Job Prospects in the Digital Humanities

February 17, 2014

4086809032_f9dff799e5Utter the phrase “digital humanities” outside the bubble of academia, and you’ll likely be met with puzzled glances. What is digital humanities? And, isn’t combining these two entities into one concept and field of study an oxymoron? More importantly, what practical employment prospects does this field offer?

A quick primer in the digital humanities indicates that–though a complex intersection of myriad factors–the concept is fairly self-explanatory. It involves the juncture of traditional humanities disciplines with the tools of an increasingly technologically and digitally sophisticated world. The field remains fraught with controversy and resistance from scholars who oppose the inclusion of progressive technologies in their traditional fields of study; a tension which indicates the consistent struggle to incorporate traditionalism with progress. In spite of this, its influence has been far reaching in various humanities arenas.

In a January 2014 article, Inside Higher Ed posits the question “Have the digital humanities gone mainstream?” The establishment of the NEH Office of Digital Humanities in 2008 indicates that they may have been mainstream for quite some time now, but recent years have indeed seen a flux of conferences and organizations focusing exclusively on the digital humanities. In addition,  grant opportunities specifically tailored to digital humanities projects have become more widespread, and elements of the field are increasingly being incorporated into the curricula of many university-level humanities programs.

As technology becomes an increasingly pervasive element in our lives, most employment opportunities in the humanities field will likely demonstrate the results of this shift, and a thorough examination of current trends in humanities jobs indicates that this change is already quite apparent. In addition to the incorporation of many computing, digitizing, and data curation duties in more traditional humanities jobs, multiple listservs exist for the purpose of catering solely to obtaining employment in the digital humanities. A cursory glance at a handful of such listservs turns up jobs with titles like “Digital Humanities Software Developer,” “Social Computing Research Fellow,” and “Head of Library Information Systems,” suggesting a palpable marriage between technology and the humanities.

A few common areas of more traditional humanities employment, and the ways in which these fields are gradually integrating elements of the digital humanities, are discussed below.

Archivists/Museum Curators

In the past several decades, the development of growing complex content management systems such as Past Perfect and Archivists Toolkit has lead archivists and museum curators to become both the keepers of historic materials and the custodians of the digitized data attached to these entities as the development of complex coding systems and languages such as XML, MARC, and Dublin Core have altered the manner in which information about historic collections is stored. On the most basic level, this has brought the necessity of a more finely tuned level of skill to the art of what archivists and curators do. In addition to having a background in the arts and humanities, those in this field must be adept at coding and computer programming as well. And, with the ability to instantly provide complex pieces of information to researchers comes the expectation that much of this information will be available via the web. To meet this demand, many museums and archival repositories are beginning to make information about their collections accessible via a web portal, which enables users to search for a range of historical materials without having to access these items tangibly.

Writers & Editors

Recently, writers and editors have been challenged by changes in the way they perform their craft. Bookstores–from small, independent businesses to large, corporate chains–have closed down in droves, and sales of newspapers and magazines have dwindled. Even so, those in the writing and publishing fields have found ways to adapt to the rapidly changing times, many of which involve incorporating digital technologies into platforms used to connect with readers. And, while the sales of books themselves have dwindled, the sales and production of e-Books have skyrocketed as many publishers have also elected to make works available via Amazon or Google Books. What’s more, the web is flushed with sites that examine the nuances and influences of various authors and types of literature through interactive means such as maps, annotations, and encoding, many of which are hosted by university libraries.

5263541791_f78ce8cc32University Professors

The proverbial “Ivory Tower” of academia has long been a bastion of humanities convention. Considered a champion of books, a resource for primary source material, and a haven of life experience and ideals, much of the tradition associated with these principles stands in direct conflict with the realities of rapidly evolving technologies, and, as the digital humanities find their roots in academia, it is there that they also find the most controversy. In 2010 New York Times article, Patricia Cohen discusses the prevalent role of digital humanities in academia, and the resistance this evolution is frequently met with by traditionalists in the field who often view the inclusion of technological tools in academic research as an element which cheapens their work. Nonetheless, the growing usage of social media platforms in education, as well as increased classroom dependence on interactive web portals such as Blackboard, have caused elements of the digital humanities to creep into academia in ubiquitous and permanent ways. This has strengthened the need for those well-versed in digital technologies to move into academia. Several universities have even started targeting professors who specialize in the digital humanities as their humanities programs advance.

Ultimately, the increased presence of digital humanities components has not only expanded output and job creation, but it has also played a large role in saving some jobs from total obsolescence. At the rate in which technological advancements evolve, digital humanities will not just be a subfield of the humanities, but a code by which all humanities scholars, students, and employees are required to adhere to in order to stay timely and preeminent in their chosen path.

Digital Humanities for Museums

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Melissa D'Lando

About Melissa D'Lando

Melissa D'Lando fancies herself a writer and a historian. She lives in Chicago and works as an archivist. In her spare time she enjoys watching Twilight Zone reruns, drinking Old Fashioneds, making her own Google maps for fun, and taking long walks with her basset hound, Susie.