While going through the anxious phase of having to find an original and brilliant yet realistic and achievable thesis topic, I ended up stumbling on something that I had never heard of before during my two years as an undergraduate oxonian: the Digital Humanities.
Intrigued by the concept’s sleek hybridity, I avidly looked it up.
If I understood correctly from the plethora of sources claiming authority over the matter, the digital humanities is basically the idea that the library isn’t the de facto locus of humanistic enquiry (history, literature, linguistics, philology etc.) Rather, it is simply the best way our societies have found until now to store and organise information, which came predominantly under the shape of books. And within the physical setting of the library gravitates the main protagonist of the classical humanities: the lonely scholar. At Oxford in particular, we have inherited the monastic practises of lonely research. Our only activity as historians consists basically of spending as much time as possible in the Radcliffe Camera scraping information from books. From its inception to the final product, the undergraduate essay is a solipsistic, erasmian endeavour.
Yet this form of academic research is as contingent as the form of the book itself. Why couldn’t the humanities then, as much as any other field use the new possibilities for quantitative research and collaboration unlocked by the “digital revolution”? That was, in broad strokes, the rationale used by all the vanguard institutes describing the field. Like with everything that involves the word “digital” in it, I was torn between the excitement of novelty and scepticism for yet another self-proclaimed “e-revolution”.
Before discovering the field of DH, I had already started to feel – like many fellow humanists, no doubt – a kind of frustration at my digital illiteracy, which I justified to myself by saying that as a historian, I was above these ephemeral concerns of a contemporary nature. After all, humanists should be the guardians of quality over quantity, of the written word and of – holiest of all – the Book. Nonetheless, it seemed obvious to me that a field that had been so directly defined by the last major information revolution that occurred after the invention of the printing press could not remain indifferent to the ways in which computing was once again changing the nature of information. To discover that there was a recognised field bringing together the legacy of humanism and the input of digitalisation was reassuring, because it meant that I didn’t have to choose, and that I could learn computing skills not at the expense of, but in harmony with the humanities.
More opportunistically, I thought to myself that integrating digital approaches into my thesis – whatever that meant – sounded good and could perhaps produce something original. Since my thesis was about information dissemination and reception in the 16th century I could perhaps use some basic computing tools to get interesting results.
I would therefore like to share in this blog my discovery of the Digital world as one pretentious undergrad among many trying to sort out his life. I will be recording some of my ideas and sharing helpful resources which I hope will come together in an interesting narrative of intellectual curiosity.