What is in the archive of Fr Roberto Busa S.J. (1913-2011)?

Fr Roberto Busa S.J. 1956

Fr Roberto Busa S.J. 1956. Creative Commons CC-BY-NC license by permission of CIRCSE Research Centre, Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Milan, Italy. For further information, or to request permission for reuse, please contact Marco Passarotti, on marco.passarotti AT unicatt.it, or by post: Largo Gemelli 1, 20123 Milan, Italy. [Image added 11/03/2017]

Last month I traveled to the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Italy. There I spend a week carrying out oral history interviews (thanks to the invaluable help of Marco Carlo Passarotti of CIRCSE) and working on the recently accessioned archive of Fr Roberto Busa As the archive is now in the process of being cataloged I thought a short overview of it would be useful for others interested in the history of Digital Humanities. My impression is that I managed to work through approximately half of Busa’s archive. The material I saw fell into the following categories:

  • Personal material of Busa e.g. academic certificates, ordination details etc


  • Press articles in the national Italian media on Busa and his research
  • Press articles in the international media on Busa and his research
  • Correspondence between Busa and his contemporaries (in academia, cultural heritage and libraries, administration, industry, politics, religious organisations etc) in Italy.
  • Correspondence between Busa and his contemporaries outside of Italy (from what I saw mostly in France, Germany, and the USA but including other countries too)
  • Personal correspondence between Busa and close colleagues and friends e.g. the witty and, at times, touching, Christmas missives he sent each year (see an example here)
  • Material relating to particular phases of the Index Thomisticus e.g. material relating to the time spent in Venice in the 1970s where the work was, among other things, typeset
  • Print outs (starting with print outs from the early punch cards) from many stages of the Index Thomisticus
  • Some boxes of mostly unsorted material containing a range of documents and images
  • The Opera Omina of Busa (this is external to the archive and held in the library proper)

For me the most notable material included the newspaper reports on Busa in both the international and national media.  I was fascinated to notice that in the vast majority of the early articles (stretching from the 1950s to the late 1970s; as far as I’m aware, articles up to recent times are held in the archive too) Busa is pictured next to a punch card machine or computer of some sort. We often ask what Digital Humanities is but few have asked how Digital Humanities has been (and is) visually portrayed. A very interesting study could be done on this using the Busa media articles as a starting point.

I also found the files of Busa’s correspondence fascinating because I am especially interested in how knowledge of Digital Humanities was diffused in the 1950s and early 1960s (i.e. before the field’s first journals and scholarly associations were founded). So, Busa’s wide-ranging correspondence provides some particular insights into this for me.

Together with the colleagues in the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore I am now going to try to get some funding to have at least a part of the archive digitised (beginning with the correspondence hopefully). Not only does the material offer a fascinating insight into one of the early pioneers of Digital Humanities, it must also be interesting to people working in a range of disciplines, particularly the history and philosophy of Science and Technology. Of course, getting money for digitisation is not easy, so let’s see. Apart from various articles, another project that we are planning (following on from a suggestion by Willard McCarty) is a book of selected articles of Busa with translations from the many languages that he wrote in (Italian, French, German, Portuguese and Hebrew from what I could see and maybe more). Of course these projects will just scratch the surface and there is a wealth of research for the DH community (and beyond) to do on this wonderful archive.

In the next post I’ll describe the oral history interviews I did with the former colleagues of Busa and some of the extra documents we encountered during these interviews (which were not in the archive, though we have submitted copies or originals (where possible) of them to the Busa archive.

Julianne Nyhan

Senior Lecturer (associate Prof) in Digital Information Studies, University College London. Main research: Digital Humanities, Oral History & History of Computing. Publications page: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/dis/people/juliannenyhan / Research: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Julianne_Nyhan

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2 Responses

  1. 29/04/2014

    […] She has given an outline of what is contained in the portion of the archive that she saw on her blog. While there she and Marco Passarotti of CIRCSE also carried out a number of oral history interviews […]

  2. 14/03/2016

    […] archive can help us understand the field and in this regard I have to also thank Julianne Nyhan (see her blog entries here) and Steve Jones (see book here) in whose steps I follow. They brought back word of its riches and […]

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