Digital Humanities is Not Ones and Zeros

This post is part of a series of blog posts published in 2015 on digital scholarship and digital humanities. Some information may be outdated. Questions? Please reach out to us online or at the Information Desk. 

Photo Description (above): Ben Fry’s DH project, On the Origin of Species: The Preservation of Favoured Traces, tracks and visualizes the changes made in Origin’s seven editions.

Why Digital Humanities?:

Charles Darwin was a great writer. His most famous work, On the Origin of Species (1859), is beautifully poetic. With “natural selection,” he was not just introducing a new concept; he was inventing new terminology. Through such language, he was able to articulate an evolutionary theory that shifted humanity into the scientific paradigm we live in today. It was not the study of scientific writing that gave Darwin this gift; it was the study of literary works like Paradise Lost, a text he obsessively carried and read throughout his time on the HMS Beagle.

Whenever someone asks, “Why study the humanities?” I think of this anecdote. For in my mind it demonstrates the central role they play in helping us synthesize and articulate new ideas. When someone asks, “Why digital humanities?” I also think of this anecdote, and how it represents the profound relationship between the humanities and the sciences. One of the debates surrounding DH concerns this very relationship and how, some argue, DH is more science (or technology) than humanities; that it essentially attempts to turn the humanities into ones and zeros. As a humanist, I sympathize with this concern.

Digital humanities is conducted with the understanding that the humanities are inherently interpretive and in need of perpetual analysis, not strict quantification. The incorporation of technology into such studies is not for the purposes of being definitive; it
is for tapping into new questions, new approaches, and new discoveries. Are the tools themselves or the results they generate the final scholarly product? No. Just as much as Darwin’s words were not the science, they were the tools that enabled him to articulate an otherwise esoteric idea.

Proof of Concept:

Father Busa, S.J.
Roberto Busa, (Columbia University Libraries)

One of the earliest digital humanities pioneers was Father Roberto Busa, S.J. (1913-2011). In his 1946 doctoral dissertation, Busa announced the need for a machine-generated Thomas Aquinas concordance. Why machine-generated? Because Aquinas’ works contain over 9 million words. Cross referencing those words, not to mention connecting them with the many works to which Aquinas refers, would take many a human lifetime. Busa began working on the concordance, known as the Index Thomisticus, in 1949 and by 1951 he had a proof of concept machine. Being that it was the 1950s, it used punch cards. Today it exists online. The Index Thomisticus was a monumental undertaking not just because of what it took to create it but also because of what inspired it. Father Busa noticed Aquinas’ unique use of a particular word and knew a machine was required to investigate further. The word was “in.”

If you would like to learn more about digital scholarship and digital humanities visit the Library’s DS libguide and

The next blog post will focus on the digital tools Timemapper, a mapping and timeline tool and Voyant, a word analysis tool. Most notably it will feature English major Domenic Olmeda’s reflection on using them.