In March of 2023, Harvard University hosted “Tools of the Trade: The Way Forward,” an exciting three-day conference surveying recent trends in East Asian digital humanities (DH). With the support of a wide range of funding sources from Harvard and abroad, over 150 participants attended from the United States, Europe, and East Asia. The papers and plenary sessions covered over three thousand years of East Asian history, included multiple East Asian languages and scripts, and featured new databases, platforms, and methodologies in DH research.
The participants represented an equally wide range of national centers and East Asian, European, and U.S. institutions; unsurprisingly, junior scholars were especially active throughout the conference. As Alíz Horváth and Hilde De Weerdt noted in their recent introduction to a special issue of the International Journal of Digital Humanities on East Asian DH, the rapid expansion of computational and data-driven research in East Asian studies is everywhere in evidence: in new dissertations, journals, conferences, job opportunities, and workshops.1
Now seems to be a good moment for East Asianists across institutions to strategize about sharing resources.
Interest among East Asianists in new tools and methods can be seen among scholars across the globe, but it is clear that East Asian nations are leading the way in terms of public funding for this new work at top universities, libraries, and national centers. The Harvard conference also, and perhaps unexpectedly, shed light on the uneven institutional landscape in North America for DH research in East Asian studies and prompted reflections on how institutions might collaborate to promote this work more effectively and systematically. In the current structure of graduate education in the U.S., many PhDs are trained in area studies departments at institutions that may or may not have DH centers like those at Princeton, Stanford University, and the University of Virginia, for example. They may also have limited access to skills workshops aimed at humanists, such as those that have been sponsored at the annual meeting of the Association for Asian Studies, the field organization that has also launched new DH fellowships. Senior advisors may be slow to recognize the potential of DH in East Asian studies, and many junior scholars are necessarily self-taught in the tools, methods, and software that are changing their fields.
National organizations like the Mellon Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities have been generous, enthusiastic funders of DH research, including training programs at a range of smaller and medium-sized institutions; such programs are of course highly competitive and limited in number. But given the rapid growth and significance of computational research in East Asian studies, as well as some of the language- and script-specific challenges that East Asian data and corpora pose, now seems to be a good moment for East Asianists across institutions to strategize about sharing resources and creating new opportunities — in order to increase access for more scholars and build out East Asian humanities more broadly.
Many possibilities spring to mind, some of which are already underway, such as:
cross-institutional partnerships to sponsor online workshops (that could be archived for viewing)
the creation of open-source textbooks aimed at teaching digital toolkits to East Asian specialists, which could be implemented in graduate training
collaboration among libraries with strong East Asian digital resources to share (within necessary restrictions) materials and tools.
Whether or not scholars wish to incorporate data and computational methods in their research on East Asia after having access to these opportunities, such efforts would increase awareness of the potential of those methods, work to lessen the barriers to understanding new tools, and increase DH literacy within and across national borders.