Keeping Up With...Digital Humanities

This edition of Keeping Up With... was written by Jennifer L. Adams and Kevin B. Gunn.

Jennifer L. Adams is Graduate Library Preprofessional for Religious Studies and Humanities Services, e-mail:, and Kevin B. Gunn is Coordinator of Religious Studies and Humanities Services, e-mail: at the Catholic University of America Libraries.


At its core, Digital Humanities (or DH) is an emerging, interdisciplinary movement which looks to enhance and to redefine traditional humanities scholarship through digital means. However, this definition only scratches the surface; DH must be understood in the context of the history, methodologies, and perceptions which its practitioners bring to the table. Although it fairly recently entered popular awareness , DH first emerged more than sixty years ago as “humanities computing,” when it formed the basis for such projects as the Index Thomisticus, an electronically-compiled Thomas Aquinas concordance. Since the Index, however, Digital Humanities research has developed in broader and more complex directions, and is now part of the general scholarly conversation. Digital Humanities is not limited to any one field—it is highly collaborative, and draws contributors from many backgrounds—but it does have a solid base in academia. In recent years, related initiatives have emerged at universities (and elsewhere) worldwide. For academic librarians, the increasing prominence of Digital Humanities, its ongoing debates and the issues and opportunities associated with bringing it into the library, are worth noting. In this issue of Keeping Up With... we address some of the most significant “need-to-know” issues for academic librarians interested in Digital Humanities.

DH encompasses a wide range of definitions, activities -- and controversies

Some see Digital Humanities as a discipline unto itself; others define it as a movement within existing disciplines; still others argue that DH represents the future norm of humanities research and should simply be called “humanities.” It is not always clear what qualifies as DH. Merely digitizing a resource may not count— but is research alone sufficient, or does ‘true’ digital humanities require programming or tool development? Academia is also still struggling to accommodate DH research into traditional ideas of scholarship, especially since it is often open-access—meaning that DH’s reputation in academic circles, and its weight in promotion and tenure reviews, varies widely. Recently, Digital Humanities has experienced backlash for a number of additional factors, including its faddish appearance, perceptions that it is exclusive, and the tendency to equate DH with the digitalization of scholarship and higher education. Nevertheless, with uncertainty about Digital Humanities comes great possibility, and it is essential for DH-inclined academic librarians to remain aware of ongoing debates in DH, both generally (through such resources as Digital Humanities Now and the ACRL Digital Humanities Discussion Group) and at their own institutions.

DH invites—and demands—collaboration with parties outside of the library

Supporting long-term digital research usually requires working with third parties. The necessary privileges—such as administrator accounts (for software installation), high-level server access, or extra network storage or bandwidth—are rarely handled by librarians, and library staff may be ill-equipped to provide advanced technical support. Before beginning a DH project, librarians should establish whether researchers and librarians will have access to such privileges, what level of support campus IT services will provide, and what the library itself can offer in terms of dedicated space, equipment and other assistance. Librarians should also know how much support they can expect from their own library and academic institution. This means considering cultural and attitudinal factors (e.g., the institution’s emphasis on research and local attitudes towards librarians participating in it) as well as practical concerns (e.g., financial assistance or administrative incentives for participation). Third-party cooperation and support can make-or-break a budding Digital Humanities project; it is also fully in the open, collaborative and cross-disciplinary spirit of the DH movement.  

Librarians need additional training and education in order to contribute effectively

Before making a contribution, librarians must ascertain the expertise required for a particular project. The CLIR report One Culture: Computationally Intensive Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences discussed four kinds of expertise required for Digital Humanities projects: domain (subject), analytical, data management, and project management expertise. While librarians often have subject and project management experience, they may need to supplement their knowledge in other areas. This is true not only as far as computer programming knowledge (which may or may not be necessary for contributing librarians) but also in other areas—how many librarians have taken coursework in statistics and research, for example? Fortunately, there are a variety of opportunities for librarians to supplement their education.

Courses on building and using tools, as well as more specialized programs like CURATEcamp (based on the THATCamp ‘unconference’ model) are becoming prevalent. Librarians can capitalize on free online courses (such as the rising popularity of MOOCs) and subscription services such as Communities like DH Commons and HASTAC also offer many opportunities for librarians to hone their skills. Ideally, these needs will also be addressed in library science programs; some schools have already seen the need for specialized knowledge and training. University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s School of Information & Library Science, for example, recently announced a post-master’s certificate program in data curation. Continuing education is often necessary in order for librarians to effectively collaborate in DH research projects.

Data offers many possibilities for library contributions

DH research relies heavily on data. What types of data are generated on campus, by whom and for what reasons, will dictate librarians’ responses to this emerging research paradigm.  ACRL’s 2012 report Academic Libraries and Research Data Services, outlines contributions which librarians and archivists can make to data management.  Examples include discovery, mining, analysis, metadata creation, selection, curation, and research partnerships. Just as Digital Humanities centers have been established at educational institutions in recent years, now Research Data Services departments are appearing at many academic libraries as more administrators, researchers and librarians see the possibilities for data use in the humanities as well as in the sciences. These departments support the creation and curation of data within an institution—data which can form the basis of a DH project. For example, geographical data on campus historical buildings can be included in walking tours using GIS software.  However, even in the absence of institution-created data, librarians still have the opportunity to supply and to work with data through large and open-access data sets available from vendors, Google, DH associations, and other sources. The Digging Into Data Challenge web site has a list of data repositories.


As Barbara Rockenbach wrote in the January 2013 issue of the Journal of Library Administration, “DH is messy. It involves uncertainty, deep collaborations, and a flexibility that is foreign to traditional library culture.”  Nevertheless, it can offer academic librarians a variety of opportunities to integrate in and collaborate with their communities in new ways. DH is still emerging, and the eventual shape(s) it may take are not yet clear; however, librarians can begin to prepare for the future today, by pursuing opportunities with research data as a possible gateway to collaborative DH research; by seeking out opportunities to expand their skills through continuing education; by being willing to initiate collaboration with third-parties as necessary; and, most importantly, by being aware of all aspects of DH as it pertains to them, from the general ongoing debates to its place in their own institutional culture.

Learn More About Digital Humanities

Recommended Reading

Tenopir, Carol, Ben Birch and Suzie Allard. Academic Libraries and Research Data Services.  Washington, DC: ACRL, 2012. - A report from ACRL on the emerging Research Data Services departments at academic institutions.

Williford, Christa and Charles Henry. One Culture: Computationally Intensive Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences. Washington, DC: CLIR, 2012. - A report about the grant recipients from the Digging into Data Challenge involving the use of computers to analysis large data corpora.

Jahnke, Lori, Andrew Asher and Spencer D.C. Keralis.  The Problem of Data. Washington, DC: CLIR, 2012. - This report covers data management, curation practices in academic institutions, and data curation education in library and information science programs.

Lunenfeld, Peter, Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Todd Presner and Jeffrey Schnapp. Digital_Humanities. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2012.  PDF eBook. - This open access ebook provides a great overview of the field including a short guide covering checklists and guidelines for practicing DH.

Barbara Rochenbach, editor. “Digital Humanities in Libraries: New Models for Scholarly Engagement,” Journal of Library Administration 53, no. 1 (2013). - This special issue is devoted to doing Digital Humanities in the library.

Associations and Centers

HASTAC – Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Advanced Collaboratory. HASTAC. Accessed March 25, 2013. - HASTAC is a consortium of humanists, artists, social scientists, scientists, and engineers sharing ideas, events and collaborative work opportunities.

centerNet. centerNet. Accessed March 25, 2013. - centerNet is an international network of digital humanities centers designed for collaboration and cooperation.

Courses & Continuing Education

“Post-Masters Certificate: Data Curation.” University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill School of Information & Library Science. Accessed March 25, 2013. - Beginning in 2013, this post-master certificate on data curation is being offered with eight of the ten courses online.

“Zotero Groups: Digital Humanities Education: DHSyllabi.” Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New MediaAccessed March 25, 2013. - This Zotero group has collected over 300 syllabi from DH and DH-related courses.

THATCamp. THATCamp: The Humanities and Technology Camp.  Accessed March 25, 2013. - The Humanities and Technology Camps are great ways for technologists and humanists to collaborate on projects decided by the participants themselves.

All About Data

“Data Management”. Boston College University Libraries.  Accessed March 25, 2013. - Boston College University Librarians have put together a research guide on funding, managing and using data, including a section titled ‘Library as Data Partner.’

“DH Curation Guide.” DH Curation Guide: a community resource guide to data curation in the digital humanities.  - A resource guide to standards, articles and projects for data curation in the humanities.

“List of Data Repositories.” Digging Into Data Challenge. Accessed March 25, 2013.   - The Challenge brought together an impressive list of data repositories willing to share their data with interested researchers. 

Bailey, Charles W. Digital Curation Resources Guide. Digital Scholarship.Org. Accessed March 25, 2013. - This useful guide is a list of web resources on educational opportunities, discussion groups, standards, models, organizations, policies, and much more.

“DMPTool: Guidance and Resources for Your Data Management Plan.” University of California Curation Center, California Digital Library. Accessed March 25, 2013. - DMPTool assists researchers in creating Data Management Plans for research grant applications. 

“Open Research Data Handbook .” Open-Science. Accessed March 25, 2013. - This online handbook was designed for researchers interested in making their data open access.

Tools & Tutorials

“Bamboo DiRT.” Project Bamboo. Accessed March 25, 2013. - Bamboo DiRT is a directory of digital research tools.

*Codecademy. Codecademy. Accessed March 25, 2013. - Codecademy is an interactive resource designed to introduce users to software programming basics.

Other Sites of Note

”dh+lib.” ACRL Digital Humanities Discussion Group. Accessed March 25, 2013. - Founded by the ACRL Digital Humanities discussion group in 2012, this blog is for librarians and archivists to discuss issues pertinent to digital humanities and libraries.

DevDH. Accessed March 25, 2013. - DevDH is an educational resource that walks budding digital humanists through the process of managing, designing, planning, acquiring funding, and evaluating a DH project.

“Digital Humanities Now.” Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. Accessed March 25, 2013. - DH Now is a collaborative effort in discovering and sharing digital humanities work on the web.