Category Archives: Omphaloskepsis

From the Greek word for ‘navel-gazing’ – reflections on the discipline of the Digital Humanities, the purpose of the blog, and anything else sufficiently self-referential to warrant the title.

DH Seminar: Julianne Nyhan, Investigation of earliest contributions to Humanist

Were Humanists and Digital Humanities always so very different? An investigation of the earliest contributions to Humanist

Julianne Nyhan (University College London)

When: Tuesday March 3rd, 18:15 start
Where: Anatomy Museum, Strand Building 6th Floor (, King’s College London, Strand, London WC2R 2LS

Abstract: Until recently the history of Digital Humanities has, with a few notable exceptions (see, for example, relevant entries in the bibliography that I’m in the process of compiling here: mostly been neglected by the DH community as well as by the mainstream Humanities. Of the many research questions that wait to be addressed, one set pertains to the history of the disciplinary formation of Digital Humanities. What processes, attitudes and circumstances (not to mention knowledge and expertise) conspired, and in what ways, to make it possible for DH to become disciplined in the ways that it has (and not in other ways)? What might answers to such questions contribute to new conversations about the forms that DH might take in the future? Here I will make a first and brief contribution to answering such far-reaching questions by identifying and analysing references to disciplinary identity that occur in conversations conducted via the Humanist Listserv in its inaugural year.

About Dr Nyhan: Dr Julianne Nyhan is lecturer in Digital Information Studies in the Department of Information Studies, University College London. Her research interests include the history of computing in the Humanities, Oral history and most aspects of digital humanities. Her recent publications include the co-edited Digital Humanities in Practice (Facet 2012) and Digital Humanities: a Reader (Ashgate 2013). She is at work on a book (Springer Verlag 2015) on the history of Digital Humanities (information about the wider Hidden Histories project is here Having recently completed a number of interviews with the female keypunch operators who were trained by Roberto Busa in the 1950s and 1960s to work on the Index Thomisticus project she is also at work on a paper about this (see  Among other things, she is a member of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Peer Review College, the communications Editor of Interdisciplinary Science Reviews and a member of various other editorial and advisory boards. She tweets @juliannenyhan and blogs at Further information is available here:

What should we talk about on this blog?

There has been some discussion offline (over lunch etc.) as to what sorts of things we might want to discuss in this blog, which should be relevant both to colleagues at KCL and to anyone with an interest in Digital Humanities. Here are some of the suggestions we came up with a few weeks ago (some of these have already been written about). In a way, it doesn’t matter who starts the conversation, because I would expect the post to largely be posing the question, and the comments thread to be where answers and opinions really come out. Please add suggestions at will.

  • Who is Digital Humanities?
    (not “what is” because that’s a silly question…)
  • What is the audience for a Digital Humanities blog?
  • What is the agenda of a Digital Humanities blog?
  • Why blog in the Digital Humanities?
  • What does Digital Humanities research look like?
  • What does Digital Humanities publication look like?
  • What does Digital Humanities work look like?
  • What does Digital Humanities teaching look like?
  • What does Digital Humanities “service” look like?
  • What should Digital Humanities tools look like?
  • How do you have a research agenda when you don’t have a tenured job?
  • What is new in the Digital Humanities?
  • What does “new” mean in the Digital Humanities?
  • Does DH have a special role in arguing for the value of the Humanities?
  • Is a blog the right venue for this sort of conversation?
  • How do we make DH relevant to Humanities and Computer Science academics at the same time?
  • What is a “work in progress”? Is anything ever “finished”?

Really just pick something and write about it off the top of you head. We’ll all chip in. Don’t worry about whether someone else has already picked the topic, because your two paragraphs will be different from my two paragraphs anyway. (And of course, these suggestions are in no way prescriptive or exclusive.)

What does Digital Humanities teaching look like?

This post raises questions, doesn’t really offer any answers.

Given all the discussion of what the work and/or the research agenda of a Digital Humanities scholar/department is or should be, I thought I’d raise the topic of how teaching fits into this. If we consider ourselves academics, then we (at least some of us) are also in the business of teaching students (academics are also in the business of outreaching to potential students, the providing service to the academic community, and engaging with society and culture as a whole, but those are questions for another day).

Do (or should) we, as teachers of Digital Humanities:

  1. Continue reading What does Digital Humanities teaching look like?

What is the object of the Digital Humanities?

By which I mean on one level, what is its purpose?, and on another, what is its field of study?

In an earlier post on this blog I listed what I saw as the major subdivisions of the discipline, such as it is, and opined that at the CCH as presently constituted we mostly focus on realising traditional humanities ends in a digital fashion. That is to say, digital humanities as we practice it tracks the other humanities disciplines pretty closely, and ultimately we’re “about” the same things that they are.

There’s a lot to be said for this approach. There’s no question in my mind that most of the scholarly genres — even those most firmly rooted in natural language as a medium — are better realised in electronically than in print. But if that was all there was to the digital humanities — the humanities, but in a more convenient and useable form — then I don’t think I would have bothered switching out from the thoroughly-traditional Classics track my PhD had prepared me for. Because this seems to me an approach to DH that belongs more properly to scholarly publishing than scholarly research.

For me, what differentiates digital humanities from other humanities disciplines and gives it some kind of distinctive value of its own only arises when it turns reflexive and experimental: when it takes as its objects of study not simply those taken by other disciplines, but starts exploring the effects and potential of digital remediation of these objects. When it starts trying to stretch the affordances of the medium and the data and examining their interaction. In other words, I’m interested in the digital humanities in the same way that Vannevar Bush was interested in hypertext, back in the ’40s. As a way of exploring new ways of thinking and understanding. Of reconceptualising our knowledge of our field of study.

To anyone with a memory that encompasses more than a decade in this field, all this will sound wearyingly familiar: do we remember all those many, many unread articles whose titles promised a radical hypertext revolution in the novel/the essay/narrative-modes-of-thought/whatever with the advent of the web?

But the problem with this entire (now-vanished) genre of research wasn’t, to my mind, that its motivations were incorrect. It’s that it was insufficiently experimental. As far as I could ever tell, they were almost always purely theoretical: based, almost all of the time, of a skimming of a McLuhan (or one of his epigones) mixed in with a soupcon of Foucault, Derrida, or, more often than not, Baudrillard. There was never any engagement with the medium, its message, or the material itself.

But here, at the CCH, we have the opportunity to work up close and intimately with the corpus of humanities knowledge, and the skills  to shape and experiment with it using digital technology. We’re in the right place, in other words, to start exploring. And this, to my mind, is what constitutes the purpose of the digital humanities: to create new tools that allow us to open up new understandings. To think better, and think different.

If, of course, we can ever find the bloody time.

A taxonomy of the Digital Humanities?

There is already a non-trivial number of Digital Humanities blogs out there, and I think it’s probably fair to say that many of them blacken a lot of pixels in blogging about what the field actually is, or what it means. But curiously, despite the very large number of answers that have been formulated to these questions, I’ve never seen any that attempt to answer them in the most basic way — that is to say, by simply cataloguing the various things that people who call themselves, or get labelled as, ‘Digital Humanists’, actually do. Which I find curious, as the  activities that get lumped together under this rubric seem to me pretty diverse.

Off the top of my head, I’d say the field is often held to include:

  1. Digital preservationists: people who are interested in making sure digital artefacts aren’t lost in the future, whether out of concern purely for informational integrity (the folks at LOCKSS), or because they’re cultural curators in some sense.
  2. Cultural commentators: people who are interested in the effects or impact of digital technologies on (usually) mainstream culture, dealing with questions ranging from online identity to ethics and privacy concerns.
  3. Scholars with traditional scholarly ends who find that these are best realised by digital technologies. This group is of course in itself very varied.
  4. Philosophers interested in issues such as philosophy of mind, artificial intelligence, singularity theory, or any other of a range of issues that are most readily discussed within a digital/technological frame of reference
  5. Computer scientists and/or developers who take traditional humanities domains as their targets.
  6. Digital artists, exploiting the computer as a medium.

Does this seem like a comprehensive list? Is it, perhaps, too broad? And can these groups all be considered to share sufficiently similar interests to form a community (or, for that matter, even to read a blog such as this?) Is it useful to try to address all of them?

My own feeling is that at the CCH we mostly do (3), with a bit of (5). (1) , (2), and (6) are mostly out of our purview, but I suspect a lot of us forage around in (4) as much as we can. Is this a fair characterisation? Is it a problem?