The Digital Humanities Interface – An Introduction

By Ninja Steinbach-Hüther and Thomas Efer

It is hard, if not impossible, to define Digital Humanites (DH) as a whole. The term can be used to characterize a set of innovative research methods and tools that link qualitative and quantitative methods. It can be employed as an umbrella term to describe any technological advances in scholarship. For a long time, DH was characterized as a “field of research” that connects humanities, social sciences and computer sciences. This broad range of associations that come to mind when DH is mentioned hints at its position “in between”: between computer sciences and humanities, between understanding the past with research methods firmly rooted in present technology, and between academia and general audiences.

DH is the glue holding disjointed parts together or a bridge facilitating the exchange between separated regions of academia. We see DH as an interface, an enabler of communication and interdisciplinary collaboration.

The development of “digital” work in the humanities can well be traced back to the 1940s when computing machinery was first introduced at universities. Since that time, this research has adjusted and grown, closely linked with technical developments in the field of computer sciences and the birth of the internet. In the 1990s, DH methods became far more accessible and gained wider attention, finding their way into the larger scientific community. By the 2000s, the huge number of projects, conferences, journals and blogs appearing under the umbrella of DH testified to its growing strength, which was supported by further institutionalization. Universities established specialized competence centers and professorships, providing differentiated qualification opportunities in DH. At the same time, archives, libraries, museums and foundations started vast digitization initiatives for their analog holdings. The original aim of digitization was to ensure the long-term and sustainable preservation of the respective holdings. Yet it quickly became evident that the digitally available material became the foundation for novel and previously unthought-of digital research practices.[1]

Until now, the connection between DH and regional studies and global history has occurred selectively and their interlinking cannot yet be described as habitual. Nevertheless, existing and prior research projects have proven that the requirements for metadata processing in (global and transregional) history were highly compatible with the procedures, models, and tools developed under the DH label. These works underline that the perspectives and capacities of single disciplines cannot sufficiently address the research questions at hand and that only multi-disciplinary research enables the methodological possibility to reveal continuities and discontinuities as well as correlations.

So, what characterizes this new, and to some extent, transdisciplinary research? By its very nature, it entails a strong dependence on data and bold new research possibilities. First of all, digitized materials are required to follow DH-based approaches to data collection and processing. But one does not only need the necessary informatics expertise concerning the best possible preparation and storage methods for these materials; asking the innovative questions and analyzing the results requires expertise in the field of history, area studies, etc., which subjects software and programing to interrogation too. In doing so, all experts from various disciplines must be open to interdisciplinary cooperation. The future belongs to open-minded team players.

DH makes use of digital methods and tools for processing digitized materials in the humanities. DH projects aim to make complex research results (and the underlying primary data) more accessible and to open up new fields of research in the humanities that were difficult to explore with conventional methods. As a consequence, scholars can now approach research questions differently and generate new hypotheses using significantly larger data samples. Programing, visualizing, and modeling techniques in DH reveal patterns that had long been hidden from the eyes of scholars.

DH is not new. Yet it is something new to many. It should not only be judged by its current contribution to the humanities but by its enormous potential that spans all aspects of research from data acquisition to science communication. This future can be shaped by practitioners, especially since according to experts in the field, DH still needs more of a theoretical and epistemological background. We want to invite current and future TRAFO readers to accompany our exploration of exciting developments through a series of blog posts.

This is the backdrop against which we decided to initiate this series, The Digital Humanities Interface. Our central aim is to give voice to people who are involved in the highly interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary field of DH from both the humanities and the informatics side of the field, thus further bridging the divide between domain experts and technologically adept researchers. This series sheds light on those working at this interface, and we ask what these new techniques and forms of cooperation mean for transregional research. This series welcomes introductions to databases and digital archives, DH initiatives and forums, as well as contributions from specific research projects that use DH methods and tools. We hope that this discussion expands over the coming weeks and months and to deepen the exchange between scholars from various research fields with a common interest in computer-based analyses and Digital Humanities.


[1] For an almost identical version of these thoughts see a previous publication, Steinbach-Hüther, Ninja; Hänsgen, Dirk; Efer, Thomas; Wardenga, Ute: Geographiegeschichtsschreibung und Digital Humanities. Neue Methoden für Zeitschriftenanalysen. Working Paper Series des SFB 1199 an der Universität Leipzig, Nr. 15, Leipzig: Leipziger Universitätsverlag, 2019. (Last accessed: 2021-07-14). The small visualization attached to this introductory text (see above) also derives from this Working Paper, see page 22. The data used for creating the visualization stems from the research project C01 on Geographical Societies (Ute Wardenga, Ninja Steinbach-Hüther, Dirk Hänsgen) within the broader framework of the Collaborative Research Centre 1199. The data was digitally transformed into a TagPie by Thomas Efer. For more information on TagPies see S. Jänicke, “TagPies” (Last accessed: 2019-02-07); S. Jänicke et al., “TagPies: Com-parative Visualization of Textual Data”, in: A. Telea, A. Kerren und J. Braz (eds.), VISIGRAPP 2018: Proceedings of the 13th International Joint Conference on Computer Vision, Imaging and Computer Graphics Theory and Applications, Band 3, Setúbal: SCITEPRESS – Science and Technology Publications Lda, 2018, S. 40–51.

Ninja Steinbach-Hüther works at the Leibniz-Institute for Regional Geography (IFL) in Leipzig. Within the broader framework of the Collaborative Research Centre 1199 “Processes of Spatialization under the Global Condition”, she analyzes spatial semantics of Geography in the 19th and 20th century (project C01, CRC 1199). She earned a PhD in Global Studies from Leipzig University and the École normale supérieure, Paris, with a study on the “Circulation of African knowledge: Presence and reception of African academic literature in France and Germany”. Her book Bibliotheksdaten, Kulturtransfer und Digital Humanities. Zu einer Methodik bei der Untersuchung transregionaler Zirkulationen akademischer Literatur afrikanischer Autoren, in which she presents parts of her PhD thesis, was published in 2020 by the University of Leipzig Press.

Thomas Efer works as postdoctoral researcher in the long-term project Bibliotheca Arabica at the Saxon Academy of Sciences and Humanities, contributing his expertise in DH with a focus on data integration and knowledge representation in graphs. At the same, time he works for the University of Leipzig in the Competence Center for Scalable Data Analytics and Artificial Intelligence (ScaDS.AI) as a managing director of the Graduate School Data Science. His PhD thesis, “Graphdatenbanken für die textorientierten e-Humanities” (2017), in the area of Natural Language Processing on graph databases in the text-oriented humanities is available (in German) as a free open access publication.

Citation: Ninja Steinbach-Hüther and Thomas Efer, The Digital Humanities Interface – An Introduction, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 28.09.2021,

Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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