Winter 2009

Engaging the humanities: the digital humanities

James J. O'Donnell

James J. O'Donnell is professor of classics and provost at Georgetown University. Elected a Fellow of the Medieval Academy in 2002, he has served as president of the American Philological Association and as a trustee of the National Humanities Center and of the American Council of Learned Societies. His publications include “Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace” (1998), “Augustine: A New Biography” (2005), and “The Ruin of the Roman Empire” (2008).

We seldom speak of the electrical, the automotive, or the aeronautical humanities, for all that those technologies have done to revolutionize the social order of scholarship and transform the practices of scholars. Someday we will no longer speak, I am sure, of the “digital humanities”; but for now the phrase is needed to distinguish the new objects, techniques, and contexts of study from those today’s senior scholars inherited from their forebears. A full professor today certainly sat at the feet of scholars who never thought of using a computer for any scholarly purpose whatsoever and just as certainly teaches students for whom the computer (perhaps even the net-enabled cell phone) is the first essential tool of every piece of academic work.

Twenty-one years ago, Willard McCarty, currently professor of humanities computing at King’s College London, formed an email discussion group called “Humanist,” open to all those curious about what computing could do for the humanities, or humanities for computing. The list still flourishes, but veterans of the first few years speak of the conversations from around 1990 as if they had known one of the great salons of Paris in the eighteenth century or one of the coffee houses of Vienna in the nineteenth. Before we scattered to evangelize and work in our own disciplines and subdisciplines, institutions and departments, we, a modest group of true believers, met at “Humanist” to share a future none had yet seen. It was beyond obvious to all of us taking part in those early conversations that the content, methods, and modes of organization of humanistic scholarship were about to be changed, and utterly so.

Were we right? No one reflecting on the changes in habits of consuming and producing information that have developed in the last two decades can fail to be astonished by what is possible. Oceans of text, libraries of journal contents, and tens of millions of words of email group, chat room, and blogosphere opining now surround us. A collection lection of what I recalled as infrequent, brief, and desultory email messages over the last decade about a piece of personal business turned out, on downloading, to comprise 150,000 words–a book-length manuscript with no real physical dimensions at all, just miraculously present wherever on the planet my three-pound laptop should travel. JSTOR, Muse, Google Books, Early English Books Online, the Brown Women Writers Project, the Patrologia Latina Database, the Open Content Alliance, to name a few: considering the riches available at just the click of a mouse from these resources, I recall spending childhood years at an army post in the desert, where the homes and libraries probably contained less of the heritage of civilized culture and scholarship than what now travels on the hard disk of my laptop, certainly far less than what I can access from a hotel room in Beijing or Doha on that laptop. If I am now surrounded by more books, more physical paper than ever, it is in large measure because Amazon makes overnight delivery all too easy.

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