What are ‘real’ Digital Humanities and how to get started?

The title suggests a political discussion, however, this is not what I want to discuss here. (However, I had a ‘more political’ discussion planned for a while.)

At a recent conference, I realized many people from the Humanities find it difficult to grasp what the DH even really are – because they are so diverse. I was told a colleague had gone to a short DH summer school but still feels like she doesn’t get what the DH really are. Or that she hasn’t learned any ‘real DH’. How does this happen? How can we make it better?

Maybe, as a first step, by trying to answer what the DH are in a way which is easy to grasp for someone who isn’t already part of the DH: It is really an umbrella term for a wide range of topics ranging from digital edition to long-term archiving, digitizing facsimile scans of books or running analyses. I don’t promise to unveil the whole world of DH here since this is just a short post. I hope this shortness helps make these basics more accessible maybe and will follow up with more later. These tips are nothing ‘new’ if you’re already in the DH. They are common sense, not rocket science. But when learning new skills, that can be quite a relief to hear 😉

The DH can be programming, it can be webdesign, it can be using digital tools

You are probably already doing some kind of DH. But then, there is the question of when you are DH and when you don’t yet qualify as a ‘real DH person’. This intermediary state is what I like to refer to as “label-DH” and that’s not to say that label DH is not a valid thing to be. But you can’t deny that there is a considerable difference between someone who has actually worked in the technical implementation of a DH project and the person ‘just’ supplying the data to be put into a DH project.

Overall, you could say it’s more about methods than about what data those methods are being used on, which research questions they are intended to help answer, etc. as long as those pertain to the broad field of the Humanities. It is important to note that technical uses for cultural heritage, for example, if developped by a computer scientist, don’t necessarily make the CS person DH. Since the DH have become mainstream, being as ‘techie’ as possible has become somewhat of a criterion for distinguishing oneself from other ‘less techie’ people but being a tech geek is actually not the number one criterion for being a DH person: The DH are using digital methods to help answer Humanities research questions. This means that you cannot possibly be a DH person if you’re not a Humanist (at least in some sense if not by training – but preferably by formal education!). Then, of course, there sometimes is some l’art pour l’art-style ‘DH for the sake of DH’. But that’s another matter entirely and really doesn’t concern you, future DH recruit, at this stage. So let’s get down to business.

How do I get started?

As anywhere: With a starter drug, of course. And the starter drug for anyone wanting to become DH is – wait for it – XML. Who would have thought?

While there are many valid ‘real DH’ jobs which don’t involve XML at all, I think a criterion for an ‘entrance barrier’ into the DH is whether you understand XML, can easily manipulate XML and can write your own XML. Probably knowledge of 2-3 XML standards would be good too. Other skills, of course, are also great but I think none of them are as universal to the DH as XML. However, please note that of course ‘just knowing XML’ is not enough that you would get accepted inside the community as a ‘real DH’ person in the long term. But I think it is with learning XML that most people start to leave the lands of ‘only label DH’ and start to transition to ‘real DH’.

Going deeper

The DH covers a wide range of topics and methods. But I think the most important step to getting into DH is starting to develop active command of some tech methods. Meaning not just being a ‘passive’ user of some GUI program. GUI means graphical user interface, referring to ‘normal programs’ where you click around, as opposed to use text commands to get things done. So while the topic really doesn’t matter, if you want to be able to claim ‘DH skills’ for yourself on your CV, just knowing some theory won’t be enough. You need practical skills.

Consequently, after having understood XML, you need to start digging deeper. It is important that you familiarize yourself with the basics of webdesign (I will probably do a super short and easy intro tutorial at some point but there really are so many great tutorials around and freely accessible). You should also have some basic command of XPath and start familiarizing yourself with XSLT.

It only takes a 10 day bootcamp to get started

Just for reference, I wanted to mention that I teach all of these above-mentioned skills in one introductory course which, in the last semester, consisted of four days only (very packed long days, spread over the semester, but nontheless). The result is that students have more than sufficiently good command of XML, they have laid the base for delving deeper  into webdesign. (However, I think that once you have grasped the basics, you might not even need to actively learn more webdesign. You could get everything else by ‘learning on the job’ and websearching what you need when you need it.) They can use XPath, even though some more difficult commands might be tricky, They have run and partly manipulated an XSLT document. I will post these materials on here as tutorials one by one. The first one, efficient annotation using regex search’n’replace, is already done. As you can maybe see from the post, it’s really no big deal but it’s essential you don’t just read it theoretically but actually try it out and play around with it.

Also, nowadays, it will be more and more expected that you also have basic command of one of the popular programming languages, that means JavaScript, Python or Java. For the beginning, completing a ’30 days of code’ challenge in one of them (for example on Hackerrank) will be enough to familiarize yourself with the basic concepts.

Will you be a DH hero after a 10 day crashcourse? Probably not. But you have to start somewhere and now that I shared these tips, you can’t say you didn’t have the information to start working on your DH skills. No excuses along the lines of “the DH were inaccessible to you”.

It only takes 10 days to get started but it is mandatory that in those 10 days, you don’t only learn about what the DH are in theory. You need to play around with data practically. That’s when you start being a DH person. And I honestly think that a situation where someone does a DH crashcourse and is left wondering what the DH really are after its completion can only happen if the course was too theory-focused. It might be difficult to pin down what the DH really are. But there is no doubt that the only way to learn them is to acquire active tech skills. You can’t learn the DH in theory alone. And the more practice the better, at least in the beginning – if you ask me.


So yes, I am saying that you could learn the most important basics of DH in a one week crashcourse. At least enough to get you started. However, as mentioned before, the DH are complex and contain so many sub-fields and sub-issues that it will take longer to really grasp their discourse and, of course, much practice to master the techniques.

Hope this helps,


the Ninja

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I like LaTeX, the Humanities and the Digital Humanities. Here I post tutorials and other adventures.

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