Gender, knowledge and hierarchy: on Busa’s female punch card operators

The last post described my recent research trip to the archive of Fr Roberto Busa S.J. (1913-2011), who is often identified as a pioneer of what is now known as Digital Humanities. My colleague Melissa Terras last year wrote about a copy of an archive of photos relating to Busa that we received from Marco Passarotti, of CIRCSE Research Centre, Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Milan. Among them were pictures of female punch card operators who had worked for Busa and whose names had disappeared from the historical record. With the help of Marco 3 of the women were quickly identified. By the time I traveled to Milan last month 10 had been identified and we carried out oral history interviews with them.

These interviews are now in the process of being translated and transcribed, thanks to a small grant that I received from EADH, and an article analysing them will follow in due course. I’m not now going into great detail about the interviews in case I misremember details (and because I must do further cross referencing and checking of them) but I am going to give an outline and some initial impressions about the recollections we uncovered. I hasten to add that my main interest in oral history is not necessarily tied to issues about the veracity of the memories that it can reveal (memory is a far too interesting and complex phenomenon to be reduced to simplistic notions of ‘true’ or ‘false’). My interest is really about why people remember what it is that they remember, for more on this see especially the work of Alessandro Portelli (1991).

The interviews were semi-structured. Questions were prepared with two main aims: firstly to uncover the womens’ memories of working on the project and secondly to uncover their memories of working with Busa himself. What emerged was a number of insights into the social, cultural and organisational conditions that they worked under and how they, as women, were treated in what was a male-dominated environment. We found that the women were hired straight from school and worked in what was a training school that Busa had set up. He describes the school as follows in his Chum article:

In 1954 … I started a training school for keypunch operators. For all those admitted, the requirement was that it was their first job. After a month of testing, only one out of five was accepted for a program of four semesters, eight hours per day. The success was excellent: industries wanted to hire them before they had finished the program. Their training was in punching and verifying our texts. To make the switch from the Latin to the Hebrew and Cyrillic texts, only two weeks were needed, and it was not even necessary to attach these new alphabets to the keys of the puncher. In punching these non-Roman alphabets, the process was less speedy but with fewer errors. This school continued until 1967, when I completed the punching of all my texts. (p. 85)

The women we interviewed discussed the thorough training they received (at times they even worked blind folded to test accuracy) and how most of them secured excellent jobs once they had completed the course, and often before. Few if any of them had any notion of the nature of the work they were doing or of the nature of their contribution to the fledgling Index Thomisticus. When the interviews are transcribed I’ll also discuss accounts of how gender seems to have played a role in issues of appointment and promotion, and how one of the women tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to overturn this state of affairs when she was blocked from taking on a managerial role.

We also carried out interviews with two male computer scientists who had worked with Busa in the 1970s in Venice where the final typesetting and preparation for printing of the Index Thomisticus was done. It was very interesting to note that one computer scientist had a clear and detailed understanding of the nature of the project and his role in it. He recounted that it was Busa himself who had imparted this knowledge to him. It was also interesting to note that he mentioned women among those who held more senior (or maybe more intellectual would be a more accurate way of putting it) roles at this later stage of the project. In the subsequent archival work that I did I uncovered some documents that will help me to study this further. In any case it seems that issues of gender, knowledge and hierarchy were closely interrelated but that they intersected with the implementation of the project in a more complex and shifting way than might be apparent at first glance. Surely external societal, economic and religious factors had an influence that must be taken into account too.

All of those interviewed remembered Busa with great admiration, gratitude, fondness and warmth and we captured story after story about his kindness and generosity towards those he encountered throughout his life.  I’ll also make  these stories available once the transcriptions are finished.

Some of the former punch card operators also brought along documents that were not, from what I saw, otherwise contained in the Busa archive in Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore. One of them was the certificate of completion of training, below, and a copy of this and other documents have now been deposited in the archive.

Certificate of completion of Fr Busa's punch card operator school

Certificate of completion of Fr Busa’s punch card operator school 


Image of certificate

Second page of completion certificate










For me the overarching questions that have played on my mind since carrying out these interviews is about the significance of the cultural, intellectual and social conditions that shaped the earliest work in Digital Humanities (well, Humanities Computing really but it wasn’t known under that name then either). When we compare the early period of Humanities Computing with modern day Digital Humanities what continuities and differences can we notice? How, for example, have understandings of terms like ‘pioneer’ changed over this time and is this reflected in the few writings we have about the history of Digital Humanities?  Issues related to this will be addressed in my next post.

Julianne Nyhan

Senior Lecturer (associate Prof) in Digital Information Studies, University College London. Main research: Digital Humanities, Oral History & History of Computing. Publications page: / Research:

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2 Responses

  1. 27/02/2015

    […] and 1960s to work on the Index Thomisticus project she is also at work on a paper about this (see  Among other things, she is a member of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Peer […]

  2. 20/04/2015

    […] the relief of many, that working with computers for the humanities was merely clerical, sounding a (gendered) labor division in the humanities that still rings true today. A few decades later, Jacques Derrida […]

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