About Julianne Nyhan

Lecturer in Digital Information Studies, University College London

hic Rhodus, hic salta: Tito Orlandi

The third interview in the forthcoming book is with Tito Orlandi.  I did the interview with Orlandi in October 2014, whilst I was in Rome to attend the ‘Making of the Humanities IV‘ conference on the History of the Humanities.  At that time my (now) elder daughter was almost 2 years old and she had not slept for more than 3 consecutive hours since she had been born. My abiding memory of the interview is that when it started I felt so tired that I was really afraid that I would literally keel over mid-sentence. Yet, just minutes in I had forgotten all about this and instead felt deeply honoured to have the chance to talk to Orlandi and to be able to do such oral history research. Of course, as often happens, when I read the interview transcript back I berated myself for the questions that I didn’t ask and the answers that I should have drawn out more. All the same, I think the interview with Orlandi is a very interesting one.

Orlandi & Nyhan, Rome, October 2014

Orlandi & Nyhan, Rome, October 2014

In terms of publications in English, Willard McCarty has, of course, published seminal and widely acknowledged scholarship on modelling and its significance to Digital Humanities. Orlandi also published in Italian very important work on modelling and it is notable that he did so before McCarty; yet, it was some time before Orlandi’s work was picked up by the international community (see his discussion of such processes here). Orlandi’s interview is notable for the wealth of fresh and original perspectives it contains. For example, it might seem convenient to classify his work within a wider ‘Italian school’ of Digital Humanities that emanated from Busa. However, Orlandi disagrees with the preeminence that has been given to Busa and instead emphasises the work of scholars like Jean-Claude Gardin. Indeed, in many ways his interview exemplifies the strengths of an oral history approach to research on the history of an academic community like Digital Humanities. The Busa origin story is important for the community in many ways.  Members of it are drawn from very many ‘home’ disciplines and they use varied methodologies in their work. So, the foundation myth of ‘Busa as progenitor’ offers a convenient narrative of common descent from a shared and revered ancestor. Yet, the downside of the Busa origin story can be seen in the way that it seems to have silenced other stories about the other figures who also played important roles in the origin and development of DH. Orlandi’s interview explores this and also discusses areas of research (like the theoretical basis of computing) that DH would do well to pay closer attention to in the coming years.






The University was still taking account of universitas scientiarum: Wilhelm Ott

The second interview in the forthcoming book is with Wilhelm Ott. I traveled to Tuebingen to interview Ott in the offices of pagina, the company that he set up in 1973. pagina is quite an early example of the kinds of knowledge transfer and commercialisation that Humanities Computing research was involved in at an early stage.We know from Busa, for example, how commercial companies like IBM supported Humanities Computing from its earliest days. However, to the best of my knowledge, we don’t know so much about how the processes flowed in the other direction i.e.  how Humanities Computing research and researchers flowed into the computing industry and created commercial spin-offs.There is some interesting work to be done about this (and some of the other interviews in the book also cast new light on such questions).

Wilhelm Ott in July 2015

Wilhelm Ott in July 2015

After the oral history interview Ott was also kind enough to invite me to his house where I saw his personal archive. He worked in Humanities Computing since its inception, more or less. He was able to show me materials in his archive like the attendance list of those at the 1963 conference at the Centre for Literary and Linguistic Computing in Cambridge, UK that was organised by Roy Wisbey.

Ott’s interview is fascinating and he covers a lot of ground starting with his first training in computing in 1966 when he took an introductory programming course in the Deutsches Rechenzentrum (German Computing Centre) in Darmstadt. The title of his interview (the same title as this blog post) is taken from an observation that he made about the kinds of changes he saw during the course of his career in terms of the position of the Humanities in the Academy.

Individuation is there in all the different strata: Burrows and Craig

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:

  1. Please tell me about your earliest memory of encountering computing
  2. Did you receive formal training in programming or computing?
  3. How did you first get involved in what we now refer to as DH?
  4. Which people particularly influenced you and how?
  5. What about scholars who were not using computers in their research
    do you have some sense of what their views about humanities computing were?
  6. 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.



New book! Computation and the Humanities: towards an oral history of Digital Humanities

I’ve recently finished work on a new book called Computation and the Humanities: towards an oral history of Digital Humanities. It will be published later this year by Springer as part of their series on Cultural Computing (see here). Thanks to the generous support provided by UCL’s open access office it will be possible to publish it under an open access licence.

The book will contain 4 new chapters and 13 oral history interviews. I’ll add some details of the interviews over the coming days. In the meantime here is the book’s table of contents:

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Introduction (or, the history of Digital Humanities: once neglected, now emerging and absolutely necessary)

Chapter 2: Why oral history?

Chapter 3:  Individuation is there in all the different strata: John Burrows and Hugh Craig

Chapter 4: The University was still taking account of universitas scientiarum: Wilhelm Ott

Chapter 5: hic Rhodus, hic salta: Tito Orlandi

Chapter 6: They took a chance: Susan Hockey

Chapter 7: The influence of algorithmic thinking: Judy Malloy

Chapter 8: I would think of myself as sitting inside the computer: Mary Dee Harris

Chapter 9: There had to be a better way: John Nitti

Chapter 10: It’s a little mind-boggling: Helen Agüera

Chapter 11: I heard about the arrival of the computer: Hans Rutimann

Chapter 12: For a long time I mourned the University: Michael Sperberg-McQueen

Chapter 13: It’s probably the only modestly widely used system with a command language in Latin: Manfred Thaller

Chapter 14: Getting computers into Humanists’ thinking: John Bradley

Chapter 15: Moderate expectations, tolerable disappointments: Claus Huitfeldt

Chapter 16: So, into the chopper it went: Gabriel Egan

Chapter 17: Revolutionaries and Underdogs

Chapter 18: Conclusion

Webbs on the Web: libraries, digital humanities and collaboration

Last week a new article by Ed Fay (Executive Director, Open Preservation Foundation; formerly of LSE Library) and me was published in Library Review. The article is behind a pay wall (at the moment), so if you can’t access it please contact me directly. We’ve described the purpose of this paper as follows:

This paper aims to make a contribution to the ongoing debates about the nature, value and potential of closer collaboration between digital humanities (DH) and the library sector by identifying and contextualising the types of new knowledge that were created through such a collaboration on the London School of Economics’s Webbs on the Web project. (see here)

In it we discuss the various collaborations and collaborative partners who  underpinned the Webbs on the Web project (namely, the LSE Digital Library, Archive and Bibliographic Services and teams within the LSE library; the UCL Department of Information studies; the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities (UCLDH); and the private / commercial companies who supplied the digitisation, transcription and information architecture/user experience (IA/UX) services). In doing so we identify and describe some of the new knowledge that came about as a result of such collaborations. Ultimately, we relate our experience of this back to ongoing conversations about what libraries (in this case Academic / Research Libraries) and digital humanities may be able to achieve by working together more (see, for example, http://acrl.ala.org/dh/about/).

In this post I’ll very briefly describe one aspect of the paper: our experience of iteratively user testing the project. A wide range of users were involved in the user testing, these included the technical team of the project itself (5 people); the expert and stakeholder group (c. 20 people); LSE Library staff (c. 20 people); postgraduate students in the UCL Department of Information Studies who were studying for, among other degrees, an MA/MSc in Digital Humanities (c. 60 students); and other externals (c. 100 people).

When we reached the point of including DIS postgraduate students (because they were all taking a core course on our DH MA/MSc programme I’ll refer to them as DH students from here on) and library staff in the user testing of the resource we asked both groups to complete the same set of activities. We found that:

Librarians tended to give more detailed criticism of search and retrieval accuracy, including the presence of tools to aid with discovery such as facets or complex configuration options, while DH students, although also reporting problematic navigational journeys, tended to focus on the item-level functionality to do with the page-turning and textual comparison functionality. (p. 125)

We continue:

One way of interpreting these differing observations is to understand them as an expression of different but complementary expertise and subject interest in DH and library and information studies. On the whole, DH specialists are likely to be more concerned with what can be done at an item or collection level, see, for example, the TEI guidelines, which are central to DH and focus, for the most part, on item-level artefacts such as dictionaries, etc. Conversely, librarians are more likely to be concerned about the discovery at the cross-collection level (notwithstanding important DH work done at this level, the most obvious example being data mining). This perhaps reflects the current positioning of librarians as gatekeepers to large bodies of content – supporting discovery through information skills training and the provision of indexing/database content – rather than as embedded supporters of research through the lifecycle with an intimate involvement in the methodologies and technologies used in academic departments.
This expertise is both complemented and extended by what emerged as a central concern of DH scholars: their focus on the individual resources that support research, and shows how deep use of a smaller body of content, to the extent of utilising innovative forms of retrieval, are as important as breadth [and] availability of collections writ large, using more traditional search and browse functions.
So, although this fits within the library provision of certain parts of the infrastructure framework (the general ability to structure collections and make them discoverable), the collection- or content-specific functionality requires a close collaboration with domain experts and target users. Indeed, the insights that came about as a result of including digital humanists and scholars are the ones that are unlikely to have been gained, had librarians alone been consulted. (p. 125-6)

To put it another way, we found that by involving both librarians and digital humanities researchers and students (groups who might otherwise remain separate within the context of the modern University and Academic Library) in the user testing of the resource that we were able to benefit from insights and expertise that appeared (at least in the context of this research) to be separate yet fundamentally interconnected. We concluded that a greater awareness of the complementarity nature of the skills and knowledge that library and DH people have is necessary in an age where “New models of library service are also emerging to support new research methods, workflows and expectations” (p.120). We believe that there is much to be gained from identifying and describing such instances (not to mention experimenting more with such collaborations). In the immediate sense, the benefits of such a collaboration were clear to us: not only were we able to make a “better” digital resource but we each benefited from the experience in various ways. For example, I felt that I benefited immensely from understanding more about how the area that I have expertise in (TEI encoding) fitted into more wide-ranging approaches to infrastructural and collection-level digital library development. So too I was prompted to reflect on the ways that collaborations such as ours could inform curriculum design and content, not to mention prompting renewed reflection on the divisions that exist between and in many present-day Universities and Academic Libraries.

You will find more about this in our article ..


Academic writing: my habits and rituals

Do you look forward to academic writing or do you avoid (or even fear it)? Do you follow a particular system in order to get your writing done? Do daily writing sessions work for you? Are you of the binge-writing persuasion? Or somewhere in between? I’ve been on sabbatical over the past few months, so my “system” is something I’ve been thinking about (and often discuss with my students). With this in mind I thought that it might be helpful to write about my current approach to daily writing.

I used to write in episodes, dramatic episodes it often felt like, of 8 or 9 hours a day for a number of days (or nights), as deadlines dictated. Three years after completing my PhD I was lucky enough to get a permanent academic post in a Research-Intensive University, where research counts as 1/3 of our posts. It quickly became clear to me that I needed to make writing part of ‘normal life’ as opposed to some activity that I did on an intermittent but intensive basis.

Through trial and error I’ve realised that the most I can write for is 3 hours per day; I’m  happy to do this 6 days per week.  If I write for more than 3 hours I end up, after a few days of this, getting so tired that I cannot write for a week or two.  I should also say that I can’t manage daily writing all year around: during the Winter term I teach two courses (one with 130+ students) and manage the work placement programme for our Digital Humanities MA/MSc. From January to April I never manage to write for more than 5 hours per week. But that is ok as it all balances out over the year, more or less.

Here is my current “system” (for reasons completely beyond me I enjoy reading descriptions of other writer’s working habits and I try out new approaches periodically):

  1. I make a vat of coffee (strong enough for a spoon to stand unaided in) and go to wherever I’m working that day (which could be my little office at the end of the garden, on the train to the office in UCL and then in the office, or whatever hotel room I’m in that day (at the moment, and for the foreseeable, I give an invited talk in the UK or internationally about every 3 weeks).
  2. I try very hard to do my writing before any other task. Some days I convince myself that an imagined email is of the utmost importance and cannot possibly spend 3 hours unanswered. This is always a mistake.
  3. When I turn on my computer my ‘Writing Log’ opens automatically so that I remember to record the number of words I have written that day (if relevant – see 6 below).
  4. I listen to a particular song, the same song every single day, and then I start writing.
  5. I aim to write for minimum 4 and maximum 6 pomodoros each day. I learned about this system from Get a Life PhD and thoroughly recommend it. Each pomodoro lasts 25 minutes and at the beginning of each session you commit to concentrate on your task for that amount of time. At the end of each pomodoro you get a 5 minute break and after completing 4 of them you take a 15 minute break. I am especially attached to the ticking sound that my timer app makes and usually have little or no problem concentrating once it starts.
  6. Under the rubric of ‘writing’ I include planning; drafting; analyzing, processing, encoding (etc) research data; reading relevant literature; writing; revising; editing and correcting proofs. I don’t include general academic reading, even if it’s essential for writing, because that would be just too tempting.

Daily writing will not work for everyone; moreover, I’m privileged to have a job that allows me the flexibility to work in this way. During the three years I spent between the completion of my PhD and  my first permanent post I moved country 3 times and held two posts with no personal research time. Back then daily writing sessions of 3 hours would have been impossible. However, regular sessions (if only of 25 minutes and never underestimate how much you can do in 25 minutes) would have been possible.

For me the great benefit of making writing a habit is that it solves the issue that I find most difficult about it – the starting and the stopping.  One of the biggest problems I have when my routine is broken is that it takes me a long time to remember what it was that I was writing about as well as to get back in to the ‘zone’.  By making writing a habit it means that when I’m up and running I just keep on going (and, in theory, at least, I know when I must stop).


Object-based learning: teaching Digital Humanities

Specimen in Grant museum, UCL

Specimen in Grant museum, UCL

As I’m still working on a new post about pioneers I thought I’d take a slight detour to discuss object-based learning and how I’ve been integrating it into the one of the core Digital Humanities (DH) postgraduate courses that I teach in UCL. Yesterday in London’s Natural History Museum I took part in Universities week and in a public engagement session I showed one of the objects that we used in this teaching (Galton’s pricker gloves).

I teach three courses each year: Digital Resources in the Humanities (DRH), Advanced Topics in the Digital Humanities and Web Technologies, Users and Management. It is mostly during DRH that I integrate objects into teaching; UCL (on their useful object-based learning webpages) describes the key benefits of this approach as including:

[the development of] core skills including team work, evidence-based learning and communication, as well as key research skills such as data collection and analysis, practical observation and drawing skills, literature review techniques and subject-specific knowledge. It can also trigger innovative dissertation topics (see here).

I’ve integrated this approach into the teaching of the course for many reasons and I’ll mention two here. Given the shape-shifting nature of DH, the content of DRH changes from year to year.  Whether we are covering text encoding, stylometry, 2D and 3D digitisation or GIS etc there are a couple of utterly fundamental points that I must communicate to students. The first is that in order to make, remake, analyse, break, evaluate or interpret a digital resource (or engage in any of the other activities that are seen as ‘DH’) it is essential to understand the characteristics of the physical object that the digital is based on. I feel that this also holds true in the case of a born digital object; even if there is not a one-to-one relationship between a physical object and its digital presence we will almost invariably see that the born digital object fits into longer intellectual and technological genealogies that, in the case of research tools, for example, can be traced back to the thirteenth century (see the work of the Rouses, for example). McCarty put this most elegantly when he wrote that “If we are to build genres that are as least as powerful as the old ones, we need to understand in their own terms what the makers of the codex genres were trying to do.” (see here p.98).

The other fundamental point is that the relationship between the digital and the physical should not be seen as oppositional or hierarchical. This may seem like an odd statement but I do find at the outset of the course that a significant number of students view the relationship in this way (i.e. that the digital or physical is somehow inherently superior to the other. Actually, come to think of it, it is not only new DH students who can hold this view, a recent example of it can be seen in the much debated New Republic article).  If this viewpoint is not reflected upon and critiqued it can be problematic because it can shut down critical and deep thinking. So too, I have seen time and again that fostering an appreciation of both the strengths and weaknesses of the physical and digital media can lead to some really interesting questions and debates that stretch us outside our immediate frame of reference, for example, can we have DH without the Digital? And this  involves wondering about new horizons like Quantum Computing as much as old, pre-digital technologies (say of the book).

Mark Carnall, Grant Museum

Mark Carnall, Grant Museum

As for the implementation of object-based learning, in UCL we are privileged to have extensive Special Collections, three Museums (the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, the Grant museum of Zoology and UCL Art Museum) and so-called ‘hidden collections’, which are available upon request but not on permanent display. The colleagues who work in UCL Museums and Collections are among the smartest and most creative one could meet. Last year I worked closely with Mark Carnall (Curator, Grant Museum of Archaeology) and Subhadra Das (Curator, UCL Teaching and Research Collections) on object-based learning sessions for DRH.

From my perspective the main benefit of these sessions was that they allowed the ‘fundamental issues’ described above not just to be explored and personalised but also to be problematized in ways that would have been impossible in the class room or by reading relevant literature only.

Class trip to Grant museum

Class trip to Grant museum

The session in the Grant museum brought students face to face with real world specimens that they had been asked to locate in the museum catalogue in advance of the class. The process of seeking out the artefacts in the museum underlined the different conceptual structures that shape the museum layout and in its online catalogue.  Once the objects were found students were required to compare and contrast the many differences between the real and digital specimens. These tentative conclusions were then explored and debated with Mark Carnall, who led a fascinating session where he asked, for example, how we can best digitise a specimen in a natural history museum? Currently there are no standards for doing this and it is easy to forget that whether the object is digitised in a straight forward way using an e.g. SLR camera or in a more sophisticated way using an e.g. Arius 3D scanner that a number of subjective interpretations will be embedded in the resulting object. How are issues such as this communicated to researchers and how do such decisions shape the kinds of research can be done on these objects? And what of the museum itself and the collections that are on display? What subjective interpretations are made by curators in the selection and display of objects and how does this shape our engagement with museums (and cultural heritage more generally)?

The second object-based learning session was led by Subhadra Das when she presented the Galton collection to us; it is one of the so-called ‘hidden collections’ mentioned above. It does have an online presence but the catalogue is difficult to use and really one must have some knowledge of the collection in advance in order to use it effectively.

16 glass eyes in tin, Galton collection

16 glass eyes in tin, Galton collection

The Galton collection was bequeathed to UCL by Francis Galton upon his death in 1911 and, I think, added to in later years.Galton was a complex man who made many important contributions that are still relevant today (e.g. the science of finger printing, weather maps, statistical methods etc). However he was also a racist who coined the term ‘eugenics’ “to describe the science and idea of breeding human ‘stock’ to give ‘the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable” (see here).  It is not universally agreed that he wished to see his theories expanded and taken to the extremes they were; yet, the Galton collection contains some items that are disturbing and students are warned of this in advance. One of the objects contained in the collection, die ‘Haarfarbentafel’, is one of a genre of tools that were used by eugenicists and viewed by them as being ‘scientific’. It is a collection of 30 samples of dyed hair, numbered from 1-30. Reeves has written of it and tools like it:

The hair scale is scientific. It is a ‘standard’ scale which means that all race scientists invest in its truth. The dark-haired races cannot escape the truth. At Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, Treblinka, Hadamar, hair shaved from those who perish rarely matches samples 12 to 24. Most are piles of clipped raven’s wings (see here, p.61).

In the class debate that followed we discussed how UCL might set about making a more effective online exhibition of such artefacts? How could they be presented appropriately and sensitively and how could we govern their reception (even if we widely agreed that we couldn’t and probably didn’t even want to)? For next year, my plan is to riff more on definitions of ‘tools’ and laws of unintended consequences. The Haarfarbentafel does seem to have been made with terrible ends in mind but does it not raise wider issues about anticipated and unanticipated uses of tools and the ideologies that may utilize them? What issues does this create for DH?

Subhadra Das presenting item in Galton collection

Subhadra Das presenting item in Galton collection

We also reflected that the specialist knowledge of Subhadra and Mark resulted in insights into the respective collections that could not otherwise have been won. How could these be successfully integrated into a digital exhibition? Or should this be our strategy at all? Should the emphasis be much more on a blended approach that recognises that both physical and digital exhibitions and objects can work more in tandem and our emphasis should be on bridging these environments  (e.g. with Augmented Reality, QR codes (à la QRrator) etc) rather than focusing on seeing them as discrete environments?

The preparation of these classes involved a lot of planning, organising and thinking; their implementation involved a lot of work for Mark, Subhadra and me. And, of course, more time spent planning teaching means less research time (or, to be more honest, longer days). So, the question of whether it was worth it must be addressed. Well … yes, I’m pretty sure it was worth it. From my perspective I discovered a lot about UCL’s Museums and Collections, got to know some fantastic colleagues that I might not otherwise have encountered and gave much more thought to the interconnections between DH and Museums, on the one hand, and Universities and Museums on the other.  I must also say that when I saw that student evaluations were, in the vast majority, extremely positive that I also felt pleased. I think there is no better reward than when students write that they not only had fun but that they thought about the world in new ways.

I’ve discussed Object-Based leaning in the context of DH in much greater detail and especially in terms of wider issues about interactive learning in a chapter in the forthcoming Integrative Learning: International Research and Practice – Routledge Research in Higher Education.


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.

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

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.

Joint and multi-authored publication patterns in the Digital Humanities

My colleague Oliver Duke-Williams and I had a paper on ‘Joint and multi-authored publication patterns in the Digital Humanities’ accepted to the recent Digital Humanities conference in Nebraska. After the talk a number of people contacted us to say that our findings would be useful for them when they sit on tenure, promotion and hiring committees because they could help to contextualise the publishing patterns of Digital Humanists within the wider Academy. So, we are making our initial findings available here. Please note that we are working on a paper about this topic that we will submit for peer review in the coming months so these findings are very much preliminary and will be extended further and possibly revised (slightly).  Note that we also have a number of findings about the gender of authors, especially in terms of collaboration patterns. These will be included in the full paper and we say a brief word on genders below.

1.0 Research Context 

A frequently claimed hallmark of Digital Humanities is its emphasis on collaborative work and joint publication (see, for example, Moulin, Nyhan et al 2012; Koh 2012; and Deegan and McCarty 2012).  Is there any mismatch between the way that the field describes itself and what we find when we examine the evidence of publication patterns and practices? Furthermore, have publication patterns changed since the first journal of the field, Computers and the Humanities, was established in 1966? Has joint publication become more or less common or have the proportions of jointly published articles remained the same? Also, how do such patterns compare with other disciplines of the Humanities?

2.0 Methodology 

Using Zotero we extracted bibliographical metadata from Computers and the Humanities (Chum) (1966 – 2004); Literary and Linguistic Computing (LLC) (1986-2011); and Digital Humanities Quarterly (DHQ) (2007-2011) and then exported this to Excel for initial viewing. As far as possible the data was cleaned and regularised e.g. a canonical form of personal names chosen where slight differences existed such as E.G. Wills and Edward G. Wills. The cleaned data were then imported into an SQL database and sorted into groups based on the number of authors. The annual observed frequencies of papers with n authors were then calculated.  For each group, a linear regression was calculated in order to determine within a given journal whether the incidence of n-authored papers had changed over time.

For each journal the data were also processed so that dual-authored papers could be analysed using a connectivity index (Bell et al 2002) to determine the extent to which the pool of authors contributing to a given journal were interconnected. A connectivity index was constructed both on a journal-wide basis and on a per-author basis, allowing the distribution of ‘well-connected’ authors to be compared within and between journals.

A look-up table was used in the database to map different variant spellings of a person’s name to a single canonical version. This occurs quite commonly, and is more common for people who have published heavily over a long time period: in the worst cases, there were up to five different spellings of a person’s name.

This table had to be prepared by hand, and this obviously risks both false pairings (two very similar names which are not, in fact, the same person) and omissions (two names which should map to the same person but are treated as separate people). As we check our results, we’ll also check this table closely for both sorts of errors. Neither sort of error should affect the analysis of the frequency of papers with different numbers of authors, but might affect some of the other analyses

3.0 Computers and the Humanities (1966-2004): findings 

In CHum we see that the trend over time is for single authorship to predominate and hold steady; there is a significant increase in dual and triple authored papers


Here are the correlations: Note that

**. Correlation is significant at the 0.01 level (2-tailed)

*. Correlation is significant at the 0.05 level (2-tailed)




3.1  Literary and Linguistic Computing: findings  

In LLC (1986-2011) single authored papers are predominant but the trend over time shows a significant decrease in the number of single authored papers and a significant increase in triple authored papers


Here are the figures for the correlations. Note that

**. Correlation is significant at the 0.01 level (2-tailed)

*. Correlation is significant at the 0.05 level (2-tailed)


 3.2 Annals of the Association of American Geographers (1966-2013): findings 

In order to build a comparative context for the Digital Humanities figures we carried out a literature review of trends in the broader area of the Humanities. We couldn’t find many studies that looked quantitatively at collaborative publishing patterns among Humanities scholars. So, we carried out an analysis of an exemplary Humanities journal: the Annals of the Association of American Geographers during the years from 1966-2013. In the full paper we will include another Humanities journal in order to build a more robust comparative context. Here are our initial findings:

•In AAA_G single authored papers are predominant and the trend over time shows a slight increase; statistically significant increases in collaborative publishing patterns can be seen in all of their constellations (though we tend to discount the 4- and 5-authored publications as they were present in low numbers in the years sampled).
Regarding the numbers for the correlations the same notes as above apply:
4.0 Conclusions 
• In Chum single authored papers are predominant and the trend over time holds steady; there is a significant increase in dual and triple authored papers
• In LLC (1986-2011) single authored papers are predominant but the trend over time shows a significant decrease in the number of single authored papers and a significant increase in triple authored papers
• In AAA_G single authored papers are predominant and the trend over time shows a slight increase; the increase in multi-authored papers is statistically significant in all its forms (though note comments on 4- and 5- authorship above)
• In Chum we noticed a marked bias towards women publishing in collaborative pairs; in LLC a slight bias
(we have not included these figures above but will make them available in the published paper in due course)
• For all three, women are a lower proportion of all authors than men, and consequently when looking at raw numbers, you see fewer F-F collaborations than M-M. However, when we look at the proportions of men who collaborate (with anyone) and women who collaborate (with anyone) we see that women are more collaborative (in terms of publishing) than men. LLC and AAAG have fairly similar stats, but for CHUM both men and women seem to be more likely to collaborate.
• These preliminary results suggest that the differences between LLC and CHUM are more pronounced than the differences between LLC and AAAG.

• Regarding the excellent point made by Isabel Galina

We can only say #watchthisspace

• Finally, Oliver has made available some data tables which summarise some of the data with which we have been working.

The tables show author, number of papers and publication years for each journal. The publication years are given an asterisk where a paper was co-authored by two or more people. Clicking on the header for a column will cause the data to be sorted and redisplayed on the basis of the column contents. You can find them here.

Bell, M., Blake, M., Boyle, P., Duke-Williams, O., Rees, P., Stillwell, J. and Hugo, G. (2002), Cross-national comparison of internal migration: issues and measures. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society: Series A (Statistics in Society), 165: 435–464. doi: 10.1111/1467-985X.t01-1-00247

 Bulger, Monica, et al. Reinventing research? Information practices in the humanities. Research Information Network, UK, April 2011.

Deegan, Marilyn, and Willard McCarty. 2012. Collaborative research in the digital humanities : a volume in honour of Harold Short, on the occasion of his 65th birthday and his retirement, September 2010. Farnham: Ashgate.

Engels, T.C.E., Ossenblook, T.L.B. & Spruyt, E.H.J. (2012). Changing publication patterns in the Social Sciences and Humanities, 2000-2009. Scientometrics

Koh, Adeline. 2012. ‘The Challenges of Digital Scholarship’. ProfHacker, January 25. http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/the-challenges-of-digital-scholarship/38103

Moulin, Claudine and Julianne Nyhan et al. (2011) Research Infrastructures in the Digital Humanities ESF: Science Policy Briefing



Podcasts from the Hidden Histories symposium and hello again

I’ve just returned to work after almost five months maternity leave. Needless to say, during this time my gorgeous new arrival demanded all of my attention and I didn’t manage to keep up with anything research-related. Since returning to work I’ve been amazed by how much has happened in the DH world and am really enjoying catching up again. I was reminded of the speed of Digital Humanities’ most recent ascent by something my colleague Melissa Terras tweeted on May 15th:

Tweet showing Digital Humanities in drop down menu

Digital Humanities is real

This brought me right back to my little office in University College Cork, Ireland in 2006. A few Digital Humanities projects (we called them Humanities Computing projects then) were ongoing in UCC. At that time the CELT (Corpus of Electronic Texts) project was probably the most established of them. It was set up by Professor Donnchadh Ó Corráin and  stemmed from a project also set up by him in November 1991 (CURIA). CELT was one of the earliest, if not the earliest Digital Humanities project in Ireland. From its inception it encoded historical texts of medieval and modern Ireland in line with TEI and, as far as I’m aware, the first PhD thesis on TEI was carried out there in 1997 (by Mavis Cournane, entitled ‘The application of SGML/TEI to the processing of complex multilingual historical texts’. Others in Cork were working on DH then too, for example, among others, Peter Flynn in Electronic Publishing, Orla Murphy in English and Mike Cosgrave in History). CELT also played a key role in now defunct projects such as the ‘Documents of Ireland’ project, which ended in 1999 and included some nine projects ranging from ‘Breaking the Silence — Voicing the Experience of Staying-at-home in an Emigrant Society’ to ‘The Latin Bible: Text and Reception’.

In 2006 I had just completed my PhD (based on a combination of XML, Old Irish and  Metalexicography) at CELT and was in search of an academic post. I remember so well that sinking feeling as I punched “Humanities Computing” and then “Digital Humanities” into the various recruitment search engines or scanned the drop down menus of those sites. Now and then something did pop up (and I was lucky enough to get posts in France and Germany before moving permanently to UCL) but not very often compared to the past couple of years. In fact, I’d left Ireland ever before the Digital Humanities Observatory was set up or any of the teaching and PhD programs that now exist in almost every University in Ireland were established. And now … Digital Humanities even has its own place on drop-down menus! Even had I managed to get more than three hours unbroken sleep at any point in the past five months this fact would still make me feel old(ish).

Apropos of this, I’ve blogged here before about the work we are doing on the History of Computing in the Humanities. As part of this project, in September 2011 Anne Welsh and I organised a one-day Symposium that brought Historians, Archivists, Information Studies scholars and Digital Humanists in order to discuss methodologies for uncovering the histories of computing in the Humanities (c.1949 – present) and to reflect on the state of the art. Most of the presentations (listed below, Claudine Moulin’s was sadly lost due to a technical problem) are available as podcasts on the Hidden Histories website and I hope you’ll find them as interesting as I did!

  • Opening Keynote: Beyond chronology and profession: discovering how to write a history of the Digital Humanities, Willard McCarty, Department of Digital Humanities, King’s College London; Centre for Cultural Research, University of Western Sydney.
  • Knowledge Spaces and Digital Humanities, Claudine Moulin, Universitaet Trier, Germany
  • Unwriting the history of Humanities Computing, Edward Vanhoutte, Royal Academy of Dutch Language and Literature – Ghent, Belgium
  • Crowd sourcing: beyond the traditional boundaries of academic history, Melissa Terras, Dept. Information Studies, UCL
  • Different stories to be lived and told: recovering Lehmann James Oppenheimer (1868-1916) for the narrative of the Irish Arts & Crafts movement (1894-1925), James G.R. Cronin, School of History & Centre for Adult Continuing Education, University College Cork, Ireland.
  • Oral History and acts of recovery: humanizing history?, Andrew Flinn, Dept. Information Studies, UCL
  • Lost origins of Information Science, Vanda Broughton, Dept. Information Studies, UCL
  • (Virtual presentation) DH pioneers and progeny: some reflections on generational accomplishment and engagement in the Digital Humanities, Ray Siemens, Faculty of Humanities, University of Victoria
  • Closing Keynote: Data vs. Text: forty years of confrontation, Lou Burnard, Oxford University Computing Services (Emeritus)

Reflections on the ‘Hidden histories: Computing and the humanities c.1949–1980’ project

The origins of Digital Humanities may stretch back to at least 1949, and the work of Fr Roberto Busa, but relatively little research has been done on the social, cultural and intellectual history of digital humanities or the wider area of computing in the humanities. For the past 1,5 years I’ve been working on a project called ‘Hidden histories: Computing and the humanities c.1949–1980’, which aims to make a contribution towards filling this gap. So far we’ve completed some 15 interviews (usually about an hour long) with those who worked in the area of computing in the Humanities since the 1960s. All interviews are based around the following core questions:

1) Please tell me about your earliest memory of encountering computing
2) Did you receive formal training in programming or computing?
3) How did you first get involved in what we now refer to as Digital Humanities?
4) Which people particularly influenced you and how?
5) What about scholars who were not using computers in their research –
do you have some sense of what their views about humanities computing were?
6) What was your first engagement with the ‘conference community’ and
how did that come about?

I invariably add to the questions above depending on the kind of information and memories that are uncovered during the interviews. Five interviews (with Ray Siemens, Willard McCarty, Howard Short, Geoffrey Rockwell and John Unsworth) have been accepted for publication in Digital Humanities Quarterly and will appear soon; an article about the project and some of its key findings is forthcoming in Literary and Linguistic Computing. At present we are at work transcribing another 5 interviews and many more are scheduled in the coming months. These will all be made available too; after all, they are in effect primary sources that can be drawn on as we begin writing the histories of computing in the Humanities.

The research that I’ve been doing on the project is some of the most fascinating I have ever done. This is for many reasons. As time goes on I am realising that what is emerging from the project is essentially an oral prosopography that will allow some of the social, cultural and intellectual factors that helped to shape the work of Digital Humanities scholars since c.1949 to be explored. The interviews are also helping to raise interesting questions related to the past, present and future of digital humanities. To choose one example from among many, I’m starting to get an overview of the multiple routes through which people have entered the field. I’m also learning that the levels of formal training in computing that they had access to differed substantially. Looking to the present time, as more and more dedicated Digital Humanities courses are being founded in countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany, Canada and the USA etc, students have the opportunity to undertake formal and focused training in the subject. It will be most interesting to see, in due course, how this formalisation of the routes of entry into the discipline will shape interpretations of what it is. Will we still be having the ‘what is digital humanities’ debate in ten years and how important will it be to understanding the history of the emergence of the discipline?
Other themes that emerged from the interviews include the narratives that the community has been constructing and labels (for example ‘revolutionary’) that we apply to ourselves. I’m working on this issue at the moment so I won’t say a whole lot more about it now. Of late the role of women in Digital Humanities is a theme that has also been emerging from the interviews.
If you would like to participate in the project please contact me directly. Also, I’ve been invited to participate in the AHRC Digital Transformations Moot that is happening in London on 19/11/2012. I’ll be in a room just off the Newgate Suite so if you happen to be there do pop in!

Postscript (03/04/2013): five interviews are now available in preview form in a special issue of Digital Humanities Quarterly 

A common European strategy on Research Infrastructures in the Digital Humanities?

Last week my colleague Melissa Terras organised a fascinating conference here in UCL called Showing the Arts and Humanities matter, which was the first 4Humanities conference to be held at UCL. The talk given by Ruediger Klein, European Alliance for the Social Sciences and Humanities: called “Making the Humanities Count – the dawn of a new era thanks to globalising Digital Humanities?” emphasised both the far reaching potential of Digital Humanities for the Humanities as a whole as well as the many issues that DH must still address, not only in terms of research questions, but also in terms of research policy and foresight at the pan-European level.

Within the context of DH research policy and foresight, I recently co-Authored an European Science Foundation (ESF) Science Policy Briefing on Digital Research Infrastructures in the Humanities. So, I’ve decided that a shortish mention of this is as good a topic as any to base the first post of my new blog on. Work on the report has been ongoing since 2009 and it involved contributions from a wide cross section of the digital humanities community in Europe and beyond; it was also a project of strategic importance for the European Science Foundation Standing Committee for the Humanities. It is aimed not only at researchers but also at those involved in research policy and foresight, such as funding bodies. To quote from the introduction:

The publication of the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI) roadmap has made clear the importance of dedicated Humanities RIs [Research Infrastructures]. However, only two Humanities RIs have been funded through this initiative. This report positions itself in terms of priorities and future research directions for a common strategy on RIs in the Humanities at the European level. The bridging of physical and digital RIs presents opportunities and challenges with implications that are discussed under the following rubrics: researcher input and engagement in making RIs; preservation and sustainability; the evaluation of digital research and its outputs; communities of practice; cultural and linguistic variety (transnational RIs); education and training. (p. 2.)

In addition to a number of case studies the report ends with a series of recommendations covering the following areas:

  • State of the art and needs
  • Physical and Digital RIs
  • Strategic Directions
  • Partnerships and Networking
  • Academic Recognition
  • Dissemination and Outreach
  • Evaluation of RIs

So far we have done a reasonable amount of work trying to bring the report to the attention of the DH community across Europe. For example, Prof Claudine Moulin talked extensively about it in her keynote at the 2012 Digital Humanities conference in Hamburg; last week an overview of it was presented in the Lettre d’information de l’InSHS du CNRS / n°19 – septembre 2012 and other publications connected to it are forthcoming; during the Summer I presented it at a round table discussion about Research Infrastructures in the Digital Humanities at the European Summer School of Culture and Technology in Leipzig, among other events. At least one colleague has told me that they referenced the recommendations of the report in their latest funding bid and I very much hope that other colleagues will be able to make use of it in a similar way! Still, we’ll have to wait a little longer (and do a bit more awareness raising) to see whether our recommendations will be  been acted upon by funding bodies or other research policy and foresight bodies.

Now! After this description I just know that you can’t wait to read the report …. So, here is a link to the full report: (I know, ESF certainly do not seem to be fond of Human Readable URLs)


and for the more time-pressed among you here is a link to the Executive Summary:

Executive Summary


Arche Logos

Arche Logos will be a reflective research blog. They themes that I will discuss include updates on or data about the Digital Humanities research projects that I am involved in e.g. Hidden Histories (http://www.ucl.ac.uk/infostudies/research/hiddenhistories/); reflections on the MA/MSc in Digital Humanities in UCL that I lecture on (http://www.ucl.ac.uk/dh/courses/mamsc); my role as European Liaison manager in teh UCL Centre for Digtial Humanities (http://www.ucl.ac.uk/dh/) as well as articles that I am working on and book reviews.