These are a series of axioms I've come up with, based on some guiding
principles I wrote down when beginning my virtual archive, Minor Works of John
Lydgate. I believe that anyone who is working in digital humanities
should have a similar set of guidelines -- if not expressly articulated,
then floating around in the back of their head.
I'll be adding to this as time goes on, I work on more projects, and run into
issues. This is meant to be an organic document rather than some sort of
totalizing theory of digital humanities work; I may someday write something
along those lines, but I doubt people want to hear it from me right now and
to be frank I'm not sure many are interested in what I have to say in that
regard. For that reason, these are mostly in place to help keep me
- Respect your audience. You're working with multiple groups of people with
their own sets of expertise. You are the bridge between them and your work,
so explain things in such a way that what came before is not lost in chasing
what is to come.
- Welcome the enthusiast. No, they won't know everything you do, and sometimes
they will come with preconceived notions. That's ok. It's your job as the
expert to help guide them to a greater understanding of the objects of your
study and to be able to contextualize them within their own.
- Whenever possible defer to the actual thing you're working from. Undue
abstraction is bad, and leads to assumptions.
- Know that the virtual facsimile is more and more likely to be the first
way that people encounter these objects. Your facsimile should not
present itself as the authoritative be all and end all, as it cannot be by
virtue of being a facsimile. Provide enough for the curious, but also
provide guideposts to those who want to go on to study the real
- It is all right to show the flaws in your model, so long as you explain
why those flaws exist and what purpose they serve. Show your work, seams
- Digitization is inherently a process of creating a lossy version of the
material, physical world. Make that clear to people. They should never
think the virtual facsimile is a fundamentally acceptible substitute for
the real object. It is always, always a "good enough" version.
- Explain what you're doing. You are the expert, yes, but that doesn't mean
you're infallible. The more abstract you are, the more you need to explain.
You should never see a visualization or text displayed without both the
underlying data and an explanation of what exactly it means. Someone who
does not have a technical background needs to be able to follow both the
scholarly and technical explanations, and it's on you to write in such a
manner that they can. Examples are your friend, here.
- Recognize that most digital tools are built for search and discovery, and
always keep that in mind when working with them. If you want more than
search and discovery, and off the shelf tool is unlikely to help you.
- No digital tool can do the analysis a human can without some form of
human intervention. Said intervention is always editorial, and needs to
be explained up front.
- IT tends to have a model of thinking that favors the near future; the
next quarter or the next year. If you are a scholar you are doing work
that should be expected to stand up to the test of time; your digital
work needs to reflect this even if the platforms it is built upon change
from underneath it.
- You will always, always need to build crosswalks. There is no such
thing as one ontology, schema, or structure to rule them all. Start
planning accordingly; build it into your funding proposals and
provide robust data dictionaries, annotated if necessary, to guide
others in the ideosyncrasies of your project.
- Be aware that people may lose data in moving into or out of your schema.
That's part and parcel of attempting to capture the analog digitally.
Avoid it as much as possible if you can, and if you can't then explain
exactly what you did so others have signposts to recapture what's
- Use the tools that will be most efficient for you. Don't pick a platform or
method because it's cool and new technically. Always go for the simplest
method you can.
- When choosing methods, platforms, and the like, simplicity is best but
also be cognizant of the ways that those methods might close off avenues
of discovery. Keep in mind that the decisions you make are baked in if
you don't explain why you made them.
- There should be no such thing as black boxes in your work. Transparency
needs to be the order of the day in all of your dealings with code, with
theory, and with people.
- Remember that the technology is always secondary; you are first and foremost
a scholar of medieval literature and culture. The technology is a way for
you to explain that, not an end in itself. If it is getting in the way of
getting the work done, then the technological solution is not the one to
use. Set it aside and go back to the text.
- Always have a way to get your data out.
- Always provide something to explain your methodological approach. Don't
assume people do things the way you do them; that something should be part
technical, part philosophical, and part theoretical.