Making knowledge of data: from the analog to the digital in humanities research

What constitutes digital humanities?

It is a question that eludes even the professionals and scholars of the field—let alone me, a humble student intern. There are many answers to the question, most of which can be categorized into three basic camps of thought: the crusaders, the conservatives, and the cynics. The first camp consists of those who believe that DH has the potential to disrupt and transform the world of information and knowledge. They are optimistic if not utopian. It is the realists who comprise the second camp. They recognize DH as a set of new digital tools that can augment more traditional humanities scholarship. If the crusaders explicate the reaches of DH, then the conservatives delineate its limits. Finally, there are the cynics. This censorious bunch believes DH to be the swan song of humanities itself, a last ditch effort made by increasingly defunded (read: irrelevant in today’s market society) humanities departments across the United States and the world at large.

Whichever camp one agrees and aligns herself with, it is relatively noninflammatory and perhaps agreeable to say that the trend towards the digital in the humanities bespeaks a wider trend toward the digital in our culture. In fact, the insight is..well, unremarkable.

We live in the era of big data, of amassing Brobdingnagian inventories of information so that they may be mined for specific purposes of either a commercial or educational nature, mostly. Statistical analysis and summarization is a useful skill to have nowadays, and the salaries for entry-level jobs in the tech world help support such a claim. What then is digital humanities without data? Documents such as articles, books, certificates, citations, film, illustrations, letters, photographs, receipts, and many more objects crowding archives everywhere all contain data within them. Traditional scholars make use of that data, or information; they examine it, unpack it, and assemble it so as to produce new knowledge—at least, that is the ideal of the métier.

It is that process of scholarship, or rather, data analytics I hope to replicate this summer with my fellow digital scholarship interns as we work with the digital collection of the Edward and Orra Hitchcock Papers. Some of the questions such an approach raises includes: What data lies dormant in the collection? How can it be surfaced and organized? What can we say about the data? What does the data reveal? How does it enrich our understanding of the lives of Edward and Orra Hitchcock? How do we impart our findings to others in an accessible and engaging way?

My aim is to have stimulating, thoughtful  answers to these and other questions that may surface along the way—answers that may help begin to illuminate the future direction of our interaction with the past through new means of technology. This is the start of that endeavor. Where we end up remains to be seen.

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