Why Digital Humanities? 12 Reasons for Media Historians

As media historian Bob Nicholson points out in his article “The Digital Turn,” while the downfalls of the digital turn in the humanities have been mapped out, affirmed, and reasserted, the “advantages of digitalization have been treated as too obvious to require explanation” (61). In this respect, it is important to draw attention to the possible strengths of a digital humanities approach. Here are twelve reasons for media historians to consider digital methods.

1. The Big Picture

There is a limit to the amount of individual texts, objects, sounds, and moving and still images that a researcher is able to read, watch, listen, and examine. Digital tools and methods have the capacity to account for a great mass of cultural artifacts, quantifying it into data, visualizing it on a grand scale, and allowing the researcher to identify patterns in the data that otherwise would be lost.

2. A Shift from Close to Distant Reading

Correspondingly, looking at a bigger picture and considering a complex mass of objects, texts, sounds, and images, some of which might be ephemeral, creates a shift in the scale of research from close to distant reading. In Graphs, Maps, Trees, Franco Moretti questions what happens when (literary) historians alter their gaze, comprehending distance not as a barrier, but as a way to reveal new forms of knowledge and understanding. Thus, for Moretti, distant reading, the use of quantitative methods to help identify patterns and elucidate interconnections across multiple texts, is the antithesis of close reading (1).

3. Production of New Forms of Knowledge

Digital tools create new sets of quantitative data, generally unfamiliar to many humanities scholars, to be interpreted, mapped, and visualized. Working with data sets has the potential to produce and represent new forms of knowledge, including new historical critiques, assessments, and narratives.

4. Visualization: Graphs, Maps, Trees

Digital tools produce visualizations to map and comprehend large amounts of data across space and time. In “Digital Visualization as a Scholarly Activity,” Martyn Jessop notes how digital visualization can be administered to any data and used in all areas of the humanities (291). For Jessop, the introduction of space through data visualization permits researchers to investigate patterns and interconnections not visible in written language (284). Furthermore, Nicholson asserts: “Whilst it is important to recognize the limitations of such an approach – it does not, after all, reveal the meaning of the texts it counts – it provides a useful way to visualize broad cultural trends and identify areas for closer inspection” (69).

5. Accentuation of Circulation through Data Visualization

Importantly, visualizing such forms of data can reveal the dynamic movement of cultural artifacts through time and space, illuminating new connections between particular objects of study (i.e., trade, fan, and academic discourses) and elucidating larger trends that may easily be overlooked.

6. Visual Comparisons

Creating visualizations of multiple data sets allows for comparisons. For example, as demonstrated by Eric Hoyt in the “Welcome to Project Arclight” video, a researcher can undertake a comparative analysis using visualizations that graph the differences in the career arcs of two actors.

7. New Questions Raised

Digital tools and approaches not only assist in answering our research questions but also lead to the exploration of unchartered territory, the drawing of previously unseen connections, and the formation of innovative questions that may not otherwise arise within a traditional media history methodology.

8. A Challenge to the Primacy of Text

A digital humanities approach encourages humanities researchers to both situate our objects of study as data and to contemplate the implications and potential problematics of such action. Doing so poses a challenge to the very primacy of text and textual analysis.

9. Collaboration

Since data can be interpreted in multiple ways and in various contexts, it can help foster collaboration among researchers. Moretti emphasizes its collaborative value, as data “are ideally independent from any individual researcher, and can thus be shared by others, and combined in more than one way” (5).

10. Communication and Accessibility

In his article “The Digital Inhumanities?” Scott Selisker argues that the biggest impact of digital humanities lies in “changing the ways scholars communicate their work to the public” (n. pag.). Digital humanities projects often maintain dedication to open source. Therefore, the digitization of archival materials, which are often kept hidden away under lock and key, has a huge impact on accessibility for scholars and the general public alike. Furthermore, projects like the Betham Project are eliciting help from the public through crowd-sourced transcription (see Cohen).

11. Comprehensive not Representative Sample

By focusing on general structures and patterns and moving away from individual texts, digital tools and methods can encourage a more comprehensive rather than representative sample, allowing for a shift away from canonical texts and received dominant histories.

12. Acceptance of the Unknown

Digital methodologies and distant reading uncover “the limits of what we can know about culture in the digital age” (Selisker n. pag.). Hoyt astutely points out that as a researcher this involves acknowledging that not everything can be digitized, accepting that materials will and do get lost, embracing various other complications that arise in algorithmic research, and reflecting upon the implications of this within the research process.

In examining the reasons why a digital approach may be useful to media historians it becomes apparent that digital tools not only have the capability to alter the ways in which media historians study media history, but they also “have the potential to transform the content, scope, methodologies, and audience of humanistic inquiry” (Burdick, Drucker, Lunenfeld, Presner, and Schnapp 3). The work of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (RRCHNM) provides strong evidence for the benefits of using digital tools in the study of media history, reflecting many of the reasons listed here. Over the last twenty years RRCHNM researchers have developed new digital software and methods (e.g., Serendip-o-matic, Omeka) to “democratize history” (n. pag.). In this respect, RRCHNM reinforces the value of digital tools and methods and

their capacity to help “incorporate multiple voices, reach diverse audiences, and encourage popular participation in presenting and preserving the past” (n. pag.). While the RRCHNM is one example of how digital forms open up media history methods and approaches, a variety of possibilities lie ahead and await our engagement.


Works Cited

About.” Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. 2014. 14 Nov. 2014.

Burdick, Anne, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner, and Jeffrey Schnapp. Digital_Humanities. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2012.

Cohen, Patricia. “Scholars Recruit Public for Project.” New York Times. 27 Dec. 2010. Web.

Hoyt, Eric. “Welcome to Project Arclight.” Online video clip. Vimeo, 13 May 2013. 17 Nov. 2014.

Jessop, Martyn. “Digital Visualization as a Scholarly Activity.” Literary and Linguistic Computing 23.3 (2008): 281-293.

Moretti, Franco. Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History. New York: Verso, 2005.

Nicholson, Bob. “The Digital Turn.” Media History 19.1 (2013): 59-73.

Selisker, Scott. “The Digital Inhumanities?” “Two Rebuttals to ‘Literature is not Data: Against Digital Humanities.’” LA Review of Books. 5 Nov. 2012. Web.