Putting the “dig it!” in “Digital Humanities”

One of the most curious things to consider about digital humanities is the notion that “[The absence of digital history arguments] is part of a broader, problematic practice in which historians regularly use digital versions of primary sources, but almost never cite those versions.” It seems overwhelmingly clear that such a practice is undertaken likely because of a stigmatism associated with using digital versions in lieu of the primary sources themselves, even when access to the latter may be limited or impossible altogether. Such a stigma is likely borne out of a general skepticism of digital versions of a given work, that somehow the information has been significantly altered and no longer holds true to the original’s purpose and intent. Ironically, the intent behind citation of the primary source instead of the digital version is likely done in the attempt to maintain a sense of coherence and loyalty to the primary source. Meanwhile, such a decision acts to undermine the integrity of the research method itself; while the audience of a given project may not know the details behind the scenes, the manner by which information is cited is, quite frankly, intentionally misleading. Additionally, by citing primary sources in which the digital versions are accessed actively works to undermine digital sources altogether. The continued practice of citing primary sources instead of their corresponding digital versions perpetuates the marginalization of digital materials rather than heling to normalize them.

The question which remains is why scholars continue to cite sources the way they do, often times without realizing that they are compromising the ethics of a project. The issue seems to stem from practices and traditions which are both taught by instructors and repeated by students while they author various projects en route towards completing their schooling. While my undergraduate paper regarding “The Knight’s Tale” was illuminating (or so I like to believe) I was not actually able to consult the various “primary” versions of The Canterbury Tales which I cited. Furthermore, it is a quite common practice to commit such citation faux pas in quoting a source featured in another. Since such citations (most commonly a dismissal of the digital version) point back to a primary source they are not often questioned and are taken at face-value.

The other fascinating issue concerning digital history and argument is that the way in which a project is organized and presented offers a unique perspective into and often shifted importance of a given subject, “an arrangement
of historical sources that advances an argument.” Additionally, “digital public
history promotes a conversation with its users that often includes collaboration on a project and privileges shared authority.” Just the decisions made by a historian – whether it be the metadata, tags, or a variety of other tools employed – actively shape the archive itself, often shining a light on parts of it which have been left unconsidered, ignored, or otherwise marginalized. It is absolutely fascinating to consider that simply a reorganization of a given data set or archive can significantly alter the way in which the subject is interpreted. Furthermore, the tools available in a digital history or argument help to add value to the project itself, often trying together pieces from various archives which would have otherwise existed mutually exclusive from one another.

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