What is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing on Wikipedia?

As you can tell from the number of articles, blog posts, and conference papers devoted to defining digital humanities, a nontrivial proportion of digital humanists’ time is spent articulating just what it is that digital humanists spend their time doing. A Google search for “digital humanities definition” offers no surprises:

DH’s self-consciousness about defining itself is reflected in these first three results: the second links to, where both Bethany Nowviskie and Matt Kirschenbaum offer excellent responses, and the third gives an equally useful list (much of which echoes Bethany). These would be of most interest to scholars, and the plurality of definitions offered is part of the point. Fred Gibbs even offers a typology of definitions.

Rather than explore these excellent, thoughtful definitions, however, I want to spend some time thinking about the first search result. It’s no surprise that Wikipedia ranks so high (this is true of 99% of Google searches according to some, though others challenge the methodology). And at the 2011 MLA conference in Los Angeles a panelist at one of the many DH sessions quipped, “if you are still looking for a definition of digital humanities, you haven’t checked Wikipedia.” There seems to be some value in Wikipedia’s definition, especially since our usual standby for definitions isn’t quite there yet:

The title of this blog post riffs on Kirschenbaum’s “What is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?” (ADE 2010). Kirschenbaum acknowledges the temptation “to say that whoever asks the question [what is DH] has not gone looking very hard an answer,” and he uses Google and Wikipedia as a starting point. But I want to treat Wikipedia as an endpoint. Unlike the OED, Wikipedia is interesting precisely because is not the last word: its very form is designed to be ephemeral, updateable. So by “what’s it doing in Wikipedia” I don’t mean “why is it there” but rather “what has it been doing in Wikipedia”? When did it first make it into the encyclopedia, and how has it changed since then?

Wikipedia of course offers a way to compare different versions of articles, but only two at a time, and the visualization is rather clunky (though you’ll see a few familiar names if you scroll through the “history” pages). The “digital humanities” article was first posted in January 2006, and within a month merged with the now-defunct “humanities computing” page. This first page includes just two citations, A Companion to Digital Humanities (2004) and a talk by John Unsworth, and focuses on presentation of humanities knowledge (rather than scholarship or pedagogy). Looking at a word cloud (from Wordle) of this first page, you might think textual editing is the biggest area represented:

Surely projects like The Rossetti Archive and The Blake Archive were prominent in the early days, but that’s not what’s happening here. The article is short enough that “editors” comes from the citations.

Here is the Wordle for March 15, 2012:

That “humanities” is so prominent is I think fitting, since DH has struggled to maintain that side of its title: the test of a DH project is (or should be) its contribution to humanistic study.

Juxta provides a more scholarly way to look at the different versions of this page. Soon it will have the capability to compare URLs, but for now I created text files for the first version and 10 subsequent versions, about six months apart, up to March 15, 2012. If you’re familiar with Juxta’s output, a critical apparatus can be seen here (the file names correspond to the dates, so “2011 9.20” is September 20th 2011. The base text is the most recent I included, March 15, 2012).

Juxta also gives us a heat map, with the shades of blue corresponding to the number of witnesses that have that text (all eleven versions are included here):

Or we can see two versions side by side. Here is the first paragraph as it changed from September 2006 to September 2007. I chose these two because it’s in this period that we get the most significant changes, as the Wikipedia page registers a shift from mere presentation to “research, teaching, and invention” (the green shading marks the differences):

Given world enough and time I would have created a screencast of this Wikipedia page as it developed (like this one) . . . another day perhaps.

I’ll leave it to someone else to draw conclusions from all this. I had wondered whether the Wikipedia page would undergo a flurry of emendations around major events like the MLA, or the release of major works like the recent Debates in Digital Humanities, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Works cited

Gibbs, Frederick W. “Digital Humanities Definitions by Type”

Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. “What is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?” ADE Bulletin, 2010.

2 responses to “What is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing on Wikipedia?”

  1. Katherine D. Harris

    Just to add: That was Matthew Kirschenbaum at the MLA 2011 who said that the definition of Digital Humanities can be found on Wikipedia; he was in the audience of the panel organized by Kathleen Fitzpatrick, “The Past and Future of Digital Humanities.”

    It would be interesting to compare these results to the Day of Digital Humanities definitions of DH — that’s where the practitioners of DH identify their own definitions of DH. Unlike Wikipedia, you’ll find that the definition hasn’t quite calcified:

  2. What is Digital Humanities and Whats It Doing on Wikipedia? | The Humanities Workshop

    [...] – What is Digital Humanities and Whats It Doing on Wikipedia?Summary: “As you can tell from the number of articles, blog posts, and conference papers [...]

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