The Digital Future is… Processing.

When can we stop asking about whether the time has come for the humanities to enter the digital age and start exploring how digital humanities started long ago? In The Digital Future is Now (Fall 2009), Christine L. Borgman calls upon humanities scholars to take the initiative to “design, develop, and deploy the scholarly infrastructure for digital humanities.” Borgman must not realize that these initiatives have already begun! In order to accomplish her goals, Borgman suggests looking at the successes and failures in eScience, including such plans as the National Science Foundation’s Cyberinfrastructure Vision for 21st Century Discovery. As a beginning point of comparison, she identifies six factors for comparison between science and the humanities. Let’s look through these six areas and the ways in which the Digital Future has already begun to be realized not only in science but also in the humanities.

1. Publication Practices: Everything is going digital, whether we like it or not. In the sciences, scholars have such sites as ArXiv.org to post and search through new papers on physics. Guess what? This site is sponsored by Cornell University Library. In other words, for the humanities to create similar sites, it requires institutional plans for such depositories. Do we have these? While Borgman argues that humanities journals are slow in moving to online publications, there are thousands available through such sites as JSTOR and Project Muse and, increasingly, other journals are moving toward electronic publication. Also, it must be understood that the kind of information historians want to access is not  limited to current experimentation/theorizing, but historical documents and primary sources. In addition to accessing these on sites created by the Library of Congress and Smithsonian, various universities have begun setting up their own sites. The University of Washington has a database on African-American history here. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has an excellent site of southern history sources here.

2. Data: Borgman spends quite a bit of time discussing different categories of data in science, including observational data, computational data, experimental data, and records. According to her argument, “we are only beginning to understand what constitute data in the humanities, let alone how data differ from scholar to scholar and from author to reader.” I have a suggestion. There are two types of data in the humanities: primary sources and secondary sources.  In other words, scholars in the humanities have always understood what constituted data, and they don’t complicate it any further than it needs to be. The fact that theory and methodology may be different from scholar to scholar does not complicate the situation, either. Now, in regards to accessing this data, as Borgman explains, intellectual property rights makes it difficult since scholars don’t own the rights to historical records they use and often need permission to print or reprint such documents. In other words, individual scholars themselves cannot take the initiative the way Borgman wants. These sources can only be made electronically public by those institutions holding the rights, which many are doing, as discussed above.

3. Research Methods: I suppose an important question in this section is whether history or the humanities can become as “open source” as modern science in such venues as in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. History can not easily be made open source, as Roy Rosenzweig so eloquently explained in this study on Wikipedia. Rosenzweig does question why so many academic journals are not being made available without costly subscription fees. However, in a field where publication is essential to progress and the hopes for tenure, do scholars in the humanities have the power (or desire) to challenge reputable (and, therefore, costly) journals and choose instead to give up any “prestige” by publishing solely on completely “open source” websites where they would be competing with anyone who has access to a keyboard? Who would be willing to moderate such sites, and without pay, in order to have it all available to the general public without fees? Indeed, modern writing in the humanities may never be fully “open source,” though primary documents can be placed more in the open. Borgman mentions the Perseus Digital Library but, as mentioned above, many other libraries have placed their sources online.

4. Collaboration: In the face of scientific collaboration, Borgman sees only the image of the “lone scholar” in the humanities. While it is true that individuals must conduct their own research, planning, and development of dissertations, the entire historical field is one of collaboration. Can any scholar write an argument  without addressing his/her critics? Are scholars allowed to ignore methods and theories of others regarding race, gender, class, religion, etc? I would argue that the entire field of humanities is one single collaborative work with thousands of scholars from the widest range of disciplines.

5. Incentives to Participate: In many respects this section is about disincentives more than incentives. Either way, Borgman concludes that “the digital humanities encounter most of the same incentives and disincentives for sharing data and sources faced by the sciences and by other disciplines.” Indeed, we all have the incentive to publish our findings and hope that we can publish them before someone else does. Having data available online rather than behind closed doors that only we as individuals have access to changes the game quite a bit, though we’ve already been playing this game for quite some time now.

6. Learning: This section is about “the use of networked computing and communications technologies to support learning.” Um, basically everything we’ve already discussed above, except Borgman places emphasis on the need for a “common technical platform” for all the information to be available openly online. Well, given that the Internet is supposed to be one of the most democratic tools available to allow a multiplicity of viewpoints and platforms, is a single, common platform for the humanities really desirable? Perhaps it would be nice to create a platform for libraries and institutions to place their own links for the researcher to be able to find multiple sources simply by going to one site. Of course, there already are sites like this one, not to mention historical associations like this one.

The digital future IS now, though I think it’s been around for quite some time. What do you think?

Image found here.

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