The class assignment for October 3rd was to present on a digital history site. I chose to present on Digital Humanities Now (DHNow) because, as a Digital History Fellow at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, I participate in a weekly conversation with the center’s director and the other fellows about the content that comes through DHNow. Despite my frequent interaction with DHNow, I knew very little about the history of the site.
Through some sleuthing, I found that DHNow began as a response to the cropping up of academic journals on digital humanities. Dan Cohen, who was the director of the center at the time, wasn’t opposed to academic journals for digital humanities, but he felt that for a field all about new technology, there should be a way to meet the digital humanities conversations where they were already happening—as informal scholarship on blogs. As he wrote in a blog post at the time, he wanted people to consider “new forms of scholarly validation and attention, beyond the journal.”
When it was started, DHNow was mostly automated. An algorithm picked the content out of a raw feed of blog posts, mostly by what scholars were talking about on Twitter. But in 2011, the Center began using DHNow as a way to experiment with another center project: the PressForward WordPress plug-in.
DHNow posts two kinds of content: news and editor’s choice. News includes job postings, calls for papers, conference and funding announcements, and project reports. Like the news postings, the Editor’s Choice pieces are not original to DHNow, just links out to posts made on personal blogs and sites for digital humanities centers and organizations. Editor’s Choice pieces are substantive and contribute some kind of valuable scholarship to the field, usually in the form of a think piece or a reflection on a conference or project. Everything that goes up should be something originally posted within the last couple of weeks.
Anyone can apply to be an Editor-at-Large, and that gives you access to view and nominate content for inclusion on DHNow. PressForward is basically an RSS feed reader, so it’s subscribed to the RSS feeds of different blogs and websites, and it collects the content in one place. Then it lets you take notes on and discuss the content, and, if you think something is significant enough to be featured, you can nominate it. The “Editor-in-Chief” for DHNow makes the final decisions, and that role usually rotates among graduate students who work at the center.
DHNow is useful for digital humanities scholars and students who need a way to stay up to date on the field without much of a time commitment, and it’s especially useful for people who are new to digital humanities. Following DHNow doesn’t require the time and skill that you need to wade through everything that’s out there on your own. This is really the idea that inspired Dan Cohen. Although he was and still is someone really well-connected in the online digital humanities community, he knew that not everyone has the time and ability for that.
And because DHNow provides a kind of peer review process, it’s also useful for people who devote time to informal scholarship like blogs to be able to get credit for their work. Having an “Editor’s Choice” article on DHNow can be factored into hiring, promotion, and tenure decisions in a way that universities are reluctant to do with someone’s blog alone.
DHNow was not grant-funded, although PressForward was funded by the Alfred P. Sloane Foundation. DHNow doesn’t really need a hefty budget, though. Through the Editors-at-Large, it really crowdsources the workload of evaluating content. The problem arises when there aren’t enough people volunteering their time for nominating content. Without good nominated content, it creates extra work for the Editors-in-Chief, and in that case DHNow’s funding ultimately comes from the center’s budget and the History Department’s budget for graduate assistants.
Because DHNow doesn’t have much of its own budget, it’s hard to make sure that the feed reader is capturing the best digital humanities content that it can. In theory, Editors-at-Large should be suggesting feeds, but there must be a lot of newer digital humanities blogs out there that haven’t been added yet that should be included.
Another issue is that the amount and quality of the content fluctuates throughout the year. For example, scholars are usually busy at the beginning of the school year and post less, meaning less for editors to choose from. That’s one downside to an RSS reader versus a submission process and to doing frequent posts versus periodic editions. But I think that challenge is worthwhile so that DHNow can live up to the “Now” in its name and stay current in a field that moves quickly. The latest challenge for DHNow is how to deal with the slow shift of scholarly conversations from blogs to Twitter. It is unclear if this will prove temporary or long-lasting, but how to deal with blogging’s downward trend is an unresolved question for DHNow.