The readings this week attempt to define what the “digital humanities” are and how they relate to the practice of humanistic scholarship. Are the digital humanities a discipline or a tool, or some combination of the two?  If the digital humanities constitute an academic discipline, then what are its sources – what “data” does it examine? Trevor Owens, in his article “Defining Data for Humanists” explores these issues, defining “data” according to three main categories “text, artifact, and information.” I found the idea of data being an “artifact” particularly useful, as it allows for a more fluid definition and interpretation of data and particularly data in the humanities. This approach to data also reflects the variety of data that is currently being studied in the humanities and they ways that data can be represented and visualized digitally. In my field for example, data has gone beyond the ‘text’ and has expanded to include many other facets of literary studies; for example: the material, commercial, and collaborative aspects of book production, text and image studies, geography and history (timelines and maps), and in depth paleographical and codicological of manuscripts. However, in this regard the digital humanities seem to be a set of tools more than a discipline.

Many of the authors discussed the collaborative nature of the digital humanities. The emphasis on collaboration made me think about the parallel ways in which printed books were produced in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (and indeed before that).  In this sense, I found the views presented in Digital_Humanities very generative and thought provoking. The readings also raised the question: who can practice the digital humanities? An author of a early printed book almost never physically printed, illustrated, or bound the book himself. This process is similar to the ways in which programmers or website designers ‘translate’ our texts or information to an audience using new technologies. How does the role of the intermediary affect the way we approach our data and how it is represented?

Some additional thoughts: The readings discuss the importance of curation – curating information, ideas, objects, and knowledge digitally. For my own research, I am particularly interested in layout (a part of curation and design) in terms of the commentary tradition and the relationship between text and image. One of the authors argues that in the past text was largely limited to the layout of page or to being bound in a book (although one might consider oral performance as not being bound by the page). On the web, text is not limited to any particular layout – or is it? Does a computer, a screen, an open internet window, a tablet, or a phone not work similarly to the book? Another interesting aspect of commentary is the aggregation, or the literal piling-up, of authors, texts, and ideas that gives knowledge the potential to constantly be transformed and given new life. Is the facebook wall or the comment section of the NY Times not part of the same practice? I post an image of a French commentary on Gratian’s Decretals (ca. 1280-1300) for your consideration:

French commentary on Gratian's Decretals (ca.1280-1300) Paris

French commentary on Gratian’s Decretals (ca.1280-1300) Paris. Metropolitan Museum of Art (accessed via artstor). 

Note the commentary surrounding the text, the image, and the color, size, and script of the text.