The Medieval Review 16.11.19


Gardiner, Eileen, and Ronald G. Musto. The Digital Humanities: A Primer for Students and Scholars. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. pp. 288. $30.99 (paperback). ISBN: 978-1-107-60102-4 (paperback).



Reviewed by:


Kalani Craig
Indiana University
craigkl@indiana.edu

The engagement with ideals of medieval scholarship is visible from the very beginning of Eileen Gardiner and Ronald Musto's high-level overview of digital methodologies in humanities research and teaching. Their medieval training informs their acknowledgement of the tensions at the heart of a printed book that describes digital methods. Even their definition of digital humanities depends on a millennia-old trivium and quadrivium that brings medieval structures to bear on the future of the humanities. It is this acknowledgement and productive analysis of the friction between a static, ever-increasing, body of humanities scholarship and the ever-changing nature of digital approaches and their effects on humanistic study that holds this particular primer together. The practical elements of the book fall shy of the book's theoretical value, perhaps because the monograph form constrains their ability to provide the reader with several routes into a primer on what is, after all, a field that emphasizes the importance of non-linear argumentative structures. Still, Gardiner and Musto have provided a credible snapshot of the theoretical concerns that underlie a complicated, rapidly evolving field, with a background history of each of the artifacts they discuss aimed at true novices to the humanities field as well as to digital humanities.

Gardiner and Musto's primary argument is that the digital revolution is dramatically different than the changes in medium that have gone before it: "something has fundamentally changed in the way the digital accesses, preserves, aggregates and disaggregates, presents, privileges and reflects back upon scholarship that may leave old categories behind and change the way even Petrarchan humanists think, do research, author, publish and interact with their own communities" (2). This grounding in medieval and early modern history is visible throughout the project, underlying even the authors' de rigeur history of digital humanities, which breaks from the standard mold that proceeds from Father Antonio Busa's work on the Thomistic corpus in the 1940s and instead focuses on the development of humanism as it began with Petrarch in Italy in the trecento. A summative history of humanities in the academy follows, bringing the authors at last to a critique of the corporate academy and its return to the commodification of education that they argue was the hallmark of late medieval Italian urban education. Gardiner and Musto's guarded hope is that the digital humanities may serve as a corrective for the corporate university by embracing "modern communication skills" to creatively reflect on what it means to be human at a different scale and then to communicate that to a public audience rather than a narrow academic one.

It is no surprise, given the critiques of the corporate university, that Chapter 2 on the Organization of Humanities Research begins with a structural definition of what humanities research is and how it both hews to and breaks from research in STEM and the social sciences. Their primary focus in this chapter is on the process that makes large-scale humanities scholarship possible. Before addressing these support structures individually, the authors compare the aggregate quantitative statistical patterns and standard deviations that dominate scientific research with the humanities case-study approach that privileges qualitative divergence from larger aggregate patterns. As the digital allows humanities scholars to engage with ever-larger sets of data, the authors say, the idea of qualitative case study as a representative (but not perfect facsimile) of the past has begun to converge with qualitative representations. These "more extensive and more accurate" approximations of the "complete historical, literary or visual record, if not to the underlying realities that those records reflect" are complicated by the idea that large-scale representations of reality can interfere with the more human-centered analytical processes that make up the history of humanities discourse (19).

Their discussion of the practical processes that support these new discourses begins, then, with libraries and other large-scale data repositories. Their interleaving of library expansion and the expansion of the Web is nothing new, but they do make an important point about the tension between maintaining open access to the ever-widening array of data and managing that data in a responsible way that creates meaningful taxonomies of data. From data gathering, the authors move to classification and documentation, or the creation of interwoven taxonomic structures that once was the domain of card catalogs, but writ large and made searchable for both cataloging purposes and for analytical purposes. Manipulation follows in the process Gardiner and Musto lay out, in which they include digitization, file-format conversion, OCR and similar forms of information conversion. Their primary concern here is the creation of digital simulacra, how these simulacra map to the physical objects they represent and how we might access these large quantities of data (e.g. searching large corpora, recombining a corpus organized one way into new archival corpora according to different set of textual or contextual features). Analysis is next, although the authors largely confine their description of analysis to the processes that allow scholars to recreate damaged documents. Interpretation again focuses on archival collection and the ways that digital archives can support the creation of new arguments, which somewhat limits the examples they provide. The inclusion of aggregation--the combining and refashioning of several digital humanities projects--is very valuable in that it highlights a digital-humanities practice that is often overlooked in other digital-humanities introductions. However, because the authors focus on aggregation as the overlap of individual scholarly bubbles and then the difficulty of collaboration in humanities past and present, rather than on a team-oriented collaborative organization, the value of their so-important aggregation step is somewhat diminished.

Chapters 3 and 4 divide the elements of digital humanities exploration into two sections: text-based documents on the one hand and material, visual and performative artifacts on the other. Here, as with the introduction, the authors' medieval backgrounds are clear. We are treated to the full Latin documentum and docere as antecedents of the ubiquitous humanities scholar's "document", and their list of sample document types, with historic and digital uses, begins with the medieval staple of documentary evidence, the charter. As with Chapter 2, Chapter 3 is largely oriented toward digitization, transcription, preservation and the simultaneous value and caution inherent in working with simulacra instead of original documents.

Whereas Chapter 3 is primarily a history of how text-based documents have been treated in the historical past, with some general parallels presented in terms of textual analysis in a digital future, Chapter 4 jumps very quickly to 3D modeling in its quest to discuss everything from the basic humanities concept of "object" to the complex use of spatial history or games in the humanities. It is here we find a prime example of the work's primary weakness: a definition of "artifact" relies on Mirriam-Webster (45), while early mentions of "metadata" lack a similar in-text definition (though "metadata" does appear in their very thorough glossary of terms). Gardiner and Musto should be applauded for being so thorough about the low-level definitions that accrue to a higher-level sense of what a digital-humanities project looks like, since they themselves suggest that a high-level definition is hard to provide. However, the breadth of that scope necessarily means a few awkward swings between the authors' primer approach, which provides novice access to the digital humanities, with the complex higher-level digital-humanities concepts that the work is designed to illuminate.

The strengths of the authors' high-level overview, coupled with some of the same practical weaknesses, carry over into Chapters 5 and 6. The overview of digital methodology categories subdivided into specific methodological approaches (72-81) is an excellent way to frame the practice of digital humanities in understandable, approachable terms. In practice, the level of detail (both in the granularity of specific approach and in the definitions of each specific approach) is less easy to navigate. For instance, the authors provide a full section on text annotation, drilling down deeply into the details of specific annotation types and their meanings. In contrast, a single sentence is dedicated to data visualization, with a very cursory overview of its many permutations ("lexical, linguistic, geographical, tonal, temporal and a wide variety of other parameters," 78). Rather than a clear idea of why data visualization might be an important argumentative tool, the authors send their reader to an appendix, which similarly lacks the broad overview that was present in their discussion of the methodological strengths, weaknesses and purposes of text annotation. At the same time, the overall list of tool types, bolded and organized conceptually, is a valuable reference if only because it will widen the scholarly horizons of early practitioners who may only be aware of one or two of the methodological approaches in Gardiner's and Musto's list.

The laundry list of institutional resources in Chapter 6 is oriented toward an explanation of "digital environments." Thinking of the digital humanities as not just bounded by tool or methodological choice but by a variety of institutional environments, from university to funding agency, is a conceptual leap for scholars used to thinking of their work as bounded by the front and back cover of a hardbound book. However, the environment listings themselves are organized by academic institutions. It is difficult to see the value in an organizational structure that mostly replicates the university system, and therefore requires a scholar to know which university provides which kind of resource. Where Chapter 6 is valuable is as an index of institution with digital humanities centers as of the book's 2015 printing (presumably these will change rapidly). Otherwise, short sections on collaborative environments, funding agencies and worldwide professional organizations are perfunctory and, like the institutional-support index, likely to decay in accuracy a very short time after publication. A topical or conceptual index that organizes the resources listed here in some other, less physical, definition of environment would greatly improve the book's value for scholars new to the digital humanities landscape.

Chapter 7 takes us back to both authors' storied background in the publishing world. A brief, riveting history of publishing forms the foundation for their focus on how peer review and publication assessment can and should change in a disaggregated world where publishing authority has fractured. However, the chapter itself does little to break out of the reification of earlier publication forms, and the authors even suggest in the chapter's conclusion that "each of these publication formats is based on the work of earlier humanists". While Virtual Reality does make the list, it is the only structure that differs dramatically from the otherwise institutionalized bibliography-article-monograph structure that dominates scholarly publishing. Finally, the authors do little in the high-level structure of the chapter to acknowledge that digital-humanities scholars at large regularly advocate for forms that dramatically depart from the linear argumentative narrative of a monograph or article. A few key moments in the body of the chapter reference broader audiences, faster distribution, better impact-factor tracking, a release from the shackles of deadlines and word lengths, but are largely confined to rhetorical questions that hint at possibilities in these arenas rather than providing more concrete directions for the scholarly community.

With Chapters 8 and 9, though, the authors return to their strength, where they bring a nuanced sense of scholarly responsibility to what they call "meta-issues" or trends not in methodology but in relationships between scholars and source that shape methodology. From collaborative scholarship to reader-author interaction, from gender diversity to globalization, from digitization and sustainability to project funding, coverage of these meta-issues coupled with the introductory material in Chapters 1 and 2 elevates this primer's value. These four chapters together speak directly and clearly to the high-level issues scholars in need of a digital-humanities primer should consider. Provided readers supplement some of the practical sections of the primer with online resources that are updated more regularly (for instance DiRT, http://dirtdirectory.org, and the Programming Historian, http://programminghistorian.org), this is an invaluable resource for medieval scholars precisely because it moves through familiar medieval territory in search of a path for the digital humanities' future.



Copyright (c) 2016 Kalani Craig



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