Does the digital humanities need more digitisation?

There was a time, perhaps back in the early misty years of the twenty-first century, when the completion of big digitisation projects would be greeted with whoops and cheers from the nascent digital humanities community.

Enthusiastic mailing list emails would trumpet how much easier scholarly access would be and librarians breathed a sigh of relief and undergraduates would no longer turn up with their grubby paws to look at special collections. Early instances of the Digital Resources for the Humanities conference would showcase happy parents, showing off their digital babies to adoring well-wishers. Everyone cheered! Research had suddenly got many times easier.

These days, digitisation projects are maybe not ten a penny, but the arrival of another set of digitised documents is taken with a shrug of the shoulders. “Another boring digitisation project … but how does that really change things?”

And you can understand why. There have been so many digitisation projects over the past decade, that any new arrivals are smaller drops in an already significant well. Equally, the innocent joy of digitisation has evaporated – maintaining online resources requires continued technical and editorial input and a bit of financial help to keep them afloat.

Perhaps more crucially, simply creating new digital objects does not necessarily equate with new research horizons for the arts and humanities.

In fact, the fear of those who wish the humanities to explore new methodological approaches is that straightforward digitisation projects actually discourage such novel exploration.

By simply recreating documents in electronic form, digitisation reinforces existing (and therefore conservative?) forms of scholarship based around analysis and understanding of single texts and documents, rather than pushing the boat out to new forms of analysis.

Yet there are some powerful arguments against such a way of thinking.

Outside academia, the whole world of content has turned digital – music via iTunes, newspapers on mobile devices, films via the Web etc. Anything that’s not in digital form feels anachronistic. There is an irresistible force towards the digital; not being digital is a powerful statement of deliberate neglect. Those in charge of special collections, for example, cannot afford to fall into the trap.

Furthermore, we have hardly digitised anything. The diagram in the NY Times about the quantities still to be digitised in the US National Archives is taking on iconic status. The tiny percentages in play show how Google’s digitisation, with its focus on books to detriment of other materials, is just a drop in the ocean.

And besides the statistical reasons for continuing with digitisation, there are more nuanced, qualitative reasons. By ceasing such activities, we risk creating an ossified and very imbalanced canon of what has been digitised – new research interests remain marginalised in the absence of access to source material. Students, expecting to find everything on the web, steer back to working with the material that has already been digitised.

In a wider sense, the creation of digital content is inevitable. If you want to do anything new you need new digital material, even if it’s digitisation in a loose sense – creating a database or records, typing out some inscriptions or plotting locations on a map.

So we need to make sure that there is still room for digitisation to happen, for new digitisation projects to feed into new research angles and to open up new learning possibilities for students. But if we do keep digitising, we need to do so in an open, sophisticated way, making sure that the data that is created does not just allow for ‘traditional’ forms of scholarship.

So I would argue for more digitisation, but open digitisation in a way that allows for new methodologies. Create open content, re-useable content, sophisticated platforms. Expose raw data and allow it to be interpreted and re-interpreted. Allow content to be mashed-up and joined up and analysed with other content. Create content that can be used by those who want to use ‘traditional’ methodologies and also those who want to explore the new avenues that digitised content permits.

If we do this, then we ensure that more digitisation means better teaching and research.

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