Digital Humanities Keywords: A Collaborative Community Web-based Project

poster / demo / art installation
  1. 1. Susan Garfinkel

    Library of Congress

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As the field of digital humanities has expanded dramatically in recent years, it has also struggled to define—or perhaps more correctly, to redefine—itself across a seemingly divergent set of its practitioners' backgrounds, interests, priorities, methodologies, and institutional settings that yet still have something fundamental in common. From critical code studies to corpus linguistics to tool creation to online pedagogy, digital humanities practitioners surely share the digital and the humanities yet may work within different fundamental paradigms, asking different questions and using different methodologies in the service of achieving very different final goals (Gold, Kirschenbaum). How, beneath the shared surface of this broadly cast "big tent" of digital humanities, can such a diverse community of practice come together in fruitful and mutually beneficial ways? What can we as scholars do to facilitate this convergence in a broad discursive space where the ethic of "more hack, less yack" can sometimes discourage the meaningful exchanges of ideas that still need to happen, the collective negotiations of purpose that so often serve as the source of new insights?

In his seminal book Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (first published in 1975), Raymond Williams defines his project as "the record of an inquiry into a vocabulary" (Williams, 15) and presents that inquiry as a series of short interpretive essays on carefully selected but commonly used significant words. Between them, his chosen keywords comprise "a general vocabulary ranging from strong, difficult and persuasive words in everyday usage to words which, beginning in particular specialized contexts, have become quite common in descriptions of wider areas of thought and experience." (Williams, 14) They are “significant, binding words in certain activities and their interpretations,” and they are “significant, indicative words in certain forms of thought." (Williams, 15) Keywords, then, are those terms that contain and naturalize the categories through which we form our ideas; in our daily speech they embody the assumptions through which our views of the world around us emerge.

In Williams's approach to the meaningful keywords of a community's shared discourse is an implicit challenge to any diverse yet conscientious community of practice: to deliberately and skillfully make ourselves aware of the multiple, hidden, sometimes divergent, and often hegemonic meanings of our basic shared terminology. Our task becomes, like Williams’s, to inquire into our shared vocabulary rather than merely to use it. So, what are our “big tent” digital humanities community's strong, difficult, persuasive, yet overly-familiarized keywords? They are item-based terms like code, data, object, document, archive, corpus, and collection. They are activities such as digitization, preservation, encoding, visualization, interpretation. They are action words: hack, make, curate, catalog, blog and tweet. They are metadata; they are keyword. They may also reside as absences, a significant subset of keyword yet to be fully explored (Klein).

The Digital Humanities Keywords project, launching in June of 2013 at, seeks to take up that challenge by creating a shared space and collaborative conversation for working through and exposing the underlying assumptions—the points of agreement, the sites of tension, the unanswered questions—of the still-emergent and surprisingly complex digital humanities community, through focused attention to the building blocks of its shared discourse.

Like other keywords projects started in the wake of Williams's work (Bennett, Grossberg and Morris; Burgett and Hendler; García and Faherty), Digital Humanities Keywords will be a multi-authored work, but in addition will also engage the flexibility and collaborative features that many peer-based digital humanities projects now offer. As an open access, lightly edited, and openly peer-reviewed Web-site-turned-publication, Digital Humanities Keywords will function not only as an information resource, but as a site of active dialogue and a temporal record of shared communal content as it emerges over time. The project provides guidelines but no hard-and-fast-rules for contributions and it openly solicits beneficial interventions. Comments and dialogue and feedback will reside permanently side-by-side with the primary essays created for the site. Not so much a "how to" as a "how to think about," the Digital Humanities Keywords project explicitly seeks to bring some well-considered yack back to hack, in ways that take fullest advantage of the digital humanities community's existing strengths in open-source online collaboration.

The Digital Humanities Keywords project is sponsored by the Digital Humanities Caucus of the American Studies Association, but is offered to the entire Digital Humanities community with no expectation of an American Studies focus. The current poster presentation works to introduce the project to a broad cross section of the digital humanities community and to solicit participation—which is actively invited at all levels of involvement.

Burgett, B., and G. Hendler. (eds). (2007). Keywords for American Cultural Studies. New York: NYU Press.
Garcia, E., and D. Faherty (eds). (2011). Critical Keywords in Early American Studies. Early American Literature 46(3): 601-632.
Gold, M. K. (2012). The Digital Humanities Moment. Debates in Digital Humanities. University of Minnesota Press. ix-xvi.
Kirschenbaum, M. (2012). What is Digital Humanities and What is it Doing in English Departments? Debates in Digital Humanities. University of Minnesota Press. 3-11.
Williams, R. (1985). Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Oxford University Press.
Klein, L. F. (2012). American Studies after the Internet. American Quarterly 64(4). 861-872. (accessed 15 March 2013).
Bennett, T., L. Grossberg, and M. Morris (eds). (2005). New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Blackwell.

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2013
"Freedom to Explore"

Hosted at University of Nebraska–Lincoln

Lincoln, Nebraska, United States

July 16, 2013 - July 19, 2013

243 works by 575 authors indexed

XML available from (still needs to be added)

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Series: ADHO (8)

Organizers: ADHO