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Transformations in Digital Humanities

Transformations in Digital Humanities:

The purpose of this blog post is to assess the Transformations in Digital Humanities by examining some of the ideas in art. I will then discuss some of the methods and approaches used in digital humanities.

“One might subsume the eliminated element in the term “aura” and go on to say: that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.” (Benjamin, 1936)

This is what Walter Benjamin claims in ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’. If there is no tradition in art in the age of mechanical reproduction then is it really art? The ‘aura’ that surrounds the art in question has an atmospheric quality that belongs only to the original and cannot be replicated. Benjamin’s words echo louder in today’s society with the ever growing advancements of technology. With these fast technological advancements, is the ‘aura’ that surrounds the art in question fading? Benjamin suggests that an original work of art has an incomparable beauty and besides this a presence in space and time that a replica could not match. This is a valid point up to a certain extent. A century ago, art was exclusive and could not be viewed by just anybody but now, you are the click of a button away from viewing painting. While a painting or a picture might not have the originality of the original in that it is lacks the element of space and time, I believe that it can still have an aura. Perhaps the ‘aura’ might not be lost in a mechanical age however has instead evolved/progressed just as culture in society has done so too.

The argument made by Benjamin over eighty years ago has resonance in the Digital Humanities today. In the mechanical age, are we losing something by giving a computer the task of analysing a text instead of a human? By this reckoning we choose quantity over quality. Stanley Fish argues that there is nothing human about investigating words by using a computer and that what the Digital Humanities does is arbitrary because it uses a computer to process data to come up with a variety of possibilities. In his column for The New York Times Mind Your P’s and B’s Fish uses Milton’s ‘Areopagitica’ to illustrate the use of b and p pattern. The purpose of this is to compare it to the methods used by the Digital Humanities to suggest that it is reaching and not making a concrete argument:

‘To my knowledge, I am the first critic to put forward this interpretation of the sequence… Doesn’t the fact that for 368 years only I have noticed the b/p pattern suggest that it is without significance, an accidental concatenation of consonants? Aren’t I being at best over-ingenious and at worst irresponsibly arbitrary?’ (Fish 2012)

I would suggest that Fish is not being over-ingenious in his argument. In fact he has made a plausible statement. It could be argued that this is an astute analysis of the prose that Milton played used in his work. Besides, while a computer may be used to analyse a large scope of work it is still done using a human process.

Ramsey suggests that computing humanists may be unable find a way into the ‘mainstream of literary criticism’ because some of the scientific methods and other approaches are foreign to them. (Ramsay 2003) Ramsey highlights the use of Algorithmic Criticism as it searches for an analogue to reach the potential of art and the spontaneity of human inquiry. (Ramsay 2003) Therefore this can be used to document a variety of possibilities that we ourselves may not conjure. This might support Fish’s argument that there is nothing human here but you could also argue that this is using the human process to create a new tradition in Humanities. Lisa Spiro believes that the way forward for digital humanities is by focusing on a community that comes together around values such as openness and collaboration. In doing so this community needs a statement of values to tackle the challenges that they face. (Spiro et al, 2012)

Digital reproduction technology can be seen in one way as democratic as it satisfies a demand for access to a collection while it preserves the status of the original object. On the other hand it can be regarded as being oppressive as the people who are in determine what is accessible to the public.(Palmer 2011) Thematic research collections are digital resources and are somewhat of a laboratory for digital humanists. They are being developed by institutes such as libraries archives and museums. The content provided by these places has always been useful but not ideal to access. But now institutes have begun to select collections to make them available online for the public. These digital resources act as a virtual laboratory in which materials and tools can be used in order to aid the scholarly process and production of new knowledge. (Palmer et all, 2011) The Digital Humanities is not looking to do away with the traditional methods involved in humanities; it is simply branching out and creating new traditional methods.


  1. Benjamin, Walter. ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction‘. First published in 1936.
  2. Palmer, Carol. ‘Thematic Research Collections’. Companion to Digital Humanities.   Susan Schreibman, Ray  Siemens, John Unsworth. Web. 22 Sept 2011.
  3. Fish, Stanley. ‘Mind Your P’s and B’s: The Digital Humanities and Interpretation‘. New York Times, Opiniator. 23 January 2013.
  4. Ramsay, S. “Special Section: Reconceiving Text Analysis: Toward an Algorithmic Criticism.”Literary and Linguistic Computing 2 (2003): 167-74. Web.
  5. Gold, Matthew K., and Lisa Spiro. “”This Is Why We Fight”: Defining the Values of Digital Humanities.”Debates in the Digital Humanities. Minneapolis: Univ Of Minnesota, 2012. 16-36.

Transatlantic Slave Trade Database Review

William G Thomas offers one possible definition of Digital history as an approach to examining and representing the past that works with the new communication technologies of the computer, the internet and software systems. [i] Voyages: The Transatlantic Slave Trade Database fits the criteria of this definition by Thomas. Starting as a CD ROM but with advances of the computer converted to an online database, this is an interesting example of combining modern computer practices with the research of an important historical subject.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade Database is an online digital history project that was started back in 1990 by David Eltis, Stephan Behrendt and David Richardson. It was at around this time that countries such as France, Spain and Portugal began to publish documents about the records of the slave voyages to Africa.[ii] Their work was initially produced for a CD ROM but the project was expanded to an online database after an award from Emery University in 2006.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade Database has information on more than 35,000 slave voyages that forced more than twelve million Africans into slavery from the 16th century to the 19th century. The site contains a vast amount of information on transatlantic slave trade with great detail of the many voyages that took place over 350 years. Information about the voyages include: the destination of the voyage, the name of the ship, the captain and its native origins. The number of slaves from each voyage is broken down, providing details of how many of the slaves were men and women, how many embarked and how many disembarked. The database is designed in such a way that it allows you to view the results in a variety of ways. You can view the total number of slaves that were taken from Africa as a whole in one year or how many slaves were transported to a nation in a single year. That information can then be presented via numbers, graphs, timelines and maps. Essays are also available to read on the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database that examines various aspects of the slave trade which is a useful section of the database as it provides a context to the information provided on the voyage search. Another interesting feature of the site is the African names database which allows you to search for the slaves through their original names.  To conclude the first part of this review, I think that the site does realise its objectives. This is an excellent site that is quite unique in the subject area that it covers as it applies a great in depth combination of qualitative and quantitative analysis.

The site is specifically aimed at people in school and college but it also there for anyone in the public who have a desire to learn about the slave trade. At first, the information was not published onto the web but instead, designed for a CD ROM. On the homepage section of the database, you can access an educational materials section. There are seven lesson plans which not only allow you to become familiar with the database but also allow a user who might not be too familiar with the Slave Trade, to familiarise themselves more with the subject. The lesson plans are provided by the team who run the database. However, those who wish to learn beyond what the lesson plans cover, can access a list of web resources linked to the database to further their knowledge of the slave trade learning about the triangular trade and the slave’s experience on the plantation.

In regards to its contribution to the Digital Humanities the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database is a fantastic online resource that is unique. Many documentaries and books have been made to cover this subject but not one has the blend of quantitative and qualitative resources available in one place. In the time that the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database has transitioned from a CD ROM to an online database it has greatly expanded.  The database has a vast amount of information covering the 350 year timespan of slavery available and provides you with a satisfying number of ways to look at the results. Some consider that digitisation plays an important role in improving historical sources as it offers a ubiquitous accessibility.[iii] I feel that this certainly applies to the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database .

The Transatlantic Slave Trade Database receives funding from three sponsors: The National Endowment for the humanities, The WEB DuBois institute for African and African American research and Emory University. There are a number of institutional partners that have also contributed to the database over the years to help with research. Funding was also provided by the UK Arts and Humanities research board. Unlike a number of online projects that engrain the public into a contributing role of sorts, the database does not use public volunteers but has relied upon the cooperation of teams from universities and other institutions to collaborate to the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database.


[i] Interchange: The Promise of Digital History

[ii] Sharp. “Sociological Images.” Sociological Images

[iii] Zaagsma, “On Digital History.” P17




  1. Cohen, Daniel J. et al. “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History.”The Journal of American History 2 (2008). Web. 1 Oct. 2014.
  2. Sharp, Gwen. “Sociological Images.” Sociological Images RSS. N.p., 7 Jan. 2011. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.
  3. Zaagsma, Gerben.“On Digital History.” BMGN – Low Countries Historical Review 4 (2013): 3–29.


Hello all, (if anyone is actually reading this!)

This is my first ever blog post! This blog has been created for the purpose of posting about Digital Humanities related topics but I thought I better write something first to get a feel for this blogging business. (I’ll keep it cat free!) However here is a picture of CatDog. images