Digital Humanities, Digital Scholarship, and Digital Libraries: Fuzzy Boundaries of a False Trichotomy

If there is one thing that unites digital humanities practitioners, it is our aversion to defining ‘Digital Humanities.’ I get it. I really do. But defining and redefining DH on a regular and ongoing basis comes with the territory. Especially in today’s academic and GLAM sector [note]GLAM stands for Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums.[/note] climate where digital tools and methods are being recognized as crucial components of workflow, access, and analysis.

Like politics, all DH is local. And depending on your local politics, you may find yourself needing to distinguish between the trifecta of Digital Humanities, Digital Scholarship, and Digital Libraries. These three terms usually live in happy, overlapping harmony with each other – until you have to tease them apart for administrative or funding purposes. Then things can get surprisingly complicated, surprisingly fast.

So, in an effort to ease this process, I propose the following interlinking definitions.

Digital Libraries consist of the human and cyber infrastructure required to build and maintain structured repositories of metadata and digital objects designed for access and reuse by researchers with an undelimited set of research questions. Digital libraries vary widely in size, content, and audience. But some examples include:

Digital Scholarship is the set of skills, methods, and tools required for researchers to work with digital materials, as well as the people who teach these skills. Skills that fall under Digital Scholarship include, but are hardly limited to:

  • Geographic Information Systems (GIS)
  • Proper use and application of statistical analysis (on textual, numerical, or image data)
  • Citation management (Zotero started as a DH project)
  • Data Curation and Data Management
  • Data visualization, physicalization, or sonification

Digital Humanities is a field of research and a labor structure. As a field of research, Digital Humanities is characterized by “using information technology to illuminate the human record, and bringing an understanding of the human record to bear on the development and use of information technology.” [note]A Companion to Digital Humanities, ed. Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, John Unsworth. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004. This book changed the name of the community from Humanities Computing to Digital Humanities at the publisher’s insistence. So if you don’t like the term Digital Humanities, take it up with Blackwell Publishing.[/note] As a labor structure, Digital Humanities is designed to maximize collaboration and, in the words of Ed Ayers, “scramble hierarchies” to the betterment of scholarship and the human experience. Digital Humanities practitioners use the skills and tools of digital scholarship and rely on (or create) the metadata and objects in digital libraries to answer their research questions.

Digital Humanities as a field is primarily characterized by Digital Humanities Projects.[note]DH contains vibrant communities focused on DH pedagogy, software engineering best practices, public humanities, experimental humanities/maker spaces, and digital/ephemeral art. But, for now, projects remain the predominant form of DH research and collaboration[/note]

Digital Humanities Projects often have features in common with digital libraries, but DH projects are designed to answer a delimited set of research questions.

So, those are my suggested fuzzy boundaries for the false trichotomy of Digital Humanities, Digital Libraries, and Digital Scholarship. In the wild many organizations use one of these terms to stand for a host of activities that stretch across the taxonomy I have laid out above – The Digital Library Federation being the obvious example.

But sometimes you need just need a short, and not entirely misleading, definition. I hope these help.



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