Review of Gardiner and Musto’s Digital Humanities

6 minute read

Gardiner, Eileen and Ronald G. Musto. The Digital Humanities: A Primer for Students and Scholars. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Gardiner and Musto's Digital Humanities

No grad student would blink twice about seeing a book from 2005 on the list of assigned reading for a class. Yet because of the pace of technology over the last decade, Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig’s milestone book Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web is far more outdated than most other academic monographs published that year. Yet a cursory look over digital history syllabi indicates that the work is still a fundamental part of learning about digital history. In part this is because large chunks of the book remain relevant today, but many are sorely in need of an update. In particular, advancements in technology have allowed for a greater expanse of digital scholarship over the last decade and have opened new frontiers for historians both in the public history field and methodologically. While a number of books have come out since the publication of Digital History, there doesn’t seem to be a concise, well-structured overview of the subject that addresses the pedagogical, methodological, and public history aspects of digital history. I was, however, intrigued by Eileen Gardiner and Ronald G. Musto’s The Digital Humanities: A Primer for Students and Scholars as a potential option, albeit one that took the wider view of humanities rather than history. While Gardiner and Musto provide a decent introduction to the subject, their book probably won’t be surplanting Cohen and Rosenzweig.

Digital Humanities grew out of Gardiner’s 2010 Fullbright Fellowship related to teaching digital humanities at the National University of Ireland, Galway and ultimately transitioned into a book when her and Musto took over the executive director position of the Medieval Studies Association. Both also have a long history of working within the digital humanities as editors of Italica Press and the American Council of Learned Societies History E-Book Project, both of which have been involved in digital publishing since the 1990s. In the book, Gardiner and Musto seek to provide readers with “a comprehensive introduction and practical guide to how humanists use the digital to conduct research, organize materials, analyze and publish findings.” (Front matter) They also argue the book comes at an important time for the digital humanities because in 2015, the field has had time to mature so that many people know it exists but cannot provide a clear definition of it and many remain intimidated by it. Furthermore, they argue technological advancements have plateaued and “initial experimential gains are being scaled, consolidated and made sustainable” meaning there are solid examples across the spectrum that allow them “to reflect on how this maturing process is working and what its long-term characteristics might be.” (p. ix) While it’s true we can now reflect back on the examples covered in Cohen and Rosenzweig and see how far we’ve come and seemingly slowed down, in another year, let alone five or ten, the “plateau” of 2015 is going to be a distant memory.

Overall Gardiner and Musto are far more intriguing when they present theoretical, philosophical, and historical discussions about the digital humanities, than they are when they venture into the practical side of things. Their introductory chapter provides a good introduction to the field and provides the interesting background that even though most would see the digital humanities as a development of the last few decades, the field can be dated to the late 1940s when Roberto Busa, an Italian theologican, approached IBM for help indexing Thomas Aquinas’ works. Digital for Busa, however, was a method rather than the goal, he sought to use the indexing and sorting to further the humanities and provide “a ‘doctrinal interpretation’ of Aquinas’ theology and moral philosophy.” (p. 3)

The two also pose the intriguing question about the potential pitfalls of glamous digital projects that secure deep-pocketed funding from major organizations and philantrophists that have the potential to marginalize smaller projects and average humanists acting outside of the attention getting developments. (p. 6) With budget cuts looming at many higher education institutions and the growing need for humanities to prove their worth in the face of the rise of STEM education, these projects could both be a savour and a possible downfall, particularly if they mean the marginalization of monographs and ordinary day-to-day working in humanities departments. Yet the authors note humanists can play a powerful role in the new digital era as guides for the overwhelming flow of information it has created. As they correctly note, a traditional goal of all the humanities has been to provide “guidance to, and interpretation of, the world created by humanity. This remains a core mission in the digital.” (p. 21) Yet as computers become more advanced, scholars may find themselves outmatched in terms of their ability “to make sound judgements based on vastly larger and more complete sets of evidentiary representation.” (p. 42) As a result a pressing question going forward is how the human will remain in the humanities and what methodologies will be developed to “account for the sudden collapse of the wall between the remnants of the past and our representations of them.” (Ibid.)

All of these are questions worthwhile contemplating, but digital humanities is more than just theoretical discussions. Here Gardiner and Musto come up short. Their chapter “The Elements of the Digital Humanities: Object, Artifact, Image, Sound, Space” does a decent job provides definitions of the major components of the field, albeit utilizing literal dictionary definitions quoted from Meriam-Webster far too often, their chapter on digital tools is mostly meaningless and can be skipped. For one, most of the chapter is comprised of basic definitions of tools that correspond to their Appendix listing various tools and many of these categories are self-evident even to technology novices. Secondly in their attempt to cover as many bases as possible the authors have gone for quantity over a coherent selection of tools. As they note, “Tools in the Appendix are listed to illustrate the possibilities available and are not necessarily recommended by the authors. … For the most part descriptions of the tools…are based closely on the online descriptions provided by their developers.” (p. 71) The Appendix is nearly 35 pages and the pithy descriptions and amount of tools is overwhelmingly and mostly useless even for experts. I was also particularly struck by the inclusion of things like LiveJournal and Open Salon in the blogging section, both of which had fallen well out of favor well before January 2015, when they finalized the book. The same criticisms apply to the following chapter on “Digital Environments,” which is little more than free publicity for universities that have established digital humanities centers because Gardiner and Musto draw most of their descriptions from the centers’ websites and descriptions. While it’s interesting to show the scope of what could possibly be done, a more tailored list and a narrower focus may have been a more worthwhile starting point, particularly for novices trying to find their way.

I’ve written far too much already but it is worth noting Gardiner and Musto’s concluding chapters on copyrights and digital publishing are also excellent parts of the book, the latter clearly reflecting their extensive experience in the industry. One shouldn’t take my criticism of the middle part of Digital Humanities as a negative view of the book overall. Gardiner and Musto pose a number of important questions and do an excellent job covering the state of the field from the theoretical standpoint, and the book is a good companion for those in the field and will allow for reflection on where the field has been and where it can go.