First Monday

Framing digital humanities: The role of new media in humanities scholarship by Oya Y. Rieger

The phrase “digital humanities” refers to a range of new media applications that converge at the intersection of technology and humanities scholarship. It is an evolving notion and conveys the role of information technologies in humanities scholarship. Based on a qualitative case study approach, this paper interprets the concept by eliciting the diverse perspectives — which nevertheless express several discernible themes — of a group of humanities scholars. It synthesizes the wide range of opinions and assumptions about information and communication technologies (ICTs) held by these humanists by using Bijker’s (1995) notion of a technological frame. The digital humanities domain is interpreted through three lenses: digital media as facilitator of scholarly communication; digital media as a platform for creative expression and artistic endeavors; and, digital media as context for critical studies of digital culture. The article concludes that, while technologies are being positioned as driving forces behind academic innovation, it is more important than ever to understand the cultural, social, and political implications of new media and how they are perceived and used by humanities scholars.


1. Introduction
2. Related literature
3. Research goals and methodology
4. Technological frames: Perspectives and opinions on information and communication technologies
5. Implications of the study



1. Introduction

Over the two most recent decades we have witnessed an increasing reliance on communication and information technologies in knowledge creation and communication processes. Almost every academic discipline has been affected by the ubiquitous and innovative nature of technologies as information and communication technologies (ICTs) become tools for knowledge production, objects of study, or form a new disciplinary domain [1]. Accounts of new media implementations and explorations in the humanities are increasingly presented under the digital humanities rubric. This increasingly common catchphrase entails a range of ICT–related initiatives — such as digital libraries, visualization, text mining, geographic information systems (GIS), multimedia, social networking, teaching with technology, open access, and digital culture.

The goal of this article is to explore the field labeled as ‘digital humanities’ to understand the meanings associated with it from the perspectives of humanities scholars in various disciplines. It is based on a study that investigated how ICTs support the research and scholarly discourse of humanities scholars as well as how such scholars perceive new media. Within this context, ICTs denote digital content, involving such media as digital collections and databases; search engines for searching, discovering, retrieving, and verifying information; and, communication applications such as e–mail, mailing lists, blogs, and wikis that enable communication and collaboration among scholars. This article focuses on the interpretation of digital humanities based on the accounts of the study’s informants. I will start with a synopsis of the articles that entail discussions of digital humanities to illustrate the range of ICT–based initiatives that are associated with the domain. Then, I will describe the goals and the methodology of the research that formed the basis for this analysis. Using Bijker’s notion of technological frames, the subsequent section will present the various meanings attributed to new media by the informants of the study. I will conclude the paper with a discussion of the potential implications of the findings.



2. Related literature

In its broadest sense, Zorich (2008) describes the purpose of the digital humanities domain as using ICTs to enhance teaching and research as well as to create new products and processes that transform existing knowledge. Some interpret digital humanities in a more specialized manner and characterize it as developing digital content and creating tools for collection–building, authoring, editing, and analyzing (Council on Library and Information Resources [CLIR], 2009; Davidson, 2008; American Council of Learned Societies [ACLS], 2006; Katz, 2005). Insofar as they comprise a program area, digital humanities initiatives are often associated with humanities computing, which represents the use of computational methods and theories in humanities research and teaching such as text encoding and other linguistic computing operations. Hockey (2004) describes humanities computing as the application of computing to research and teaching within the humanities subjects. Svensson (2009) examines how the concept shifted from humanities computing to digital humanities by positioning the practices and research agenda within institutional, disciplinary, and social changes. He calls attention to the prominence of instrumental, textual, and methodological perspectives and promotes a broader model of digital humanities that includes non–textual and born–digital content as well as engagements “with the ‘digital’ as a study object.”

Schreibman, et al.’s (2004) collection of essays brings together a wide range of theorists and practitioners to consider digital humanities as a discipline as well as to reflect on the field’s association with what they refer to as ‘traditional humanities scholarship.’ The examples reveal how broadly the field of digital humanities is defined, encompassing a range of analytical, performative, interpretive, critical, and aesthetic practices. The research and application domains include creating concordances of literary works [2], designing and producing new digital artifacts, using computer–assisted statistical analysis and GIS applications for large corpora of humanities data, digitizing artwork, analyzing music, encoding and classifying textual materials, and publishing in digital venues and formats.

The literature is replete with accounts of what the advent of digital humanities entails and how it will transform scholarship (Borgman, 2009; Council on Library and Information Resources [CLIR], 2009; Deyrup, 2009; Davidson, 2008; Green and Roy, 2008; Turkel, 2008; ACLS, 2006; Katz, 2005). These studies tend to be descriptive and are often written in the form of self–ethnographies on the part of pioneers or advocates of digital humanities, illustrating how technologies are being used and their benefits and transformative nature. Also, discussions of cyberinfrastructure in the humanities bring out the need for shared tools, digital content, expertise, and services in support of digital humanities initiatives (Borgman, 2009; CLIR, 2009; ACLS, 2006) [3]. For instance, Borgman argues that the digital humanities program is “at a critical moment in the transition from a specialty area to a full–fledged community with a common set of methods, sources of evidence, and infrastructure — all of which are necessary for achieving academic recognition.” Cyberinfrastructure research often focuses on how to bring innovation to scholarship through an efficient, scalable, and sustainable system of knowledge creation and transfer. The underlying vision is that ICTs will greatly enhance research and enable new forms of collaborations (Schroeder and Fry, 2007).

Given the richness and diversity of digital humanities accounts presented in the literature, my goal behind this research was to explore the interactions of a group of humanities scholars with new media and construe the domain branded as digital humanities from their perspectives. Digital humanities deliberations are spawning an ideology complete with advocates and pioneers; however, what seem to be missing are accounts from a wide range of scholars who are not characterized as “doing digital humanities.” I wanted to understand what engaging in digital humanities entails from the varying perspectives of scholars. Therefore, to complement the existing research approaches, my fieldwork focuses on the daily practices of humanities scholars without limiting my investigation to scholars who use information technologies. My goal is to assess ICT use holistically as a component of scholars’ rich and diverse social and academic life. While technologies are being positioned as driving forces behind innovation, it is essential to recognize and factor in variances in research and communication practices through in–depth and qualitative case studies. This study specifically aims to contribute in this realm and addresses the research questions described in the following section.



3. Research goals and methodology

3.1. Research questions

The empirical study that underlies this article explored the role of new ICTs on humanities scholars’ research and scholarly communication patterns (Rieger, 2010) [4]. Understanding scholars’ interactions with ICTs requires a holistic approach. Therefore the study also investigated the enabling and constraining structural elements of the social and technical context of scholarship, such as academic norms, institutional support systems, and the rapidly evolving information policy framework. Recognizing that ICTs do not simply open up new possibilities for research and communication but also have the potential to alter existing models — causing the loss of previously available affordances (Brown and Duguid, 2000) — the third research question involved understanding the unintended or negative consequences. In sum, the key research questions included:

At the heart of the study was the process of gathering insights and information to shed light on the dynamics of digital humanities. The study was designed to interpret the notion of digital humanities from the informants’ perspectives and to explore the meanings they associate with this evolving concept. Therefore, it was based on qualitative methods, as I believed that the phenomena I was interested in were best analyzed through systematic observation and discourse. My goal was to assess ICT use holistically as a component of the rich and diverse social and academic life of scholars.

3.2. Research site

The fieldwork supporting this research took place during January 2008 through May 2009 at the Society for the Humanities, Cornell University. The Society was established in 1966 as one of the first humanities institutes in North America. It brings a group of distinguished scholars referred to as “Fellows” together each year to pursue research on a broadly interdisciplinary focal theme. The Society provides an ideal research site as it fosters interdisciplinary dialogue and theoretical reflection on the humanities at large. The site makes it possible both to observe scholars’ interactions and to engage personally with the Fellows. I chose the Society as a research site intentionally, recognizing the co–existence of (so–called) traditional and digital scholarly practices, depending on the purposes and styles of scholars. As opposed to digital humanities centers that aim to foster technological implementations, the Society brings scholars of common interests together for scholarly exchanges and explorations and provides a more realistic assessment of perceptions and practices.

3.3. Research methods

The research involved approximately 160 hours of participant observations including attending the weekly Wednesday seminars (followed by a group lunch) and the Society–sponsored forums and conferences at Cornell University. The goal was to expand my understanding of the research practices of humanities scholars and to consider the potential and limitations of information technologies in facilitating scholarly communication by taking into consideration routine scholarly interactions and exchanges. Over the course of the 22–month study, in addition to the general fieldwork, I conducted a total of 45 individual interviews. Using a semi–structured interview technique I conducted loosely guided conversations with the Fellows of the Society. Rather than adhering to a list of specific questions, my interview protocol involved a framework of themes and general questions to be explored. In my interviews, I gave a brief synopsis of what my research entails and then turned it over to the informants with an open–ended question: “Tell me about your typical week and how you go about your academic work.” I interjected probes to elicit details and clarifications or to shift conversations to topics that illustrate interactions with new media [5].

3.4. About the informants of the study

The informants’ demographic characteristics were evenly distributed, representing both genders and various ages and career stages. There were 24 female and 21 male scholars, including doctoral students (7) and professors at the assistant (13), associate (15), and full (10) ranks. Representing 20 research universities in the United States, the informants were from the disciplines of anthropology (6), Asian studies (1), comparative literature (11), English (9), history (13), history of art (2), literary theory (1), and philosophy (2). Almost all of them had joint appointments or associations representing more than one sub–discipline, including American studies, feminist studies, German, government, human sexuality, Jewish studies, Latin, Near Eastern studies, music, romance, science and technology, and visual studies. In my accounts of the interactions with informants, I changed the names of the scholars in order to protect their anonymity, which was a condition for eliciting their candid comments and insights.

3.5. Theoretical framework and data analysis

My data gathering and analysis strategy was based on a grounded theory methodology. Grounded theory is an inductive method of discovery that allows the development of theoretical accounts of research questions while simultaneously grounding the explanations in empirical observations (Glaser and Strauss, 1967). Grounded theory’s constant comparative method involves analyzing and interpreting data through a systematic comparison of observations and accounts (Strauss and Corbin, 1998). This process refines data and allows categories and associated properties to emerge [6]. Implementing a grounded theory methodology in my data analysis enabled me to follow a constructivist method by starting with a central topic and proceeding based on the informants’ interpretations of my research goals and terminology. Constructivist interviews emphasize participants’ definition of terms, situations, and events (Charmaz, 2002). Therefore grounded theory techniques helped me to refine my main research constructs, such as digital humanities, to yield empirically grounded definitions.



4. Technological frames: Perspectives and opinions on information and communication technologies

I began my study with three broad research questions and decided, as I have indicated, to follow a grounded theory methodology in order to allow themes to emerge rather than limiting my observations and data–gathering to a set of specific questions. Although I followed an inductive approach, I worked within a specific research context — understanding interactions with ICTs that relate to scholarly work. I had characterized ICTs predominantly as tools that facilitate scholarly communication and academic practices. My characterization of ICTs was not only rooted in my articulation of the research questions but also was influenced by my research identity as a librarian and an information scientist. However, as I proceeded with my conversations and observations, it became apparent to me that the role of new media in humanities scholarship can be studied from multiple angles based on the myriad ways in which scholars relate to these technologies.

I found it revealing that when I asked informants about digital humanities, I needed to give examples of what digital humanities might involve before they were able to comment. Based on my interviews with 45 informants, there were four groups of responses:


Number of informantsFamiliarity with the term “digital humanities”
18Not familiar with the terminology — I needed to provide examples of digital humanities from the literature.
19Heard of the phrase but did not know exactly what it meant.
4Familiar with the term and knew of a colleague who was engaged in such a project.
4Familiar with the term and involved in an initiative that the informant broadly categorized as a digital humanities project.


Overall, the phrase was a piece of unfamiliar jargon to most with no applied meaning within the context of their scholarship. Several of the informants voiced their concerns that the term might imply that humanities scholarship is split into multiple domains with discernable boundaries. They deemed the terminology peculiar and unnecessary and their description of everyday practices underscored how their research and teaching practices took place in a blended ecology composed of analog and digital settings, tools, and content. As became evident in compiling the accounts given during my interactions with informants, they represent a wide range of opinions and assumptions about ICTs and assume diverse positions on the role of new media in facilitating their work. I will use Bijker’s (1995) notion of a technological frame to synthesize the diversity of these viewpoints.

The concept of a technological frame is one of the core tenets of social construction of technology, which is a theoretical model devised for studying the social context of technological innovation. Its key assumption is that innovation is a complex process of co–construction in which technology and users negotiate the meaning of new technological artifacts (Pinch and Bijker, 1987). Central to social construction of technology is the concept that there are choices inherent in both the design of technologies and their appropriation by relevant groups. According to the social construction of technology theory, technologies are culturally constructed and interpreted. Hence technology deployment cannot be understood without comprehending how a specific technology is embedded in its social context. The concept of interpretative flexibility denotes both variations in understanding of a technology and the flexibility of the design process. Within this context, a technological frame represents a commonality of perception and approach within a particular group when considering a given technology. It is composed of such elements as tacit knowledge, assumptions, challenges faced, norms, technical skills, institutional policies, and practices. The various meanings attributed to technology are generated by user–specific cultural positioning within this wider context. Grounded in my observations and interviews, I will describe three general frames that can be used to understand the domain of digital humanities:

4.1. Digital media as a facilitator of scholarly communication

This frame positions ICTs as an enabler of scholarly communication to support a range of processes depicted in Figure 1 in order to create, represent, organize, analyze, and communicate scholarly content. ICTs provide broad, convenient, and easy access to scholarly information and facilitate communication through synchronous and asynchronous online interactions. This frame represents my initial conceptualization of ICTs as knowledge containers and conduits for enhancing teaching, learning, and research. This frame dovetails with Marchionini’s (2008) argument that most of the research in the field of information and library science views information as a commodity and is often concerned with collections of information objects and the services associated with these collections.


Figure 1: Scholarly communication processes
Figure 1: Scholarly communication processes.


ICTs within the context of humanities scholarship comprise a range of technologies and associated practices to support creating, accessing, processing, sharing, and archiving information as well as facilitating communication. When I started the study, I operationalized ICTs as a constellation of applications rather than as a specific technology and did not focus on a specific configuration. Many of my interviews began with informants apologetically explaining to me that they made very limited use of technologies and that our conversations might not be useful for my study. Interestingly, whether they identified themselves as enthusiastic users or technophobes, they all use Web–based digital content discovery and access tools, which is an amalgamation of a range of digital content and search engines. Adoption patterns appeared to be well–distributed regardless of specific discipline, gender, or tenure status. All the Fellows interviewed were regular users of e–mail and mailing lists and appreciated the role of these applications in facilitating communication and collaboration with their colleagues and students. These communication technologies were well established in daily scholarly interactions and exchanges. They were indispensable and their use was organic, characterized as a part of the scholars’ daily work flow. They appeared to be so ordinary that I often needed to probe informants by asking questions such as, “How do you search for books and articles?” Their self–identification as “technology laggers” implied, however, that they were expending little effort to keep up with and explore new applications that are not already integrated into their everyday practices.

Another category of ICTs consisted of content analysis and visualization tools, but only four of the 45 informants had direct experience using these tools in support of their work. Although it was recognized as a relevant information technology, the majority of the scholars have not used specialized content analysis tools other than features offered by databases or search engines. Many associate the use of content analysis tools with positivist and quantitative research methods. This finding supports Unsworth’s (2005) observation as a digital humanities advocate that even using words like “method” and “research,” when applied to the humanities, requires some reflection, as many humanists associate these words with “scientific” studies featuring distinct epistemologies that do not conform to humanists’ ways of articulating and justifying.

During our conversations, several of the scholars also considered bibliographic file management applications such as RefWorks or Zotero as examples of ICT. However, they consistently complained about difficulties associated with learning and remembering how to use these applications, shedding more light on why they avoided using them. Jack, a doctoral romance studies student, said, “I have started a Zotero bibliography but cannot remember to use it as it is just not a part of my routine yet.” Steve, an anthropologist, admitted that he would forget how to use the application if he had not regularly added citations to it. Only a handful of informants reported regularly using a bibliographic file management application.

Another attribute that emerged from my conversations and observations is that of the increasing convergence of ICTs that we have seen taking place during the last decade. For instance, when the informants talked about their use of Google, they were referring to the technology as an amalgamation of a wide range of digital content, databases, content creation tools, and search algorithms represented by the search engine. Convergence in this context represented the unification of separate technologies such as publisher Web sites, visual image databases, and searching functionalities — allowing synergistic interactions and creating new efficiencies. With such a convergence, to these scholars Google was not only a form of ICT but also was forming a context for their interactions with various information technologies. Within this framework, scholars are both consumers and producers of information technologies. For instance, a historian may use a blog to post her opinions on a specific topic while using the same site to learn about other colleagues’ opinions on a particular issue. Scholars not only use visual image collections such as ARTstor but also contribute their own images to expand coverage [7].

Humanities projects with digital components appeared to be strongly associated with funding issues and information technology support services offered by their home institutions. Robert, a tenured historian of music, captured this sentiment aptly when he commented, “When I hear ‘digital humanities,’ I think about funding. Only those with connections to established centers are able to do it.” Joseph, an English professor, said that he had not been involved in any project that could be considered a digital initiative and added that he would not even know where to start. He said, “Nothing exists at my home institution to inspire or guide the academic staff with technology use.” I will further elaborate on this issue in the Implications section.

4.2. Digital media as venues for creative expression and artistic endeavors

This frame approaches ICTs as media of artistic expression. During the Wednesday seminars at the Society for the Humanities, there were several presentations in which new media were positioned as platforms and artistic tools for creative manifestation of the Fellows’ theses. For instance, one of the Fellows used film and digital editing tools as an artistic medium within which to explore how we see and perceive water. The forums and seminars hosted by the Society often included demonstrations of artistic projects in digital music and digitally generated sound. Reacting to the art performances, participants considered issues such as sound’s importance in an era of visual studies, the cultural and ethnic specificity of sound fields and rhythms, the gender attributes of voice and spoken narrative, and the history and politics of electronic experimentations in sound.

Another attribute of this framing was the position of new media as a resource for new aesthetic and intellectual experiences. Amy, a professor of English literature, praised the use of audio and video for adding depth and intimacy to oral history. She said, “Working in the field of oral history, you can now capture evidence in multiple ways and each catches different analytical strings of our imagination.” Amy’s account illustrates how scholars find great value in various formats due to their intrinsic characteristics in encapsulating and presenting knowledge. Another example is provided by Kim, a professor of Asian studies. She said, “New media channels provide us with new experiences and impact our perceptions, feelings, aesthetic experiences, and knowledge acquisition process.” As she elaborated on her take on new media, she described how using various media involves a range of senses and leads to richer and novel forms of interpretations.

The Fellows also discussed ways in which digital technologies sometimes enable new aural and visual experiences at the expense of disabling some other feelings and encounters. Also considered was how using digital media, such as interactive art installations, may involve reinterpretation and appropriation of a digital work each time it is re–created. Reinterpretation often requires following site–specific installation instructions, rewriting the code for an alternative platform, or recasting a work in a contemporary medium even while trying to conserve some of the attributes of the original medium of digital art.

Integral to discussions of new media as a platform for artistic expression was the ephemeral nature of technologies. For instance, Cornell’s Rose Goldsen Archive of New Media Art was often cited as a research repository of new media art and resources that capture artistic experimentation by international, independent artists [8]. Such new media archives facilitate the curation of a range of networked and material content (such as DVDs) and constitute experimental centers of research and creativity to facilitate collaborations on conceptual experimentation and archival strategies. They also illustrate the organizational and technical challenges associated with preserving such digital experiences and media due to file format and storage media obsolescence associated with information technologies.

4.3. Critical studies of digital culture

A critical studies frame approaches technology as a context for interactions and examines the philosophical implications and impact of the use of new media on individuals or the larger society. It addresses digital culture and the potential role of humanists in exploring the evolving norms of knowledge and values to both appreciate and critique the influence of new media on our society. This frame represents the viewpoint that technology is not inherently damaging but must be carefully examined when being utilized. For instance, over the course of my project, there were occasional referrals to the philosophies of posthumanism and transhumanism at the forums and meetings sponsored by the Society. These alternative worldviews can be controversial, as they introduce a host of ethical questions regarding the associations and boundaries that characterize relations between human beings and technologies.

Although a discussion of these complex notions is beyond the scope of this paper, I will briefly describe these philosophies, as they are useful in illuminating this specific frame. Posthumanist philosophy rejects the humanist divisions of self and other, mind and body, society and nature, human and animal, organic and technological (Wolfe, 2010). The goal of this philosophy is to reveal a new theoretical and ethical understanding of humanism without such demarcations. Transhumanism is a philosophical perspective that explores how technologies may alter biological constraints to enhance intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities (Bostrom, 2001). These notions introduce ethical questions regarding the associations and boundaries that characterize relations between human beings and technologies. For instance, what would be the implication of there being no demarcations between bodily existence and computer simulations such as robotic technologies? What are the ramifications of re–engineering the human body through technological enhancements? What are the consequences of creating robotic machines with intellectual capabilities that far outstrip those of humans? Such controversial assertions form one of the theoretical grounds for critical approaches to technologies.

As this research took place, social networking and collaboration sites such as MySpace, Facebook, and thousands of academic and amateur blogs were being introduced and becoming integrated into daily conversations and practices. Although none of my informants were involved in a study that explored the practices, implications, or meaning of such sites, they often referred to them and speculated about the implications of such new media for their scholarly engagements or their students’ learning and communication patterns. Several of them acknowledged, however, the importance of engaging in projects that investigate how new media are influencing culture in general with a specific emphasis on communication and socialization patterns.

When one frames ICTs from a critical perspective, concerns and apprehension about the burgeoning role of new media in our daily lives emerge. The ubiquity of various types of technology and their assimilation into our daily lives appear to cause some anxiety for some of the informants. “It is increasingly impossible to escape from various forms of ever–present technologies,” stated Lilly, a professor of history. There were several comments about how technology appears to be everywhere, pervading every aspect of their lives. Several of the informants had iPhones or Blackberries and the invasive nature of interactions with these devices made them question whether e–mail was a burden as much as a tool of convenience. Some of the informants expressed their apprehension about the increasing association of new media use with innovation and cutting–edge scholarship. Kenz, an assistant professor of history, said, “The reason we have started questioning the relevance of the humanities is our obsession with techno–science and increasing cultural influence of digital media over our lives.”

The Wednesday seminar discussions occasionally revolved around the dark features of technology such as the violation of individuals’ privacy. One of the liveliest Wednesday discussions occurred when the Fellows reflected on an article entitled “Operational Media.” In this article, Crandall (2005) argues that the twentieth century was driven by a race to eliminate time delays of all sorts — between actions and displayed results; in travel connecting distant points; between sent messages and received responses; between observation and engagement. His key thesis is that both military development and industrial production have been driven by the need for advance detection and action time. The assumption has been that only sophisticated technological systems are capable of dealing accurately and consistently with the highly complex demands of warfare scenarios. Technologies are perceived as reliable, accurate, and fast–free of errors that can be introduced by human intervention. I would not argue that this article reflects the mindsets of my informants but it illustrates how technologies can be perceived in an analytical and reflective mode critically due to their association with robotic efficiencies that are considered to be superior to the capabilities of human beings.

Almost 50 years after C.P. Snow’s (1959) lecture about the two cultures, in which he views the worlds of science and the humanities as polar opposites, similar sentiments continued to surface in my conversations. ICTs not only are perceived as productivity tools but also provoke unease and distrust due to their association with the Cold War, surveillance, environmental destruction, and entrepreneurial science. Also, it was common to draw a close association between ICTs and positivist disciplines. My interviews revealed that the distinctions and tensions between Snow’s two cultures persist. Several of the informants contrasted science’s progressive impression with the retrospective inclination of the humanities. The informants in this study often associated technical terms such as “digital” and “infrastructure” with quantitative epistemologies. Klein, a professor of philosophy, reflected that there was a “hierarchical relationship that has been created and gets reinforced constantly.” Reflecting similar sentiments, Erin, a doctoral student in English, voiced her concern that there was a lot of interest within English now in building bridges to the sciences “partially because science has a higher status in our culture now and that there is a desire to hook up with them [scientists] as students and parents value this sort of thing.” My conversations and observations revealed that the informants perceive ICTs not only as productivity and knowledge management tools but also as the frontier of a potential dividing line reinforced by the status of power associated with quantitative research traditions.

4.4. Meanings attributed to technologies

The frames summarized in Figure 2 have blurry boundaries with overlaps and intersections. They may co–exist, as individuals often consider technologies within multiple frames. These frames are examples of perspectives — they are not inclusive of all potential approaches to ICTs. They are illustrative, however, insofar as I postulate that in order to understand what digital humanities might entail we must consider the multiple mindsets of individuals. The purpose behind my categorization is not demarcation but the accentuation of diverse perspectives. My informants worked within multiple and sometimes overlapping frames; however, the underlying research study initially approached ICTs primarily using the first frame. Although the research questions underlying this study privileged a deeper understanding of ICTs as scholarly communication tools, alternative frames were revealed through the grounded theory approach as I carried on open–ended conversations with the informants as they described their daily work flows and perceptions of ICTs within such a context.


Figure 2: Frames for perceiving the role of information and communication technologies
Figure 2: Frames for perceiving the role of information and communication technologies.




5. Implications of the study

Before presenting the potential implications of this study, I should note that the case study approach taken here offers both strengths and limitations. I studied the work practices and interactions of a group of highly accomplished scholars from prestigious research institutions and tried to interpret what the notion of digital humanities denotes from their perspectives. The group cannot be considered representative of humanists and it is important to note that the subject domain of humanities is rich and diverse. My intention was not to produce generalizations about humanities scholarship or to commingle the scholars’ perspectives and practices. By focusing on a specific group of scholars through a qualitative methodology, the study aims to provide a grounded account of the informants’ perceptions and opinions of new media within the context of their academic work. Another limitation of this paper is that it did not position digital humanities by taking into consideration the role of structural issues such as the recognition of digital scholarship in tenure and promotion processes [9]. Any subsequent discussion of the potential implications of this study needs therefore to be interpreted by taking into consideration these limitations.

As illustrated through this case study, the term “digital humanities” is a catchphrase and is emerging as a term that denotes a set of practices, methods, beliefs, and theories for creating, applying, and interpreting digital information and new media. Most importantly, responses to this phrase are full of tensions and varying opinions about the role of ICTs in supporting, extending, or transforming humanities scholarship. The informants in this study construed “digital humanities” as a piece of jargon without an applied meaning for the Fellows’ scholarship. It is evident both in the literature and in this study that a burgeoning number of humanists are engaged in practices that fall under the rubric of digital humanities. However, Hayles (2009) estimates that only 10 percent of humanists seriously participate in projects that involve Web authoring or constructing research projects that rely on digital tools. This case study revealed a similar pattern; however, it is important to note that such a projection is based on a narrow frame, without factoring in scholarship that explores sociocultural aspects of our everyday encounters, practices, and experiences that are increasingly infused with technologies.

Describing what ICTs or new media entail in this rapidly changing information ecology is a moving target. As common applications such as e–mail or e–journals are mainstreamed and become background relations, they lose their identities as technologies and the term often implies what is new and novel, such as text mining algorithms. For instance, a 1996 survey by the Modern Language Association characterizes technologies as computer–based tools such as word processing applications, online public access catalogs (OPAC), and bibliographic databases. It also specifies the growing use of electronic mail and mailing lists (and news groups) among humanities scholars as important ways of communicating and interprets this trend as a “major change from the stereotype of the isolated scholar” [10]. Today, the applications considered as innovative technologies in the survey are so commonplace that they are not any longer being associated with digital humanities. As ICTs become more ubiquitous and entrenched in daily practices, scholars become accustomed to using certain features of information technologies or discovering new applications to try. Also, as individuals’ needs, goals, perceptions, and abilities shift, ICTs are interpreted in a diversity of ways. Unlike such characterizations, ICT-use patterns and opinions form part of a fluid continuum and are complex, defying dichotomization based on opposing categories such as users and anti–users.

The innovative and constructive influence of technology use in humanities scholarship and the increasing reliance on the emerging digital information ecology are evident. I posit, however, that there is a gap between the framing of digital humanities in the literature and the perceptions of the informants of this study regarding the implications of digital humanities for their scholarship. If we use the first frame — ICT as facilitator of scholarly communication — although the informants in this study were appreciatively assessing and integrating ICTs that were deemed pertinent to and convenient for their work, I felt that the academic practices of the informants of this study have not undergone any significant alterations other than incorporating commonly used tools such as search engines into their workflows. Many tools and techniques that are being associated with sophisticated digital practices, such as data mining or visualization, remain accessible and relevant to only a handful of scholars. Although some attribute this trend to the conservative nature of the humanities disciplines, I postulate that it is also related to the scholars’ satisfaction with existing tools and methodologies. In this study, most of the informants came across as open–minded and interested in exploring and assessing how technologies can support their research and teaching. However, they were often buried in their daily work flows and were not motivated to make a special effort to understand or incorporate ICTs in support of their work — unless they perceived a discernable benefit.

When we view ICTs as tools that can bring efficiencies and innovation to scholarly communication and research, it is important that scholars have venues and opportunities to explore the potential of ICT use for their research, teaching, and communication activities. This is what Rogers (1962) refers to as awareness–knowledge — information about not only the availability of an innovation but also about how it functions and how a specific technology can be applied in support of users’ goals. Efforts to encourage faculty experimentation with ICTs need to be accompanied by local or community–based support systems to provide technical guidance that will make it easier for scholars to conceptualize use (Zimmerman and Finholt, 2007). Based on the insights gained, I feel that researchers who want to explore what is possible need service frameworks not only to assist them with experimentation but also to enable them to network with likeminded scholars and to open up horizons by sharing what is possible. For humanities scholars who are interested in engaging with ICTs, their institutions need to support this incentive with customized applications and services (such as those offered by digital humanities centers, libraries, learning and teaching centers, and academic technology units) so that scholars can continue to spend more time on research or teaching than on trying to understand, manage, or sustain technologies. In this way adoption patterns are not only based on personal choices but are also linked to opportunities provided to the scholars through which they can familiarize themselves with potential tools and services. Also essential is building an awareness of sustainability issues as initiatives with digital components need to be managed and developed while adhering to best practices for digital preservation. One of the issues raised during my conversations with the Fellows pertains to the challenges involved in ensuring the maintenance and continued development of digital initiatives, especially after the active development phase. As McGann (2008) comments, even the best–funded digital humanities projects “get born into poverty.”

As Klein (2005) describes in her discussion of the history of the discipline, the dynamics of the humanities is characterized by pitting tradition against change. The digital humanities literature often assumes a divisive tone that pits progressive humanists against traditional humanists. “Traditional” in this context not only embodies anti–technology sentiments but also reflects humanists’ inclination to engage in impenetrable scholarly discourses that are difficult to comprehend and can be understood only by a limited audience. During her 2009 lecture, Hayles (2009), for instance, argues that digital humanities challenges many of the assumptions and practices of traditional humanists and argues that the community is slow to recognize the potential of digital humanities. McGann makes the case that “ignorance about information technology and its critical relevance to humanities education is widespread” [11]. Although these remarks may be accurate and justified from the authors’ perspectives, I believe that such portrayals further widen the gap between the pioneers of digital humanities and those humanists who carry on their traditional practices. What is considered as ‘underutilization of new media’ or ‘resistance to technologies’ needs to be interpreted and addressed by taking into consideration the social and structural characteristics of the academy and the deeply embedded practices and values of humanists. It is also important to acknowledge that progress and innovation are not merely rooted in or induced by technological tools. As we envision what progress and innovation in the humanities subject area entails, it is essential to avoid narrow and technologically deterministic perspective. For instance, Biagioli (2009) makes a case for a stronger alliance between the humanities and science studies, which positions scientific knowledge in a broad social, historical, and philosophical context. Another example is provided by McPherson (2009), who promotes multimodal scholarship — the activity of exploring new forms of literacy that include authoring and analyzing visual, aural, dynamic, and interactive media.

Today’s Web–based research environment represents a convergence of search engines, digital books, wikis, blogs, and online communication forums. The new form of literacy involves the ability to evaluate, manage, process, and filter information and distill meaning in this new information ecology. The New Media Consortium (2005) defines new media literacy as “the set of abilities and skills where aural, visual, and digital literacy overlap.” These skills include the ability to navigate across, reconfigure, and evaluate various media forms, to synthesize material and bring together diverse methodologies in solving complex problems, and to critically evaluate the potentials and limitations of new technologies. Also included in discussions under the rubric of digital humanities should be instilling the knowledge and skills needed to create and critique new media content — for both students and researchers. For instance, an essential requirement of digital scholarship is an ability to assess the credibility of virtual information environments that are based on social intelligence such as collectively composed learning spaces (e.g., Wikipedia).

As I noted earlier, several of the informants were apprehensive about the term “digital humanities” and wondered whether it implied that humanities scholarship was divided into two realms. Their descriptions of routine practices underscored how their research and teaching practices occur in a heterogeneous ecology of analog and digital settings, tools, and content. We continue to live in a blended world of virtual, physical, and spiritual domains. Differentiating between digital and traditional humanities is not only counterintuitive but is also likely to be shortsighted. When we investigate the intersection of humanities scholarship with new media, ICTs should be viewed not only as tools that enhance productivity, creative expression, and communication. They should also be made into objects of study themselves from material and sociocultural perspectives. Therefore discussions of digital humanities program areas need to more explicitly incorporate critical stances that can reveal the ideological and contradictory nature of information and communication systems. Such a critical orientation will encourage humanities researchers to question idealized expectations and examine ICTs from multiple perspectives to reveal possible limitations, negative consequences, and potential losses. While technologies are being positioned as driving forces behind innovation, it is more important than ever to understand the cultural, social, and political implications of new media.

I continue to find great value in Heidegger’s (1977) seminal philosophical insights on technology. I agree with his assertion that the problem is not the existence of technology but rather our orientation to technology. Everything depends on our ability to get technology “spiritually in hand” (Heidegger, 1977) and to manipulate it in a proper way as a means to human ends. Digital humanities discourse both in theory and in practice will greatly benefit from adopting a philosophical stance that acknowledges the contribution and promise of ICTs in introducing new research questions and methods as well as the potential role of technologies in mediating new relationships and cultural experiences. Such a critical stance will balance the celebration of ICTs’ progressive and creative affordances with a thoughtful consideration of the potential impact of new media on our society and the ways in which we create and share knowledge. End of article


About the author

Oya Y. Rieger is the associate university librarian for digital scholarship services at Cornell University Library. She oversees the Library’s digitization, repository development, digital preservation, electronic publishing, and instructional technology initiatives with a focus on needs assessment, requirements analysis, business modeling, and information policy development. Rieger has a B.S. in Economics (METU), an M.S. in Public Administration (University of Oklahoma), and an M.S. in Information Systems (Columbia University). She received her Ph.D. in Communication (Human–Computer Interaction) from Cornell University. Her research interests focus on sociocultural aspects of ICT design, use, and assessment in support of scholarly communication.



First, I would like to thank Professor Geri Gay, who chaired my special committee, for providing unyielding support throughout the many stages of this research project. I also would like to express my gratitude to the other faculty members of my special committee — Jeremy Birnholtz, Stephen Hilgartner, and Bruce Lewenstein. Thanks to Kornelia Vassileva Tancheva, Marty Kurth, and the members of the ‘new media and society’ working group at Cornell for providing useful comments as I wrote this paper. I also want to acknowledge the essential role of the 45 scholars who contributed to this study. They were generous with their time as they shared their opinions on information technologies and their stories about how they use them.



1. The term ‘ICT’ is commonly used to represent the convergence of computer and communication technologies (Lievrouw and Livingstone, 2006). This study viewed ICTs as sociotechnical systems that are composed of material aspects of information technologies (features) and associated social and work practices (Bijker, 1995). Hence, the terms ICT and new media are used interchangeably. This decision is based on Lievrouw and Livingstone’s (2006) definition of new media as ICTs and their associated social contexts. Such a characterization incorporates communication artifacts and devices, the activities and practices involved in developing and using these devices, and the social arrangements and organizations that form around the devices and practices.

2. Concordance creation tools allow users to automatically construct alphabetical lists of seminal words used in books and other texts. They enable the analysis and translation of text and it is possible to create indexes and word lists, count word frequencies, compare distinct usages of a word, analyze keywords, and find phrases and idioms. The word “lexicon” refers to a specialized dictionary for the works of a particular author or the words used by a particular audience.

3. Cyberinfrastructure, also referred to as e–research or e–science, represents a distributed and data‏intensive system that supports knowledge creation, processing, sharing, and archiving (Edwards, et al., 2007; ACLS, 2006).

4. According to the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), the “humanities comprise those fields of knowledge and learning concerned with human thought, experience, and creativity.” Humanists’ work involves exploring the foundations of aesthetic, ethical, and cultural values and how such ideals are sustained, challenged, and transformed. In this study, I view humanities as a branch of knowledge composed of a cluster of related disciplines. The subject area involves many distinct disciplines including history, philosophy, art, literature, languages, and religion. Although I refer to the humanities as a unified academic field, it is important to note that the domain is composed of several disciplines, such as literature and history, with their own traditions and cultures. However, they exhibit unifying characteristics and convergence in their approach to understanding the diversity and complexity of the world by examining the historical, cultural, and philosophical dimensions of human experience (Phamotse and Kissack, 2008; Klein, 2005).

5. I used an Olympus digital voice recorder to capture the interviews, which typically lasted from 35 to 65 minutes. Within a week after each interview, I transcribed the recording as a Microsoft Word document.

6. In grounded theory, a category, for example “reading,” is a conceptual element of a theory. Properties describe the conceptual aspects of such a category, such as types of reading. Hypotheses emerge as relations among categories and properties (Glaser and Strauss, 1967).

7. ARTstor is a non–profit digital library of more than one million images in the arts, architecture, the humanities, and social sciences with a suite of software tools that make it possible to view, present, and manage images for research and pedagogical purposes. More information is available at

8. The Rose Goldsen Archive of New Media Art Archive ( was founded in 2002 by Professor Timothy Murray to house international art work and digital interfaces produced on various new media. It is located at the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections as one of the programs of Cornell University Library.

9. For instance, in 2006 the Modern Language Association (MLA) examined current standards and emerging trends in publication requirements for tenure and promotion and has recommended that departments and institutions recognize the legitimacy of scholarship produced in new media and venues such as institutional repositories (MLA, 2006). Although some structural changes have occurred in response to evolving scholarly practices, the progress is slow and requires periodic interventions and encouragement. The MLA and the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC) recently announced that they are preparing guidelines to offer help to tenure committees in properly evaluating digital scholarship (Jaschik, 2009). The goal is to move the 2006 recommendations from a “position statement” to “actual practice” in hiring and review decisions.

10. Shaw and Davis, p. 938.

11. McGann, 2008, p. 81.



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Editorial history

Received 28 July 2010; accepted 27 September 2010.

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“Framing digital humanities: The role of new media in humanities scholarship” by Oya Y. Rieger is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–NonCommercial–NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Framing digital humanities: The role of new media in humanities scholarship
by Oya Y. Rieger.
First Monday, Volume 15, Number 10 - 4 October 2010