To launch our month-long focus on digital humanities research, Professor John Rink and Professor Simon Goldhill – Co-Directors of Cambridge’s Digital Humanities Network – explain how digital tools are transforming scholarship in Cambridge.

Cambridge is well placed to exploit and enhance the transformative potential of digital technologies in the arts and humanities.

John Rink and Simon Goldhill

Humanities research and the questions underlying it are being radically reshaped by new digital technologies and the connections and insights that they afford.

Digital tools have been used for decades to browse library catalogues and to access, collate and disseminate primary and secondary research materials. Many of these tools were produced by ‘humanities computing’ teams that basically offered support services to academic researchers. But during the past 10 years or so, the field of digital humanities has developed into “a genuinely intellectual endeavour with its own professional practices, rigorous standards, and exciting theoretical explorations,” as noted by the literary theorist Katherine Hayles (Duke University).

Cambridge is well placed to exploit and enhance the transformative potential of digital technologies in the arts and humanities, and to make a major contribution to the ongoing development of the emergent discipline.

Significant research clusters using digital mapping tools (such as GIS) can be found in Archaeology, Geography, History, the Computer Laboratory, and Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. Several departments have a well-established profile in social network and social media research. In addition, clusters of expertise in digital editions can be found in Music, English, History and Philosophy of Science, Classics and the University Library.

Further attributes of the Cambridge DH ‘scene’ include the longstanding role of the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) in fostering crossdisciplinary interaction between digital humanities researchers. E-research and e-learning tools have been developed at the Centre for Applied Research in Educational Technologies (CARET). The University Library has become a centre for digitisation and digital project management, as well as home to the e-repository DSpace@ Cambridge. Across the spectrum of humanities disciplines, expertise in digital research is flourishing.

The Digital Humanities Network was established in 2011 to enhance Cambridge’s potential in this area, and to foster collaboration and synergy across an extraordinarily rich research environment. It aims to engage leading scholars across the University in developing a shared agenda for digital humanities research throughout the next decade. This involves setting current and future research themes, helping to plan future IT infrastructure needs, and encouraging the University to support staff training and recruitment policies that will provide the people needed to realise the Network’s vision.

Among other activities, the Network has already helped to generate major external funding, supported a transferable digital skills project for early career researchers, and led a social media knowledge exchange project.

The great strengths and distinctive contribution of digital humanities at Cambridge derive from the wealth of ideas that inform and underpin the research in this area. The fact that Cambridge researchers are uniquely skilled in analysis, critique and interpretation gives them an edge in developing what Todd Presner (University of California, Los Angeles) has called the “entirely new disciplinary paradigms, convergent fields, hybrid methodologies, and … publication models” that now characterise digital humanities, thereby paving the way for future developments of signal importance to those working in the field and well beyond.

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