Reflection on Digital Tools in the Humanities

Reflecting on how the use of digital tools has impacted on the humanities, and also how I will apply the use of specific digital tools to my own research, I realise how much Digital Humanities is at the forefront of change. DH, as an interdisciplinary mode of enquiry, has embraced the inevitable and juggernaut-like changes that the digital age has presented in academia, and has quickly adapted to the challenges presented by the digital to traditional methods. To adapt at the same time as engaging in self-enquiry about the validity of the tools used, their application to the humanities, and the legitimacy of Digital Humanities as a discipline which does not conform to traditional academic boundaries has meant that DH itself has been called into question as an academic subject. In this reflection I will consider the use of Omeka, Scalar, HTML, TEI, Voyant Tools, Google Ngram and social media in my own research and in their broader application to the humanities discipline.

Omeka, as “a free, flexible, and open source web-publishing platform for the display of library, museum, archives, and scholarly collections and exhibitions.”(, is a tool which allows open access to archived materials and artifacts which would have previously been cloistered. This ease of access is transforming the humanities in the sense that what was once hidden and protected from view is now freely accessible by anyone with a computer and an internet connection. This breaks down and transcends the boundaries of space and time, financial constraints and inequality of access.  The arts could be considered part of a shared cultural heritage, and should therefore be accessible by everyone. Digital tools like Omeka can help to transform knowledge from a protectionist endeavor to one of sharing and openness.  I don’t personally get on with the Omeka interface, and would prefer to present a collection using a more visually engaging digital tool.  In my own area of research I could envision using Omeka for the creation of specific archives, for example:

  • Herbal medicine texts, hand-written remedies and recipes held in folklore archives or in small museums not currently digitised;
  • A history of health activism;
  • A dynamic archive of the modern ecofeminist movement, what is happening now, how it is having an impact, what people can get involved in, how change can be realised;
  • An archive of ecofeminist art;
  • An archive of a specific movement within health activism, like the Arnica Network.

In terms of creating an archive, I find Scalar to be a more vibrant and engaging tool than Omeka. I can see how the creation of a multimedia, combined archive or page using this tool could be a much more dynamic collection, allowing interaction and connection amongst different media types. Tools like this are giving the humanities even more scope for eclecticism. A scalar page could have text, links, photographs, sound recordings, video, interactive sections etc.  Scalar is also, for me, much easier to use, more straightforward to navigate, and more aesthetically pleasing as an end digital product.

I have found HTML more straightforward than I assumed it would be. I enjoy the freedom and creativity it allows. The use of HTML in my research will help me by allowing me to personalise, to adapt and to be creative with digital content. It could give my digital artefact the scope to include interactive elements about ecofeminist artworks, connecting them to literature and academic writing in the field, or it could allow me to design a website which brings together different strands in the environmental, health and wellness movements to create a hub where people can search for what is going on in their geographical area, or search for a specific activity or group, or link up with like minded people either virtually or in the real world, share information and create communities.

I find the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) quite inspiring. The impact that this level of specificity and detail has had and can have on allowing a computer to search semantically within a handwritten, scanned text is quite astounding. TEI makes texts come alive in digitisation, which creates an environment of sharing and reciprocity for previously static, somewhat hidden texts. An initiative like this improves on the physical, because it allows for the easy searching of content within documents. Previously, even if time and space and specific restriction had allowed access to a document, to search within it for a particular term would have been a laborious task.

The crowdsourcing movement, as utilised by the TEI, is groundbreaking for the humanities. Outsourcing and asking for help from internet users to encode detail within texts is creating a community of citizen-scholars in the sense that it is giving power and choice to anyone who is interested or wants to participate. This is helping to devolve academic power from cloistered university archives and putting it in the hands of all internet users. In my own research, TEI could be used to create and encode a complex herbal text, allowing dynamic searching and specific explanations. Nicholas Culpepper’s Herbal contains references to the phase of the moon which should be observed when gathering specific herbs. If TEI was used here a user could search under a specific phase of the moon, or time of the year, and could see what herbal medicines were considered more potent at that specific time.

In terms of smaller tools, I find that Voyant Tools gives valuable visualisations, overview of topics, and the ability to see influences in texts. Ngram is also a useful visual tool, and can definitely help to discover more texts within a subject area. These two tools could be useful in my own area of interest in terms of helping to find relevant research, and for the display of creative and impactful images to present what could be considered sterile data if presented in less dynamic ways.  Social media should not be discounted as a valuable digital tool. A Facebook group recently helped me to see an error in an XML document I was working on; the fresh eyes helped me to see something I was apparently blind to.  As an almost instant peer review tool, feedback and assistance can be gained quickly and easily in this way. The use of social media has changed the landscape of the humanities in the sense that students now have instant access to a peer hive-mind. The advantage of the disembodied feeling most people have when using social media could also act as somewhat of a filter for the embarrassment which may have been felt had a student had to ask a question in the real world.

In conclusion, digital tools have changed the humanities in a positive and open way. Boundaries are being broken down, texts are being opened up, and there is a sense of deep democratisation in the open-source and crowdsourcing movements. I think the humanities has so much more breadth when looked at through a digital lens, and we are only at the beginning.


Text Encoding Initiative:



An archive of Nicholas Culpeper’s Herbal:

Voyant Tools:

Google Ngram:

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