The first oral history interview included in my forthcoming book ‘Computation and the Humanities: towards an oral history of Digital Humanities‘ was carried out with John Burrows and Hugh Craig. Because I could not get to Australia to interview them Willard McCarty was kind enough to interview them on my behalf and Harold Short was also present.
All of the interviews contained in the book are semi-structured. Depending on the kinds of responses that the interviewee gives the questions tend to vary somewhat from interview to interview. That said, all interviews revolve around the following set of core questions:
- Please tell me about your earliest memory of encountering computing
- Did you receive formal training in programming or computing?
- How did you first get involved in what we now refer to as DH?
- Which people particularly influenced you and how?
- What about scholars who were not using computers in their research
do you have some sense of what their views about humanities computing were?
- What was your first engagement with the ‘conference community’ and
how did that come about?
The information and recollections uncovered during the interview with Burrows and Craig are really fascinating (and all the more so when they are compared and contrasted with the other interviews in the book and those that have been published elsewhere). Burrows recalled that his first encounter with computing took place in the late 1970s, via John Lambert, who was then the Director of the University of Newcastle’s Computing Service. He had sought Lambert out when the card-indexes of common words that he had been compiling became too difficult and too numerous to manage. Craig’s first contact with computing was in the mid-1980s, after Burrows put him in charge of a project that used a Remington word processor.
At many points in the interview Burrows and Craig reflect on the substantial amount of time, and, indeed, belief, that they invested not only in the preparation of texts for analysis but also in the learning and development of new processes and techniques (often drawn from disciplines outside English Literature). Much is said about the immediate social and institutional contexts of such processes and the wider national and international networks that they both connected with.
As we all know, definitions of Digital Humanities are varied and contested. Something that also comes across in this interview (and, the others in the book) is that the motivations for undertaking Digital Humanities can be equally varied. Craig and Burrows agreed that as central as computing has been to their research lives their main aim was to study literature and their focus has remained on questioning rather than answering.