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 

Julianne Nyhan

Associate Professor of Digital Information Studies, University College London. Main research: Digital Humanities, Oral History & History of Computing. Publications page: / Research:

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