if you’re old enough to remember a time before the Internet, cast your
ears back to this sound: Pshhhkkkkkkrrrrkakingkakingkaking tshchchchchchch
That’s right. That’s the irritating – and maybe for some nostalgic –
ring of an old-fashioned modem connecting your computer to the Internet
(with phonetics borrowed from The Atlantic).
Now, imagine yourself back in the era when that sound was a novelty,
particularly in the quiet halls of an English or history department, where
the loudest ambient noise up to that point may have been the quiet swish
of pages turning. Or perhaps a pencil scraping lightly at their margins. If
you were that reader, hearing that “ding” for the first time, you might have
looked up from your book and wondered what exactly was going on.
You might have heard the birth of a new discipline called the digital
For most digital humanities scholars, even that time-frame of the mid-1990s is a bit late. They date the field’s origins to well before modems and the Internet, although at first it didn’t really have a name until it was called humanities computing and later, digital humanities. Ray Siemens, a 20-year veteran, remembers taking un- dergraduate courses in the mid-1980s that mixed computing into subjects like English and history. He did graduate work in humanities computing at the University of Toronto with Ian Lancashire, one of the field’s pioneers. Dr. Lancashire has
worked in digital humanities since the late 1970s and he remembers
precursor conferences in the mid-’60s. By that marker, digital humanities
has been established for over four decades.
Today, the field is enjoying its moment of wider scholarly acceptance
and integration, as well as a potentially broader impact: as a discipline, it
models some of the scholarly attributes that are in demand today, including interdisciplinarity and collaboration. Further, Canada has emerged
as a leader in digital humanities, in part because of the forward-thinking
attitudes of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. That
fact makes this country’s scholars among the ones to watch.
One of the first questions that many people ask is: what is digital
humanities? Interdisciplinarity is the rock-solid basis of digital humanities, a field so wide that it encompasses history, English, geography, music
and other disciplines, as well as the tools of computer science.
Digital humanities scholars – known as DH scholars – seem to
want to open the tent as widely as possible. Digital humanities, says
Dr. Siemens, is “where humanities meets computing.” Dr. Siemens started
the field’s longstanding training facility, the Digital Humanities Summer
Institute, at the University of Victoria, where he now holds the Canada
Research Chair in Humanities Computing.
Sometimes it’s more accurate to describe digital humanities as “a critical approach” rather than a field of inquiry, says Michael Eberle-Sinatra,
French-language president of the Canadian Society for Digital Humanities and professor at Université de Montréal. Kevin Kee, holder of the
Canada Research Chair in Digital Humanities at Brock University, calls it
an “interdiscipline” where computing is used to express the humanities.
Other scholars point to the attribute that turns many DH contributors
into “makers” as well as scholars – their work includes creation and their
intellectual products endure past their own scholarly involvement.
It’s also a matter of self-definition: Ichiro Fujinaga’s projects in digitizing and analyzing musical scores at McGill University are similar to
those of his text-based DH colleagues, although he started collaborating
with digital humanities very recently. Nonetheless, music departments
have been integrating computer technology into composition since the
Perhaps a better strategy, then, is to define the field through its projects. Early examples include the Canadian Families Project, funded to
2001 with a mandate to allow historians access to the anonymous public
by putting five percent of the Canadian census of 1901 (roughly 265,000
people) into a searchable database. For historians and sociologists, to be
able to digitize large records and make them searchable accomplished
two things: it vastly sped up the process of analyzing data and seeing
patterns and it increased sample sizes, allowing wider segments of the
anonymous public to be studied.
A current and very different example is the Canadian Writing Research
Collaboratory (or CWRC, pronounced “quirk”), which hosts over a dozen
diverse projects in English literature and related fields. These include Editing Modernism in Canada, whose principal objective is to produce critically edited texts by modernist Canadian authors. Another, called the Cabaret Commons, builds an online research space where feminist and queer
artists and audiences can gather. Led by Susan Brown at the University of
Alberta and involving more than 100 scholars across several universities,
CWRC shows the scale possible in digital humanities. At the other end of
the scale, a single project such as the War of 1812 iPhone app created by
Dr. Kee’s students at Brock – a business-like class project aimed at tourists –
is also welcomed under the “big tent” of this discipline.