What Are The Digital Humanities?

¿Qué son las humanidades digitales? 

Original publication date: 01/07/2011

Isabel Galina Tr. EN: Tim Thompson

© Coordinación de Acervos Digitales. Dirección General de Cómputo y de Coordinación de Acervos Digitales. Dirección General de Cómputo y de Tecnologías de Información y Comunicación – UNAM. Full or partial reproduction of this article is authorized, so long as the original source is cited with its URL.


Italy, 1949: Father Roberto Busa had set out to create a concordance of the complete works of Saint Thomas Aquinas and related authors.[1] The very size of the corpus made for a monumental task. Busa had heard of a new machine called a “computer”; thinking that it might be able to aid him in his endeavor, he contacted IBM in the United States to ask for help. The text of the complete works was transferred to punch cards and a program was written to produce the concordance. A truck was needed simply to transport the punch cards (Hockey, 2004).

The first volumes of the Index Thomasticus were published in 1974, containing over 11 million words of medieval Latin. The origin of the digital humanities can be traced back to this grand project, in which computation was applied to humanistic inquiry for the first time.

The term “digital humanities” represents a new interdisciplinary field, one concerned with the impact of computers and technology on the work of researchers in the humanities. Synonyms include “digital resources for the humanities,” “humanities computing,” “digital and cultural informatics,” and “humanities informatics.” This new field has become increasingly important in the international academic arena, and it offers exciting possibilities for both research and instruction in the humanities.

Broadly speaking, the goals of the digital humanities include:

  1. Creating databases of digital resources relevant to the humanities. This includes capturing, structuring, documenting, preserving, and disseminating the data at hand.
  2. Developing methodologies that make it possible to derive new content from this data.
  3. Generating research and knowledge to advance humanistic inquiry.

As an academic field, digital humanities encompasses many disciplines and is closely tied to areas such as library science, information science, and computer science.

Establishing the field

There are several indicators one can point as signs of consolidation in a new field of study: specialized associations, organizations, and centers; academic curricula, conferences; journals and monographs. The digital humanities field continues to mature, and a significant international community of digital humanists has emerged. Some of the major initiatives include:

Organizations and professional associations

  • Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations (AHDO) (http://adho.org/), which brings together the following organizations:
  • Association for Computers and the Humanities (ACH) (http://www.ach.org/)
  • Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing (ALLC) (http://eadh.org/)
  • SDH/SEMI (Society for Digital Humanities/Société pour l’étude des médias interactifs). (http://www.sdh-semi.org/)
  • Australasian Association for Digital Humanities (aaDH) (http://aa-dh.org/)

Specialized centers

In 1963 the Centre for Literary and Linguistic Computing was founded at the University of Cambridge. However, most of the field’s now numerous digital humanities centers did not come into their own until two decades later.

  • Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King’s College London (http://www.kcl.ac.uk/artshums/depts/ddh/index.aspx)
  • UCL (University College London), Centre for Digital Humanities (http://www.ucl.ac.uk/dh/)
  • Humanities Computing and Media Centre, University of Victoria (http://hcmc.uvic.ca/)

A complete list of centers is available via centerNet (international network of digital humanities centers) (http://digitalhumanities.org/centernet/).

Graduate programs

Selected examples:

  • Digital Humanities, King’s College London (http://www.kcl.ac.uk/schools/humanities/depts/cch/pg/madh/)
  • Digital Culture and Society, King’s College London (http://www.kcl.ac.uk/artshums/depts/ddh/study/pgt/madcs/index.aspx)
  • Digital Humanities, University College London (http://www.ucl.ac.uk/dh/courses/mamsc)
  • Digital Humanities and Culture, Trinity College (http://www.tcd.ie/English/postgraduate/digital-humanities/)


The major conference is Digital Humanities (DH), sponsored by the ADHO. This year, it will be held in Lausanne, Switzerland (http://dh2014.org/).

The conference has been held annually since 1990. For the conference archive, see http://www.digitalhumanities.org/conference.


The major DH journals is Literary and Linguistic Computing, published by Oxford University Press (http://llc.oxfordjournals.org/).

Others include:

  • Digital Studies / Le champ numérique (http://www.digitalstudies.org/), published by SDH/SEMI
  • DHQ: Digital Humanities Quarterly (http://digitalhumanities.org/dhq/)

To date, the majority of digital humanities initiatives have been centered in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and, to a lesser degree, Australia and Japan. One of the foremost challenges facing DH today is the need for internationalization and greater participation from and integration of digital humanists from other parts of the world (Galina y Priani, 2011).

Digital humanities in Mexico

In Mexico the impact of computation on academic work, despite its importance, has been a relatively neglected area. There is an urgent need to remedy this situation and advance the digital humanities as a recognized and high-priority area of research. In September 2010 a group of academics met to discuss ways to support and further the field on an institutional level. A total of four DH workshops were held.

The workshops addressed issues such as recognition, financing, copyright, promotion, capacity building, infrastructure, and isolation, among many others. Our goals were to promote and strengthen inquiry in humanities computing, with particular emphasis on research and education in Spanish-speaking countries. To this end, we have created the Digital Humanities Network (RedHD). RedHD supports objectives such as communication among digital humanists in the region, the development of documentation and best practices, and the promotion of DH projects and related events, as well the advancement and recognition of the field in general. It also promotes regional projects and initiatives on an international level. Updates and outcomes from RedHD are available at http://humanidadesdigitales.net/.


One of the primary objectives of RedHD is the dissemination of DH projects. By way of illustration, here are three standout examples of projects that have been developed at the Universidade Nacional Autónoma de Méxio (UNAM). This engaging and innovative work demonstrates the importance and impact of teaching and research in the humanities.

El Corpus Histórico del Español en México (http://www.coprus.unam.mx/chem/) is a project of UNAM’s Linguistic Engineering Group (Grupo de Ingeniería Lingüística–GIL). This resource has two primary features:

  • It offers a broad and growing collection of diachronic documents representing a range of textual genres.
  • It includes a set of tools for exploring and analyzing this corpus.

It also constitutes a valuable resource for linguistic research and the development of natural language processing tools. This project was sponsored by UNAM’s Dirección General de Asuntos del Personal Académico (DGAPA) and by the Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología (CONACyT).

The online record of the 1910 trial of Francisco I. Madero (www.iisue.unam.mx/ahunam/madero), which includes 11 notebooks, 1,116 documents (the majority not previously published), and 850 folios. This collection provides a detailed account of this important historical event. Addition resources in the collection include:

  • Document transcriptions and corresponding catalog records.
  • The Law of Amnesty and the Federal Code of Criminal Procedure of the era (appendix).
  • An extensive photographic collection.

This project was developed by the Instituto de Investigaciones sobre la Universidad y la Educación and the Archivo Histórico de la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (IISUE-AHUNAM).

The Digital Library of Novohispanic Thought (http://www.bdpn.unam.mx/) is a collection of digital editions of diplomatic transcriptions of books having to do with the debate about the nature of comets during the second half of the seventeenth century. It also comprises a set of digital research tools, including:

  • Automated indexing of terms, references, names, and dates, marked up in the text.
  • An annotation tool for collaborative philology and interpretation.
  • A suite of resources utilizing the indexes to provide information about people, works cited, the meaning of old Spanish words and of technical, medical, astronomical, and astrological terms.

This is a project of UNAM’s School of Philosophy and Letters, funded by DGAPA and CONACyT.


In keeping with the increasing complexity and sophistication of the technological tools at our disposal, it is imperative that we investigate, explore, and embrace the implications that they can have for humanistic inquiry. The sciences are generally taken to have made better use of information and computing systems than the humanities; indeed, computation has been a key element for the development of scientific research in recent decades. Today, virtually all primary data in the sciences is produced digitally—or if not originally in digital format, it has since been transferred to digital media. Today there are numerous scientific databases, and tools have been developed for the visualization, modeling, and mining of scientific research data.[2] This work was allowed researchers to carry out innovative studies and establish new fields of scientific inquiry.

The primary sources of the humanities are vast and heterogeneous. As a result, the use of digital formats can have considerable research impact, opening new perspectives on knowledge. Digital formats can aid in the development of novel tools to make use of the resources used in humanities research. In and of themselves, they constitute a new and engaging field of inquiry within the humanities as a whole.

* I would like to thank Patricia Muñetón for her contributions to this article.


References and recommended reading

Borgman, C. “The Digital Future Is Now: A Call to Action for the Humanities.” DHQ: Digital Humanities Quarterly, http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/3/4/000077/000077.html

Hockey, S. (2004) “The History of Humanities Computing” in A Companion to Digital Humanities, http://www.digitalhumanities.org/companion/

Galina, I., & Priani, E. (2011). “Is there anybody out there? Discovering new DH practitioners in other countries,” DH 2011, June 2011, Stanford University, http://dh2011abstracts.stanford. edu/xtf/view?docId=tei/ab-124.xml;query=;brand=default

Friedlander, A. “Asking Questions and Building a Research Agenda for Digital Scholarship,” http:// www.clir.org/activities/digitalscholar2/friedlander.pdf

Russell, J., & Ruíz, I., 2005. “La relevancia del texto digital en la investigación lingüística y literatura del Instituto de Investigaciones Filológicas de la UNAM.” Investigación Bibliotecológica, 19(39), http://www.journals.unam.mx/index.php/ibi/article/view/4079.

[1] Concordances are particularly common in the field of linguistics. They provide a list of all the words in a text, their frequency, and the context in which they appear. Prior to the advent of computers, complete concordances were rare because of the time and effort taken to produce them.

[2] An interesting example at UNAM has been the digitization of the Biology Collections of the Institute of Biology, led by the Biodiversity Informatics Unit (UNIBIO). See http://www.unibio.unam.mx/.