The inaugural Australasian Association for Digital Humanities conference was held in Canberra at the Australian National University just recently. I attended a number of papers and found the conference both stimulating and somewhat overwhelming. One scholar made the point that when someone says ‘Digital Humanities’, every person in the room will be thinking of something different. To some extent, the conference was proof of that. What was evident is that there is a range of fascinating projects being undertaken across Australia and the world that are harnessing the power of computing to undertake new types of research and analysis in the Humanities.
As a historian, I was interested in some of the digital initiatives being undertaken to present a range of historical data, sources, and research to the public. But I also found those scholars who made the point that it is necessary for historians (especially academic historians) to consider how the computer and the internet are challenging and reshaping the way people engage with and understand history – and thus need to consider the challenges to our historical scholarship and practice – particularly thought-provoking. Some years ago I studied amateur historians in the US West at the end of the 19th century, and considered how the rise of a professionally trained generation of historians challenged their primacy within state historical societies. These professionals increasingly took over the writing of history. I wonder if there is a new shift in the nature of historical practice and production, insofar as the internet and digital forms will be the main way that people will engage with, and read, history. As one paper-giver suggested, academic historians are not engaging with these issues (or asserting their presence on the internet) as much as they might (and perhaps should).
There were many other thought-provoking issues raised at the conference. As a book historian who has studied the way people have historically engaged with print – from both the publishing and production end, and from the audience and reader end – the conference reminded me of just how rapidly these processes and practices are shifting. How we make sense of all this and learn to adapt will be the challenge of the future.
Some digital history initiatives:
Latest scholarship on Digital Humanities: