Getting into Digital Humanities: A top-ten list

Today I’ll be joining a roundtable discussion hosted by the New York Council for the Humanities for its incoming class of public humanities fellows. I was asked to prepare a “top-ten list” for public humanists looking to get started in digtial humanities, and with the help of friends on Twitter, I came up with the following:

  1. Stop worrying about the definition of DH: One thing people like you, who are starting out in digital humanities do is worry an awful lot about the definition of digital humanities. Is what I’m going really digital humanities? Does it count as digital humanities? I’m here to tell you to stop worrying about whether what you’re doing is or is not digital humanities. Stop worrying about the definition of digital humanities. Digital humanities is not a thing, it’s not a discipline, it’s not a field. Digital humanities is a community of practice and once you enter that community of practice, once you starting working with other people who call themselves digital humanists, who are in that community of practice, once you start attending events where digital humanists frequent, once you start doing those things, once you start entering that community of practice, you are a digital humanist and whatever you’re doing counts.
  2. Enter the circle: The first thing you should do is get yourself on Twitter. I know people are skeptical of Twitter and for some very good reasons. But when it comes to digital humanities that’s really where the community is so I would suggest getting a Twitter account and then getting a couple of other things. Next thing you should do is get a Feedly account. Feedly is an RSS reader. There are other RSS readers that you may want to use. Feedly is a web-based service that’s very easy to get up and running with. Get a Feedly account. Start subscribing to blogs. Start reading those blogs. Start Tweeting the link that you find there. The way that the digital humanities community uses Twitter is to share links to interesting resources, interesting readings, and other things that they find on the web. You start doing that, you’ll start getting followers and you should start following some people. Find a digital humanist you know and whose work that you like on Twitter, find out who that person is following and follow the people that she’s following. Once you start doing that, you’ll start seeing the kinds of issues that digital humanists are interested in. Then what you should start doing is blogging yourself. Go get yourself a WordPress blog. Either host it yourself or host it at Start writing down your own thoughts, Tweeting links to that. Other people will start putting your feed from your WordPress blog in their Feedly accounts. They’ll start subscribing to your blog, reading your blog, tweeting your links. This is what I call entering the circle. Really, the digital humanities, and I’m going to say this several times during the course of this video, digital humanities is really a community of practice. That’s all it is and so you need to enter that community of practice and the best way to do that, the first way to do that, is online through these social media, that sort of virtuous circle of blogs, Twitter, and RSS feeds.
  3. Start with partners: An interesting thing happened to me when I was preparing this list that I think illustrates the last point on the list and leads us to the next point on the list. When I started writing this up I posted an update to Twitter asking for suggestions from my followers, the community of DHers who I engage with, what they thought were the top 10 lessons that a new digital humanist like yourselves could and should learn. I got a lot of great feedback, some of which is in this talk. I ended up in a long discussion with two colleagues, Jason Heppler and Trevor Owens, and we were debating the merits of whether we should advise people to start with a particular tool if they were looking to get into digital humanities or whether they should start with a research question and find a tool to match that. Should they let the tool determine the research question or should they let the research question determine the tool? And we talked about that back and forth. I tend to lean on the tool side. Other people lean on the research question side. But, in fact, I don’t come down really on either side. I actually think you should start with something else, a third thing, and that’s with collaboration. All digital humanities projects are collaborations or nearly all. There are very few digital humanities projects that you can do fully on your own. Most things require a team of people or at least a couple of people because there’s a lot of different skills involved with digital humanities projects and it’s very rare that one person brings all of those skills to bear, that all of the skills necessary to carry out the project are contained in the skillset of one person. So most projects, almost all projects, are collaborations and what I like to do – and this is my practice, this is the way I work – is I like to find the partners first. I like to find people who I think are doing great work, who I think are interesting, who I think I really want to work with, who are cool, whatever and I look for the spaces between our work, the spaces between the partners where we intersect, where we overlap, where interesting work can be done.
  4. Attend THATCamp: So who are these partners? Well, if you’re a technical person you probably should want to seek out some content folks to provide you with the stuff that’s going to fill the database, that your project is going to be based around. If you are a non-technical person, well, you should probably be searching for some technical assistance, some people with a more technical bent. Those are often the pairings that we find. Where do you find those people? Well, a very good place to find those people if you don’t already know them, and you may. They may be your close collaborators and that’s always the first place to look but if they’re not one place to look for them is THATCamp, The Humanities and Technology Camp. THATCamp started in 2008 at the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University as an unconference, a very informal gathering of people with an interest in the humanities and technology. A very low overhead gathering and a very informal and non-hierarchal gathering where people of all experience levels, all skill levels, all technical interests and backgrounds, all humanities interests and background could get together in a very non-threatening environment to find one another and connect. Since 2008, these events have grown virally and there have now been more than 150 locally organized, grass roots THATCamps around the world. There’s surely one near you. Go to You’ll find a map there on the home page, which lists upcoming THATCamps in an area near you. I know there are several going in the Northeast in the next several months and I encourage you strongly to start there as a place to look for partners, educate yourself, and especially to connect.
  5. Write grants, not papers (or write grants and papers): Digital humanities is a projects-based field. What that means is that people and institutions in digital humanities are known more for their projects than for their publications. That means that it’s often more important to write a grant proposal than it is to write a paper. Writing a grant proposal forces you to describe what it is that you’re going to do. Describing what you’re going to do is the first step to getting something done and being done is the goal of every project. So if you want to finish a project, start with a grant proposal. Start with a description of what you’re going to do, not with what you think.
  6. Release Early and Often: When you’re starting a project, sometimes it’s useful to think about the smallest version of that project, the smallest possible version of the project that will still be complete. So let’s say that you were thinking about building a vast archive of digital primary sources. Well what’s the smallest possible version of that project? Well maybe it’s a list of the 10 most important of those sources. Maybe it has some dates, some call numbers, and an image or two pasted to a piece of paper. That is still the project, it’s just not the fully realized, the most elaborate version of the project that you can think of. We sometimes call this the minimum viable product. Then what you do with that minimum viable product is you get it out there as quickly as possible. You get it out there to the audience so that you can receive feedback, bug reports, and then roll that feedback back into the next version of the product, the next minimum viable product, which will have gone some way towards your fully realized version of the project. We call this strategy of minimum viable products and releasing early and often, agile development and it’s how the best digital humanities projects are built.
  7. Digital is always public: One thing this notion of community of practice and release early and often points to is that digital humanities is essentially public humanities. All digital work is public. When you put something out there on the web it is a public document and it will be found by people who you never intended to find it. Means you have to be very careful when doing digital work to think first and foremost about audience. When starting a digital humanities project audience should be uppermost in your mind and as you continue to release versions of the project, to iterate, to work in an agile fashion on the project, always keep in mind the audience for the project.
  8. Try.New.Things: One of the hardest things about digital humanities to me is that the technologies keep changing out from under you. What that means is you always have to be willing to try new things, to try, to fail, to pick up a piece of software, a new method, to work with it, to figure it out on your own. Most digital humanists are self-taught. You can’t wait for someone to train you. The politics of intellectual property aside, one of the reasons that digital humanists love open source technologies and standards like the Web and Firefox and other open source software packages is because you can open them up and you can change the code, and especially because you can break them.
  9. Break something: Breaking things and then fixing them is one of the very best ways to learn a new technology. The ability to break open source software, to figure out what you did wrong, to go in and change it, fix it, and maybe even make it better, is one of the best teaching methods out there.
  10. Lather, rinse, repeat: You will never stop learning. The situation of trying new things, breaking things, fixing them, learning how to do that is something that you’ll have to do continually in digital humanities. The technologies are always changing out from under you. The methods are always changing, evolving. You have to evolve as a practitioner with them.

N.B. As my mother always told me, “do as I say, not as I do.”

Briefly Noted: Universal Museum APIs; Raw Data Now!; Publish or Perish

Mia Ridge, Lead Web Developer at the Science Museum, London (where I’m a research fellow, incidentally) points to Museums and the machine-processable web, a new wiki “for sharing, discussing, arguing over and hopefully coming to some common agreements on APIs and data schemas for museum collections.”

Following closely on that, Tim Berners-Lee calls for “Raw Data Now!” at the TED Conference, suggesting that linked raw data may be poised to displace more finished works (journal articles, websites) as the main unit of scientific production. Interesting, provocative parallels to the digital humanities.

And not entirely unrelated, Mark Bauerlein considers the problems of “publish or perish” in Professors on the Production Line, Students on Their Own [.pdf]. Asking “Do any major works or authors lack editors, interpreters, theorists, reviewers, and teachers?” Bauerlein answers “the ‘coverage’ project is complete” and suggests departments turn back to teaching. “We need honest and open public acknowledgment that the scholarly enterprise has lost its rationale,” he concludes, “that central parts of the humanities are in real trouble, and that the surest way to restoration lies in a renewed commitment to the undergraduate student.” I can’t say I always agree with Bauerlein (see, for example, but he’s invariably worth reading.

Briefly Noted for March 9, 2009

This year CHNM and the American Historical Association will be pleased to award the first Rosenzweig Fellowship for Innovation in Digital History in memory of our late friend and inspiration, Roy Rosenzweig.

The American Association for State and Local History has launched a traveling exhibition directory for museums and other organizations looking to find and publicize traveling exhibitions.

Smithsonian Director of Web and New Media Strategy, Mike Edson, has posted his spot-on treatment of lingering concerns over social media and web technology among collections professionals and administrators. The presentation originally appeared at the recent WebWise conference in Washington, DC.

Briefly Noted for February 25, 2009

Along with “the perfect is the enemy of the good,” “release early and often” is something of a mantra around CHNM, especially when it comes to software and web application development. For a variety of reasons, not least the invaluable testing and feedback projects get when they actually make it into the wild, CHNM has always been keen to get stuff into users’ hands. Two good statements of likeminded philosophy: Eric Ries’ Lessons Learned: Continuous deployment and continuous learning and Timothy Fitz’s Continuous Deployment.

Lisa Spiro continues her excellent roundup of Digital Humanities in 2008 with a discussion of developments in open access. Readers should also make sure to catch Lisa’s first installment on digital scholarship. Nice to see that CHNM makes an appearance in both.

Drunk History presents “history as it’s never been told before”: by drunks. Check out Volume One, where Arrested Development and Juno’s Michael Cera does a turn as Alexander Hamilton. Thanks, Ken.

Briefly Noted for April 8, 2008

Friend of CHNM, Stan Katz provides some perspective on The Emergence of the Digital Humanities in his excellent Chronicle of Higher Education “Brainstorm” column. presents 1000 years of British history through a series of film clips organized along three parallel and interlinked timelines, one each for social, political, and national (English, Irish, Welsh, Scottish) history. Very high quality content (originally filmed for the BBC) distributed in a very popular format (the timeline). And a pretty slick website to boot.

Open Source Decade. Ars Technica recalls Tim O’Reilly’s 1998 “Freeware Summit” where “open source” first emerged as a term of choice in the free, open, libre, etc. software movement.

Briefly Noted for March 14, 2008

Finally! From our talented Polish colleagues at Historia i Media comes Feeds, a much needed new resource that uses Google Reader to aggregate and filter RSS streams from digital historians around the world. “One Feed to rule them all, One Feed to find them, One Feed to bring them all and in the darkness bind them?”

“NASCAR Women’s History Month”. Outsports Jock Talk says it may not be an oxymoron for long.

Ole-Magnus Saxegard, a student at the University of Technology in Sydney, presents “A History of Evil”, a short animated film examining the changing place of “evil” in the western tradition. Its subject and message are somewhat muddled—Cerberus and Frankenstein are depictions of evil, the guillotine is a tool against/of evil, and early modern witches were both objects and subjects of evil—but “A History of Evil” is hugely compelling and very well crafted. Posted only on January 30, 2008, it has already been viewed 1,101,882 times.

THATPodcast Episode 2: Introducing Omeka

Jeremy and Dave are at it again. This time on THATPodcast they give us a video introduction to Omeka. Sticking with their two-segment format, the first half of the show features a discussion (in part by me) of the aims and values that underlie Omeka. The second half features a very helpful step-by-step demonstration of downloading and installing Omeka on a server. Great stuff.

THAT Podcast

I just finished watching the inaugural episode of THAT Podcast (“The Humanities and Technology Podcast”), the new video podcast from CHNM creative lead, Jeremy Boggs and CHNM web developer, Dave Lester. Wow. Considering Jeremy and Dave’s technical chops, I wasn’t surprised at the excellent production values. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised at the quality of the discussion, either. Jeremy and Dave are both deep and wide-ranging thinkers and practitioners of digital humanities, and THAT Podcast reflects their depth and range. In this first episode, Jeremy and Dave discuss the popular blogging platform, WordPress and its applications for teaching, research, and presentation of results. The podcast starts with an interview with Matt Mullenweg, founding developer of WordPress and Web 2.0 wunderkind. Jeremy and Dave follow the interview with a brief hands-on introduction to ScholarPress Courseware, a plugin for WordPress they developed to make building attractive course websites quick and easy. I’m using it this semester in my Introduction to Western Civilization: Science & Society course, and so far I am very pleased.

I’m sure many Found History readers are also subscribers to Digital Campus. As I score it, however, it’s THAT Podcast, 3 – Digital Campus, 0. Not only did Jeremy and Dave score an amazing and hard-to-get interview for their first episode, they’re using video as well as audio, and they’re providing practical instruction in digital humanities rather than the usual chatter you get from the Digital Campus gang. Nice job, guys.