Johanna Drucker: New Book on Digital Humanities Scholarship

Co-authored text provides a working definition of the continually expanding field and criteria for its assessment.

While Johanna Drucker is a renowned scholar of bibliographical studies, fine print, and other more tangible artifacts in the information sciences, she has also honed her expertise on the digital presence in libraries, archives, and other repositories of literature, culture, and knowledge. In her new book, “Digital_Humanities” (with A. Burdick, P. Lunenfeld, T. Presner, and J. Schnapp. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2013), the professor of information studies and her co-authors explore what so far has been an elusive, yet emergent definition of this field.

“We wanted to help define digital humanities and also help communicate the criteria for assessment in the field,” says Drucker. “The idea was to create a book that would communicate to deans, provosts, chairs of departments, and faculty committees and grad students some really basic things about a field that is emerging rapidly and a lot of people have questions about. We’re really interested in the intellectual questions: What do computational tools and digital tools bring to the humanities? And what do the humanities bring to the process of working in a digital environment?’”

In “Digital_Humanities,” chapters on emerging methods and genres, and on the social life of the digital humanities, offer tools for those involved in the design, production, oversight, and review of digital projects. The authors use case studies,” “provocations,” and “advisories” to illustrate the revitalization of the liberal arts tradition through digital humanities in the electronically inflected, design-driven, multimedia language of the 21st century.

Drucker, who is the Bernard and Martin Breslauer Professor of Bibliography at the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, says that she and her co-authors were most interested in exploring the most useful ways to deal with digital materials. The book provides an in-depth examination of methodologies and techniques unfamiliar to traditional modes of humanistic inquiry, including geospatial analysis, data mining, corpus linguistics, visualization, and simulation.

Drucker says that the existing studies of data mining, digitalization, mapping virtual worlds, and classification intersect not only with library and information studies but with “the history of human thought,” as evidenced in an array of disciplines including literature, theatre, and politics. She says that her collaboration with UCLA colleagues Peter Lunenfeld, professor of Design Media Arts, and Todd Presner, professor of Germanic Languages and Comparative Literature and chair of the Digital Humanities program, is designed to “build this ability for digital humanities here at UCLA as an interdisciplinary and cross-school initiative…  with people from the College, from School of Arts, from GSE&IS, and from Social Sciences.”

Drucker says that the growing number of online resources such as original texts still calls for an understanding of the physical artifact, in view of the fact that the online viewers of such texts extend beyond the academic and research community.

“Some of the issues that come up are how do we make [digital] material usable, and how we provide the right interpretive framework,” says Drucker. “You can have the entire digital edition of the Book of Kells on your iPad, but having access is not the same as having understanding. If you go to the Bodleian Library online and you start pulling up manuscripts, you can’t make heads or tails of them. They’re in old English or Latin, or old French. The handwriting is really hard to read for a modern eye.

“In the old days, only specialists knew to go look through the bowels of the Bodleian Library in order to find a manuscript. It’s a broad public that can have access now.”