A Brief Explanation of GitHub for Non-Software-Developers

GitHub is a platform mostly used by software developers for collaborative work. You might be thinking “I’m not a software developer, what does this have to do with me?” Don’t go anywhere! In this post I explain what GitHub is and how it can be applied to collaborative writing for non-programmers. Who knows, GitHub might become your new best friend.

Gif of a cat typing

You don’t need to be a computer wiz to get Git.

Picture this: you and some colleagues have similar research interests and want to collaborate on a paper. You have divided the writing work to allow each of you to work on a different element of the paper. Using a cloud platform like Google Docs or Microsoft Word online you compile your work, but things start to get messy. Edits are made on the document and you are unsure who made them or why. Elements get deleted and you do not know how to retrieve your previous work. You have multiple files saved on your computer with names like “researchpaper1.dox”, “researchpaper1 with edits.dox” and “research paper1 with new edits.dox”. Managing your own work is hard enough but when collaborators are added to the mix it just becomes unmanageable. After a never ending reply-all email chain and what felt like the longest meeting of all time, you and your colleagues are finally on the same page about the writing and editing of your paper. It just makes you think, there has got to be a better way to do this. Issues with collaboration are not exclusive to writing, they happen all the time in programming, which is why software-developers came up with version control systems like Git and GitHub.

Gif of Spongebob running around an office on fire with paper and filing cabinets on the floor

Managing versions of your work can be stressful. Don’t panic because GitHub can help.

GitHub allows developers to work together through branching and merging. Branching is the process by which the original file or source code is duplicated into clone files. These clones contain all the elements already in the original file and can be worked in independently. Developers use these clones to write and test code before combining it with the original code. Once their version of the code is ready they integrate or “push” it into the source code in a process called merging. Then, other members of the team are alerted of these changes and can “pull” the merged code from the source code into their respective clones. Additionally, every version of the project is saved after changes are made, allowing users to consult previous versions. Every version of your project is saved with with descriptions of what changes were made in that particular version, these are called commits. Now, this is a simplified explanation of what GitHub does but my hope is that you now understand GitHub’s applications because what I am about to say next might blow your mind: GitHub is not just for programmers! You do not need to know any coding to work with GitHub. After all, code and written language are very similar.

Even if you cannot write a single line of code, GitHub can be incredibly useful for a variety of reasons:
1. It allows you to electronically backup your work for free.
2. All the different versions of your work are saved separately, allowing you to look back at previous edits.
3. It alerts all collaborators when a change is made and they can merge that change into their own versions of the text.
4. It allows you to write using plain text, something commonly requested by publishers.

Hopefully, if you’ve made it this far into the article you’re thinking, “This sounds great, let’s get started!” For more information on using GitHub you can consult the Library’s guide on GitHub or follow the step by step instructions on GitHub’s Hello-World Guide.

Gif of man saying "check it out" and pointing to the right.

There are many resources on getting started with GitHub. Check them out!

Here are some links to what others have said about using GitHub for non-programmers:

Meet Spencer Keralis, Digital Humanities Librarian

Spencer Keralis teaches a class.

This latest installment of our series of interviews with Scholarly Commons experts and affiliates features one of the newest members of our team, Spencer Keralis, Digital Humanities Librarian.


What is your background and work experience?

I have a Ph.D. in English and American Literature from New York University. I started working in libraries in 2011 as a Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) Fellow with the University of North Texas Libraries, doing research on data management policy and practice. This turned into a position as a Research Associate Professor working to catalyze digital scholarship on campus, which led to the development of Digital Frontiers, which is now an independent non-profit corporation. I serve as the Executive Director of the organization and help organize the annual conference. I have previous experience working as a project manager in telecom and non-profits. I’ve also taught in English and Communications at the university level since 2006.

What led you to this field?

My CLIR Fellowship really sparked the career change from English to libraries, but I had been considering libraries as an alternate career path prior to that. My doctoral research was heavily archives-based, and I initially thought I’d pursue something in rare books or special collections. My interest in digital scholarship evolved later.

What is your research agenda?

My current project explores how the HIV-positive body is reproduced and represented in ephemera and popular culture in the visual culture of the early years of the AIDS epidemic. In American popular culture, representations of the HIV-positive body have largely been defined by Therese Frare’s iconic 1990 photograph of gay activist David Kirby on his deathbed in an Ohio hospital, which was later used for a United Colors of Benetton ad. Against this image, and other representations which medicalized or stigmatized HIV-positive people, people living with AIDS and their allies worked to remediate the HIV-positive body in ephemera including safe sex pamphlets, zines, comics, and propaganda. In my most recent work, I’m considering the reclamation of the erotic body in zines and comics, and how the HIV-positive body is imagined as an object of desire differently in these underground publications than they are in mainstream queer comics representing safer sex. I also consider the preservation and digitization of zines and other ephemera as a form of remediation that requires a specific ethical positioning in relation to these materials and the community that produced them, engaging with the Zine Librarians’ Code of Conduct, folksonomies and other metadata schema, and collection and digitization policies regarding zines from major research libraries. This research feels very timely and urgent given rising rates of new infection among young people, but it’s also really fun because the materials are so eclectic and often provocative. You can check out a bit of this research on the UNT Comics Studies blog.

 Do you have any favorite work-related duties?

I love working with students and helping them develop their research questions. Too often students (and sometimes faculty, let’s be honest) come to me and ask “What tools should I learn?” I always respond by asking them what their research question is. Not every research question is going to be amenable to digital tools, and not every tool works for every research question. But having a conversation about how digital methods can potentially enrich a student’s research is always rewarding, and I always learn so much from these conversations.

 What are some of your favorite underutilized resources that you would recommend to researchers?

I think comics and graphic novels are generally underappreciated in both pedagogy and research. There are comics on every topic, and historical comics go back much further than most people realize. I think the intersection of digital scholarship with comics studies has a lot of potential, and a lot of challenges that have yet to be met – the technical challenge of working with images is significant, and there has yet to be significant progress on what digital scholarship in comics might look like. I also think comics belong more in classes – all sorts of classes, there are comics on every topic, from math and physics, to art and literature – than they are now because they reach students differently than other kinds of texts.

 If you could recommend one book or resource to beginning researchers in your field, what would you recommend?

I’m kind of obsessed with Liz Losh and Jacque Wernimont’s edited collection Bodies of Information: Intersectional Feminism and Digital Humanities because it’s such an important intervention in the field. I’d rather someone new to DH start there than with some earlier, canonical works because it foregrounds alternative perspectives and methodologies without centering a white, male perspective. Better, I think, to start from the margins and trouble some of the traditional narratives in the discipline right out the gate. I’m way more interested in disrupting monolithic or hegemonic approaches to DH than I am in gatekeeping, and Liz and Jacque’s collection does a great job of constructively disrupting the field.