Becoming a digital humanist

Unlike Rachel Herrmann I cannot pinpoint the day when I decided to become a historian. It was a choice that emerged only gradually and from the simplest, most unoriginal of motives: a lifelong fascination with the past and how it relates to the present. If you always go around thinking about the world in terms of continuity and change over time, aspiring to pursue a life in academic history seems like a logical step. So I did, and (some twenty years later) here I am.

As a historian, then, I must admit to having a deep and not entirely rational attachment to the traditional practices and material aspects of our craft. Yes, I confess: there is nothing like the dusty smell of aging books that have not been opened for decades, or the touch of fragile sheets of paper covered with centuries-old handwriting. The mundane details of organizing archival trips, the tedium of combing through library card catalogues where no shortcuts are to be had – it is all part of a somewhat old-fashioned mode of scholarly life that means the world to me.

There can be no doubt, however, that this way of life is quickly becoming obsolete in many respects. Sometimes I cannot help wishing that I could just go on as if nothing had happened – everything would be so much easier then, right? – but that is not really an option at this point. The reason is simple: academia, along with the rest of society, is about to be transformed by the digital revolution in ways we are only beginning to imagine. In one way or another, as teachers, scholars and citizens we all have to face the changes brought about by digital technology and social media.

It was this realization that made me begin to explore the field of digital humanities almost one year ago. On the one hand it was obvious that I could not continue along the same old tracks, on the other I felt a certain skepticism about some of the claims being made on behalf of all that is New, Digital and Social. The best way to deal with that ambivalence was to get at least a basic grasp of what is going on and where things seem to be heading. So, for the last ten months or so I have been trying, in my spare time, to follow some of the more visible DH figures on Twitter, read their blogs and collect information about useful tools and resources.

I have not really had the time to explore specific techniques or services in depth, like a proper, practicing ”digital humanist” (however that is defined) would; I have just tried to understand the major features of the DH landscape and what the main points of debate are. I have blogged and tweeted about it, but as someone pointed out the other week that alone does not make you a digital humanist. It was only a few months ago, and even then hesitantly, that I updated my profiles on Twitter and from ”interested in” to ”exploring digital humanities”.

By now I think I have a reasonably good general idea of the main issues, but no actual hands-on DH experience – unless you count the blogging and tweeting, of course. In one sense I do not even want to become a card-carrying digital humanist at all, since that label is strongly associated with certain beliefs and ideas that I do not fully subscribe to. (That is a whole other discussion that shall have to wait for another time.) But my direction is clear and over the next year or two this topic will be all the more relevant to me. On the one hand I am in the early stages of a research project where I will try to apply some of my recent DH insights, and on the other I have been asked to lead a development effort at my department to better integrate some of the new digital and social tools into our teaching practices.

About a week ago I passed another milestone on this road to wherever I am heading, when one day I went from ”exploring” to ”practicing” digital humanities in my everyday work – if on a very modest scale. In the morning of that day, sitting on the tram going to work, for the first time ever I published a blog post from my mobile phone. Part of the afternoon I then spent by reading up on Zotero and watching the entire collection of screencasts about how it works, in preparation for actually using it in my research. For mankind those may have been very small steps, but for me they were great leaps on my way to becoming something akin to a digital humanist.