On February 20, 2014, I gave a talk at Lehigh University in Bethelehem, PA with the rather unwieldy title of Public/Digital | History/Humanities: Conceptualizing the Digital Public Humanities. As I explained to Julia Maserjian, Digital Scholarship Project Manager at Lehigh’s Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning, who invited me to speak at Lehigh, it was really important to keep that little | symbol in between two parts of my title. That symbol—called a pipe—is used in the UNIX operating system and has a very particular meaning that I wanted to use as to frame my remarks. I’m no UNIX programmer, but when I was about ten years old my father, who is an electrical engineer and knew that I was interested in computers, told me that I should teach myself UNIX. “It’ll be useful,” he said, while handing me an approximately 700 page book on UNIX written for adults with some background in programming.
Needless to say, my experiments in teaching myself UNIX failed fairly quickly (and the fact that I didn’t do any programming again until after college is a commentary on the highly gendered nature of the field). But, one thing I remembered was the |. It means to take the output of the operation on the left side of it and apply it as the input for the operation on the right side, which seemed like a wonderfully evocative proposal. What I’m asking with the title of my talk is this: what would happen if we seriously took the “outputs” of digital and public work (its lessons, values, theories and methods) and used them as the inputs for history and the humanities? And, since we’re not programming UNIX here, what if we did the opposite? How can we create a mash-up of the best aspects of all of these fields to conceptualize something new, something we might call the digital public humanities.
Amazingly, there is little discourse about the digital public humanities currently. A google scholar search for the terms “digital humanities,” “public history,” “public humanities,” and “digital public humanities,” this past January shows scholarly interest. While “digital humanities” gets 28,000 results, and public history 22,900, public humanities only gets 683. But even more telling, “digital public humanities” gets four. That’s right, four. Even “cannibal rats” gets eleven results and clearly there should be more scholars thinking about the “digital public humanities” than “cannibal rats,” even if there an abandoned cruise ship full of them. While this is no foolproof method for gauging interest in this field, it is suggestive. In this moment when the digital humanities are the next hot thing, I say we take some time from building and using tools to do some thinking—after all, it’s what we’re good at as humanists—and work on developing this field.
Here’s my first pitch: a working definition for the digital public humanities that draws from the fields of the digital humanities, the public humanities, and public history. The digital Public Humanities is digital work that critically engages with humanistic questions in partnership with a community for a meaningful purpose. To do so, it should:
- be reflexive
- acknowledge shared authority
- include an interpretive, qualitative aspect
While not every digital humanities project will include the public and while not every public history project will be digital, considering how we might incorporate the digital and public into what we do seems a good way to stretch ourselves and make sure that our work is meaningful and sustainable. To see the full text and Prezi for my talk, please visit my website here.