A Prologue and Preview of Digital Humanities Research in Canada

Digital Studies 1(2). 2009.

Introduction: In which we present our theme for this issue -- Transitions

It is a truism in the digital humanities, a constant one, and a good one, that it is always in a state of transition. Such an observation is not surprising since the instrument upon which it relies – the computer – is itself in a state of flux. For the moment, its computational power remains firmly in the grip of Moore's Law, exponentially increasing its computational power as the decades pass. Scholars, whether they want it or not, are constantly being presented with new paradigms of computing -- be it cloud computing, ubiquitous computing, or high performance computing -- and new tools and markup schemes to express, treat and analyze content. In any publication devoted to the digital humanities, then, it would seem superfluous to mention that change is our constant condition and our constant preoccupation, a trite observation best left unsaid. We sympathize with this view. But when it comes to describing digital humanities scholarship generally, and computationally supported scholarship in Canada particularly, we think it is wrong. In Canada and abroad, a number of important developments have recently emerged that will impinge on the practice and future trajectory of our interdiscipline. They are new, important, and are reflected in the contributions to this issue. They are of sufficient moment and frequency that we feel justified in rendering this issue of Digital Studies with the thematic stamp it now bears: that of transition.

1.0 Preview: In which we present the objects of our article – Prologue and Preview


1.1 Prologue of the Past

Our first purpose in this introduction is to present a history of digital humanist scholarship in Canada, in essence to provide a brief prologue of the work featured here. The founding of this journal, instantiated in its recently released first issue – New Paths For Computing Humanists – was an institutional transition. Prior to its establishment, there were few domestic outlets for Canadian digital humanists to publish their research. Certainly, they had access to journals situated in their first disciplines such as English literature and History, but such venues often contained peer reviewers who were sceptical of scholarship supported by computational methods. In 1996, prompted by the emergence of humanities and computing scholarship in the early 1980s, and the establishment of COCH/COSH (the Consortium for Computers in the Humanities / Consortium pourordinateurs en sciences humaines) in 1986, Canadian digital scholars established their first vehicle for research dissemination: Computing in the Humanities Working Papers. More recently, with the move of Text Technology to McMaster University in 2002, Canadian researchers gained a second domestic outlet to publish their work. The advent of Digital Studies marked the emergence of a third outlet. But for our purposes, it also marked the emergence of something else, an opportunity to give, in this its second issue, an account of the tradition of scholarship that has given rise to it. The last major surveys of digital humanities scholarship in Canada were generated in 2002 and subsequently published in the book Mind Technologies (Siemens and Moorman, 2006). These were valuable surveys, particularly the historical overview provided by Ian Lancashire (Lancashire, 2006). But as the first decade of this century draws to a close, new centers devoted to digital humanities scholarship have emerged, and new initiatives such as the INKE project and Synergies consortium are now being undertaken. There is a need, therefore, to briefly take stock of the current state of digital humanities scholarship
in Canada, a mandate this article will undertake to fulfill.


1.2 Preview of Things to Come

Our second purpose is to provide a preview, and here we mean preview in two distinct senses. As is the case in any editorial introduction to a special issue, our purpose here is to provide an overview of the articles featured in this special issue. You will find here an expression of recent work undertaken in Canada. We make no pretence that is a comprehensive survey. Indeed, there are important domains of the digital humanities that are not included here, including recent work relating to the visualization of text, treatments of cyber-culture, and feminist interpretations of digital culture. We do make the pretence, however, that it is representative of some of the best recent work that Canada has to offer, touching on fields ranging from historical GIS and agent-based simulations, to discussions touching on cyberinfrastructure and the use of RDF schemas on historical text data. Our second sense of preview touches on a different issue. Here, our concern is not primarily the substance of the papers but rather their larger significance. We suggest that in recent years a number of new and important
trends have emerged in the digital humanities and related disciplines in the social sciences, trends that will impinge on how scholars treat, aggregate, disseminate and analyze their content. The second purpose of our preview, therefore, is to identify those trends, and to use them in turn as a framework to suggest the significance of the contributions presented here.