario. I would save the book on the shelf, and believe I would do so because I am driven more by sentiment than by logic and would want to preserve the history and charm imbedded in the paper version of the book. Those opting to save the digitally transcribed version of the manuscript, however, may do so for more practical reasons such as ease of distribution in this form and the ability to manipulate the text in ways that one cannot a photo of the original.

            I would like to know the pace at which each of these three methods of preserving texts is expanding or contracting across different disciplines. I imagine that many organizations and companies have already begun to publish their research in predominantly digital forms. But I am most curious as to what trends and practices are developing with respect to this issue in academic and public libraries. How much time in a day, for instance, does the typical librarian now spend restacking books on the shelf versus collecting digital manuscripts?

            I also wonder where digital humanists come into play in all of this. If there was a sudden surge back toward physical books, for instance, would the digital humanists speak up and advocate for shift back toward the digital? This article explores why fewer people are majoring in the Humanities and why technology seems to have become more integral to society than ever before. What strikes me as particularly interesting is the title of the piece: “The Major Divide: Humanities vs. STEM Majors.” The humanities and the sciences are almost always presented as fundamentally at odds with each other, and yet the niche field of the digital humanities seems to boldly claim that it can successfully integrate the two. Though the digital humanities is an interdisciplinary field, I wonder then whether those practicing it are truly equally interested in both sides of their work.

            Personality theory may come into play here, but given the tradition of placing the humanities and sciences in opposition with one another, I can’t help but think that most people feel a compulsion towards one or the other. Is the digital humanities a field of humanists seeking to keep up with the today’s technological demands? Given that STEM majors often seem ready to leave the humanities behind, I find it harder to accept the view that the digital humanities emerged when experts in computational methods wanted to start applying their skills to other fields. It makes more sense to me then that the field emerged when humanists became aware of the ability for technology to further their critical inquires.


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