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Humanist: an online seminar for the digital humanities

What is Humanist?

Humanist is an international online seminar devoted to all aspects of the digital humanities. Members use it to exchange information among themselves, ask questions, make announcements, and volunteer information they think will be useful to others. Its primary goal is to provide a wide-ranging forum for discussion that will help advance our understanding of the field and will foster the development of a community out of the many individuals for whom computing is integral to the humanities.

A brief history

Humanist began in May 1987 as a means of communication among a small group of people concerned with the support of what was then called "computing and the humanities". At the time e-mail was relatively new among humanists, the Web non-existent and mechanisms for discussion via e-mail ("lists") almost unknown. Humanist grew rapidly and, in response to the community it helped to discover, developed quickly into a international, interdisciplinary forum primarily distinguished by the quality of its discussion. From the example of Humanist, many if not most of the current online groups in the humanities were inspired.

For details of the early history, see "HUMANIST: Lessons from a Global Electronic Seminar", Computers and the Humanities 26 (1992): 205-222 [X].

Humanist now

The online world is now simply part of what most humanists in the developed world do, so much so that we may wonder if the digital humanities, like the state in Marxist theory, will soon wither away. The same question might be asked about Humanist, since the Web is now populated by many discussion groups and blogs that address the specialised needs of the non-technical disciplines, including their uses of computing. The continuing vigour and volume of discussion on Humanist would suggest, however, that no such withering away is likely. Looking at the subjects of discussion shows that although specialist concerns are now effectively pursued elsewhere, Humanist remains the forum within which the technology, informed by the concerns of humane learning, can be viewed from an interdisciplinary common ground.

The question, "What is Humanist?" really amounts to the apparently more difficult ones, "What are the digital humanities?" and "What is this interdisciplinary common ground where they meet?" Can we say about this common ground what Ole Johan Dahl said about computer science, that "One may wonder whether [it] is really a discipline of its own, or whether it is merely a set of loosely connected techniques drawn together from different sources" (in Linguaggi nella società e nella tecnica, Milano 1970, p. 371). If it is merely a rag-bag collection of techniques, then why spend precious resources, such as one's time, on it? If it is not, then what forms its core?

Since about 1997 professional debate about the nature of humanities computing has taken shape on Humanist, in the pages of Literary and Linguistic Computing and other activities now gathered under the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations. The Editor has taken a prominent role in this debate; see his webpage for publications on the topic. This diagram may also help. See also the ALLC page on Institutional models for the digital humanities.

The social and institutional issues

There are other (and, for some, more serious) questions that Humanist has to deal with. These arise out of the social and institutional setting in which it operates.

As Stanley Katz pointed out in his keynote speech at the ACH/ALLC conference in Santa Barbara in 1995, computing is continuing to transform how we think about and organize learning. In consequence, we are beginning to see a shift in institutional structures. At the same time, applications of the technology shed fresh light on ancient problems. The mechanical efficiency of computers is the advertised benefit, but the real revolution in thought has far more to do with the computer as cognitive model, especially in the context of humanistic studies, and genuinely new means of scholarly research, teaching, and publication. The effects of this model are ubiquitous and powerful but largely go unexamined, and imitation of older means still muddies the waters. Our job in the academy is precisely to examine these effects, discover what is new about computing, and so both improve the model and refurbish our cultural heritage. The principal mandate this suggests for the new Humanist, then, is to put the job before the community most qualified to undertake it.

High-level scholarly discussion of the digital humanities will address one aspect of a much broader need. We in the academy have not done a good job communicating our raison díêtre to the rest of the world, arguably because so many of us do not ourselves know what it is. Within the university, as outside it, fundamental questions are seldom asked, but our fault is more serious because asking such questions is our principal justification. The profound impact of computing on all aspects of modern life provides therefore a great opportunity to engage in a long-overdue re-examination of what universities do for the society of which they are a part. Humanist cannot take on the whole of this re-examination, of course, but it does have a role in it -- a potentially a crucial role.


See the Subscribe button on the homepage. Subscription is by application, but no one with a genuine interest in the digital humanities is ever refused. A Membership report is available.

Posting messages

The normal e-mail address for posting messages to Humanist is humanist at lists dot digitalhumanities dot org. One-off messages from non-members who do not wish to join may be sent to the Editor.

Willard McCarty
Editor, Humanist
May 2009

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