An experiment in writing in public, one page at a time, by S. Graham, I. Milligan, & S. Weingart

Early Emergences: Father Busa, Humanities Computing, and the Emergence of the Digital Humanities

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 To know where we are today, and indeed, where we are going, we need to understand where we as a discipline came from. In this section, we provide a brief overview of the evolution of the Anglophone digital humanities: the intellectual tradition that has led to the projects discussed earlier in this chapter. While today the digital humanities seems centered within universities, dominated by academics in one form or another, the field had unlikely beginnings in the hopes and dreams of a Roman priest.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 In 1946, Father Busa had a problem.1 He had just defended his doctoral dissertation at the Pontifical Gregorian University of Rome, in which he called for a comprehensive concordance of the works of St. Thomas Aquinas. A concordance provides a list of where a given word appears, in its context, everywhere in a given work: for example, if one took the Old Bailey sessions above and wanted to see the context in which every incidence of the word “poison” appeared. Relatively simple with the computer programs of today, but in 1946, it was a tall order. Busa conceived of a series of cards, which would – he estimated – number thirteen million in total.2 It would be his Index Thomisticus, a new way to understand the works of St. Thomas Aquinas. Recognizing the tall order, at a 1948 conference in Barcelona, Spain, Busa appealed “[for] any information they can supply about such mechanical devices as would serve to achieve the greatest possible accuracy, with a maximum economy of human labor.”3

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Busa’s subsequent search would bring him to the United States and into contact with International Business Machines Corporation, or IBM. Thanks to its near-monopoly on punch cards, they would be the only corporation who could help. Fortuitously for Busa, IBM was willing to help. Its long-time president, Thomas J. Watson, met with Busa and despite staff reservations that what Busa wanted was impossible, agreed to help. Using mechanical punch card readers, Busa set out to produce a concordance. As the cards were limited to eighty characters each, this called for short lines. A test case of St. Thomas Aquinas poetry was carried out as a test.This 1951 test represented a groundbreaking moment in the development of humanities computing. As recounted by Thomas N. Winter, the mechanical (not computational, yet) construction of a codex would require five steps: the transcription of phrases found in the text; multiplying cards by the number of words on each; breaking words down into entries (lemmas, or the roots of words, so that various forms of the same word would appear as one (i.e. “go” and “goes” represent the same concept); selecting and alphabetizing cards; and then publishing the final product. Importantly, the final product offered the following outcomes:

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 1. Words and their frequency, forwards

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 2. Words and their frequency, written backwards

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 3. Words set out under their lemmata (eg. aemulis under aemulus aemula aemulum), with frequency

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 4. The Lemmata

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 5. Index of the words

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 6. Keyword in context Concordance

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Busa’s high standards and unwillingness to compromise with a lesser version meant that the Index was many years in the making, but it eventually appeared in printed form in 1974 and online in 2005.4 Busa had lofty dreams, which became reality. As IBM employee Paul Tasman, assigned to Busa, prophesied in 1957, “[t]he use of the latest data-processing tools developed primarily for science and commerce may provide a significant factor in facilitating future literary and scholarly studies.”5 This would become a reality.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 1 As Susan Hockey recounts in her history of humanities computing, the sixties saw the rise of scholars interested in the opportunities offered by large-scale concordances. Scholars began with collections of texts, and subsequently moved into areas such as authorship attribution and quantitative approaches to literary style; notably, in 1964, two authors used computers to attempt to identify the authors of a dozen disputed Federalist Papers; an attempt generally deemed successful.6 Conferences and journals emerged, such as the Computers and the Humanities, accompanied by the establishment of research centres. For historians, however, computational history became associated with demographic, population, and economic histories. Literature scholars pursued textual analysis; historians, to generalize a bit, preferred to count. A book like Michael Katz’s The People of Hamilton, Canada West, which traced economic mobility over decades using manuscript censuses, was a North American emblem of this form of work. These were fruitful undertakings, providing invaluable context to the more focused social history studies that fleshed out periods under study.7 A potential downside, however, was that computational history became associated with quantitative studies. This was not aided by some of the hyperbole that saw computational history as making more substantial “truth” claims, or the invocation of a “scientific method” of history. As mainstream historians increasingly questioned objectivism, itself a trend dating back to the 1930s, Cliometrics became estranged from the main of the profession.8 This stigma would persist early into the 21st century; even while Literary scholars pursued increasingly sophisticated forms of textual analysis, social networking, and online exploratory portals.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Computational history retreated after its Social Science History heyday in the 1970s, re-emerging only by the 1990s with the advent of personal computing, easy-to-use graphical user interfaces, and improvements in overall accessibility. Painstaking punchcards and opaque input syntax gave way to relatively easy to use databases, Geographical Information Systems (GIS) programs, and even early online networks such as H-Net and USENET. Crunching away at census manuscripts, or attempting to identify authorship, or counting words, the broad interdisciplinary scholarly field known as Humanities Computing rose.9 With journals such as the aforementioned Computers and Humanities, groupings of scholars such as the Association for Computers in the Humanities (ACH), and eventually e-mail lists like the Humanist List, a discrete field had emerged. It did, however, have several meanings as noted by Willard McCarty with “three denotations as follows: “when the relationship was desired but largely unrealized” (computers and the humanities), “once entry has been gained” (computing in the humanities) and “confident but enigmatic” (humanities computing).”10

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 One could spend pages defining humanities computing, and its eventual successor the digital humanities, and indeed, several other authors have. In a provocative essay, “What is Humanities Computing and What is it Not,” John Unsworth defined the field as “a practice of representation, a form of modeling or [...] mimicry. It is[...] a way of reasoning and a set of ontological commitments, and its representational practice is shaped by the need for efficient computation on the one hand, and for human communication on the other.”11 Simply using word processors, e-mail, or communicating by list-servs did not a humanist computationist make, but rather it was a new method of thinking and disciplinal approach.The shift towards the digital humanities was not simply a shift in nomenclature, although there are elements of that as well. Patrik Svensson has traced the shift from humanities computing to the digital humanities, showing how the nomenclature change staked a new definition that was even more inclusive, and broad: inclusive of questions of design, the born-digital, new media studies, and more emphasis on tools with less emphasis on more straight-forward methodological discussions.12 As recounted in Matthew Kirschenbaum’s take on the history of the digital humanities, the term also places different emphasis on different parts of the phrase. As the National Endowment for the Humanities Chief Information Officer put it to him, he “appreciated the fact that it seemed to cast a wider net than “humanities computing” which seemed to imply a form of computing, whereas “digital humanities” implied a form of human- ism.”13

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 1 None of this is to imply that the digital humanities can be easily defined, however. A fun way to open a digital humanities or history course is to visit Jason Heppler’s succinctly-named website, “What is Digital Humanities?”14 Participants in the annual Day of DH, run out of Michigan State University, are annually asked to provide their own definitions. Between 2009 and 2012, Heppler has compiled 511 entries, all made available in raw data format.15 A visitor to his website can refresh it for a new definition: ranging from the short and whimsical (“sudo riverrun past eve,” “[a]s a social construct,” “[t]aking people to bits”), to the long and comprehensive (“[d]igital Humanities is the critical study of how the technologies and techniques associated with the digital medium intersect with and alter humanities scholarship and scholarly communication”) to more specific definitions focused on making or digital preservation. Amongst such crowded and thoughtful conversation, we hesitate to add our own definition. A definition, however, is in order for the purposes of this book. We believe that the digital humanities are partly about understanding what digital tools have to offer, but also – and perhaps more importantly – an understanding of what the digital does and has done to our understanding of the past and ourselves. In this book, with this in mind, we peel back the layers of a particular approach to big data using specific tools such as topic modeling and network analysis. Yet we realize that they need to be critically studied, as they have come from divergent disciplines and domains. With an understanding of how the digital humanities have evolved, from Father Busa through to humanities computing, we seek to explore the implications of a new era: the challenge and opportunity of big data.

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  1. 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0
  2. See Susan Hockey, “The History of Humanities Computing,” in A Companion to Digital Humanities, ed. Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, John Unsworth (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), available online, http://www.digitalhumanities.org/companion/view?docId=blackwell/9781405103213/9781405103213.xml&chunk.id=ss1-2-1. []
  3. Thomas Nelson Winter, “Roberta Busa, S.J., and the Invention of the Machine-Generated Concordance,” Classical Bulletin, 75.1 (1999), 6. []
  4. Ibid. []
  5. Hockey, “History of Humanities Computing.” []
  6. Winter, “Roberto Busa.” []
  7. Hockey, “History of Humanities Computing.” []
  8. Michael Katz, The People of Hamilton, Canada West: Family and Class in a Mid-Nineteenth-Century City (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975). See also A. Gordon Darroch and Michael D. Ornstein, “Ethnicity and Occupational Structure in Canada in 1871: The Vertical Mosaic in Historical Perspective,” Canadian Historical Review, 61.3 (1980): 305-333. []
  9. Ian Anderson, “History and Computing,” Making History: The Changing Face of the Profession in Britain, 2008, <http://www.history.ac.uk/makinghistory/resources/articles/history_and_computing.html>, (viewed 20 December 2012). []
  10. Willard McCarty, Humanities Computing (Basingstoke [England]; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). []
  11. [McCarty, Humanties Computing, 3 as cited in Patrik Svensson, “Humanities Computing as Digital Humanities” 3, no. 3 (2009), http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/3/3/000065/000065.html. []
  12. John Unsworth, “Unsworth: What Is Humanities Computing and What Is Not?,” November 8, 2002, http://computerphilologie.uni-muenchen.de/jg02/unsworth.html. []
  13. Svensson, “Humanities Computing as Digital Humanities.” []
  14. Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, “What Is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?,” ADE Bulletin no. 150 (2010): 55–61. []
  15. Jason Heppler, “What Is Digital Humanities?,” 2013, http://whatisdigitalhumanities.com/. []
  16. “Whatisdigitalhumanities,” GitHub, accessed June 17, 2013, https://github.com/hepplerj/whatisdigitalhumanities. []
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