The “digital humanities” is, if not the hottest field in academia in the US today, certainly the fastest growing. If you observe the announcements that are posted to web sites like digitalhumanitiesnow.org you will see that there is a constant flow of announcements for postdoctoral fellowships, conferences, and resources for the digital humanities.
What exactly is/are the digital humanities? Well, many people are asking this question, and many are answering, such as Matthew G. Kirshenbaum in his frequently cited article “What Is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?” (pdf version available here).
Basically I see it as the use of digital media and technology to produce humanistic knowledge, as well as the critical reflection on the ways in which the production of knowledge in this manner may be changing how we view that knowledge.
Are you confused? That’s ok. Many people still are.
For years now people have been digitizing information. Northern Illinois University has been creating a Southeast Asian Digital Library where one can find, among other things, old manuscripts from different parts of Southeast Asia.
This is a wonderful and extremely important project that should to be strongly supported, but by the definition I gave above, it’s not exactly “digital humanities” because knowledge is not being produced through this project. Instead, valuable materials are being made available in digital form, but the task of producing knowledge from these materials is being left to others, and if it happens, it happens elsewhere.
What then is an example of a digital humanities project? I think a good model is a project called Digitizing “Chinese Englishmen” – Representations of race and empire in the nineteenth century.
Although this project has not really gotten going yet, the concept it is based on is excellent. The core idea is to take an historical source, in this case the Straits Chinese Magazine from late-19th/early-20th century Singapore, gradually digitize articles from it, but to then get people to comment on those articles by talking about the issues of race, identity, colonialism, etc. that can be found in these articles.
In other words, not only is information getting digitized, but knowledge about that information is also getting created, AND it is all being done in the open through collaboration.
This gets to another aspect of the digital humanities, namely that it is also a kind of “culture” for engaging in scholarship. In particular, many digital humanities projects are collaborative in nature, and by virtue of the fact that they usually end up on the Internet, they have a public side to them as well, and tend to bridge the divide between the academy and the public.
So while digital humanities are quickly becoming very popular in the US, the Digitizing “Chinese Englishmen” project is really the first digital humanities project that I’ve seen that relates to Southeast Asian history. Indeed, the people in Asian Studies in general in the US seem to be far behind their colleagues in other disciplines in getting involved in the digital humanities.
However, it is obvious that digital humanities is going to play an increasingly central role in academic life, and I think that is good as there are a lot of ways that “going digital” can add to the ways in which knowledge has long been produced.
It is therefore essential that historians of the Southeast Asian past get involved with the new approaches to producing knowledge that the digital age offers. I have some ideas about for some digital humanities projects for Southeast Asian history that I could easily envision. I’ll try to post about that in the days ahead.