Literacy in Digital Humanities

It is becoming clear to me that the tools used by the digital humanities are not only valuable for historical research but also necessary for historians to accurately interpret a growing set of secondary sources. Sources such as William G. Thomas, III, and Edward L. Ayers’ “The Differences Slavery Made: Two Communities in the American Civil War,” a digital article double-blind peer reviewed and published by the American Historical Review require some degree of digital literacy to accurately read and understand. This source is being required Graduate and undergraduate courses on the Civil War and students are being required to read, understand and interpret this source. In a discussion on the creation of this article, William G. Thomas, III, discussed that the digital format resulted in a confusion of the argument where the authors felt the format would allow agency to the reader. The original navigation was a schematic diagram of the “’multidimensional’,—multi-sequential, multithreaded, flexible, modular, component, high articulation, high definition, dynamic” technique the article possessed.


This diagram proved more confusing than useful and was abandoned in favor of a more linear text-based navigation.


Many of the 7 Scholars chosen to decide on the best navigation were unfamiliar with digital publications.

Another example I have been thinking about concerning the importance of digital literacy for Historians comes with the growing popularity of topic modeling which was the focus of the winter 2012 Journal of Digital Humanities. The articles in this journal explain that “topic modeling algorithms perform what is called probabilistic inference. Given a collection of texts, they reverse the imaginary generative process to answer the question ‘What is the likely hidden topical structure that generated my observed documents?’’”(David M. Blei. “Topic Modeling and Digital Humanities”) Lisa M. Rhody in “Topic Modeling and Figurative Language” discusses the assumptions of the Latent Dirichlet Allocation (LDA) algorithm for topic modeling. Without some understanding of these algorithms, it is easy for a historian to misinterpret or give excessive value to the results of the topics produced.

Just as a basic literacy in statistics and graphs are required to understand and accurately interpret graphs in historical works, literacy in digital interpretation is becoming a requirement. These two examples demonstrate to me that as digital publications and publications using digital material become more common in academic writing, historians are being required to become fluent in digital humanities.

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