Digital humanities: the rise of a new academic discipline

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Writing blogs, composing a wiki or reviewing a journal article on an open access platform – digitisation has revolutionised the everyday work of academics to no less a degree than it has in other professions. And at the same time, the methods by which new knowledge is generated – indeed the very academic disciplines themselves – are in a state of flux. In the humanities, this is encompassed by the term "digital humanities".

Computerised access to sources

Digital humanities: the rise of a new academic discipline

"Humanities computing is precisely the automation of every possible analysis of human expression", is how Roberto Busa summed up his understanding of digital humanities – initially known as humanities computing – in 2004. One of the pioneers in this field, he was already experimenting with punched cards in the 1940s in a bid to index mediaeval manuscripts by keyword.

What Busa began tackling nearly 70 years ago has long since become standard practice. Manuscripts, images and archaeological artefacts are scanned and prepared for online access. The Cuneiform Digital Library for example contains tens of thousands of cuneiform scripts from collections worldwide, complete with transcriptions of the inscriptions and information about where they were found and their dating. This is a project that was initiated back in the 1990s by the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin and the University of California in Los Angeles.

Data mining and visualisation

Alongside such mass digitisation projects, data analysis and data processing are other fields in the digital humanities. One example is the Leibniz ScienceCampus "Empirical Linguistics & Computational Language Modeling", where new methods of recording and analysing digital language documents are being developed. This is necessary because previous methods have for the most part been designed to process only written, not spoken language. The linguists working on the project have chosen to focus on the German language because many of the models and tools developed for English are not easily transferable to German.

In the digital forum romanum research and teaching project, archaeologists at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin are taking advantage of the possibilities of digitisation to create a virtual model of the ancient forum in Rome. What is special about this model is that it does not merely portray a historical state but charts how the forum has changed over time, from the seventh century BC when it was built to the ruins of the present day.

Digital research environments for humanities and social science scholars

The TextGrid platform was the first virtual research environment to be set up for the humanities in Germany. Funded by Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), the platform has been assisting researchers, particularly with the creation of digital editions, since the summer of 2011. Among other things, it provides tools that help with managing copyrights and with collaborative writing. TextGrid has meanwhile become part of the extended DARIAH-DE platform (only in German), which in turn is a partner in the European DARIAH-EU network.

Growing numbers of digital humanities professors in Germany

Since 2012, the BMBF has made supporting the digital humanities one focus of its framework programme for the humanities, cultural sciences and social sciences. There is a lack of consensus in the academic community about whether the digital humanities represent a collection of methods or a discipline in their own right. For Dr Mareike König, who heads the Department of Digital Humanities at the German Historical Institute in Paris (only in German), it is certainly about more than simply digitisation, data processing and data analysis. Specifically, it is also about how the new work and research methods affect the production of knowledge. On the institute’s blog (only in German), she writes that "These need to be researched, reflected upon and historicised". In this respect, says the historian, the digital humanities are very much in their infancy. But they are increasingly well equipped to address the many tasks and opportunities: there are already around 14 chairs in digital humanities in Germany, with more and more universities appointing professors in this dynamic field of research.


Centres for digital humanities at German universities

Nowadays, more than 20 bachelor’s and master’s degree courses in digital humanities are on offer at universities in Germany, specialising in everything from mediaeval studies to computer linguistics. Numerous universities have established centres for digital humanities – e. g. Göttingen, Cologne and Trier. The PhD programme in Digital Art History at the Institute of Art History at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (LMU) is one example of the many options available to postgraduates. Through its framework programme for the humanities, cultural sciences and social sciences, which ran from 2012 to 2017, the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) began providing targeted funding for young researchers and for establishing research infrastructure in the digital humanities. > Courses