University of Alberta
In the last decade or so, humanities computing has introduced a new model of research in the humanities.
More than that, it has undergone so rapid a development that it has brought us to the brink of major changes
in our institutional practices both in research and in teaching. In this panel about expectations, or what the
future may hold for humanities computing, this paper will address both research and institutional issues. This
interdisciplinary practice has created new challenges in collaboration in both spheres.
From the outset, humanities computing has been an experiment in collaboration. Its introduction of
genuinely interdisciplinary conversation into the core of the humanities has had a transforming impact on the
ways in which we approach much of our work. Of course, some kinds of collaboration have already been a
key methodology in the humanities and social sciences, and the work of the twentieth century was in
significant part shaped by great collaborations—resulting in great editions, histories, and historical
dictionaries by many hands. By and large these collaborations brought together like-minded scholars working
in more or less uniform methodologies, and by and large they functioned as a perceived exception to the
preferred norm of the single scholar producing the monograph.
The nature of the collaboration generated by humanities computing is quite different from that. At the
core where the new scholarly resources originate lies a conversation between distinct disciplines and very
different research methodologies. There can be no Orlando literary history, for instance, without the specific
disciplinary expertise of the research collaborator who is a Professor of Computing Science or without the
MSc in Computing Science who works at the side of the literary historians to build the deeply encoded
Orlando Project, prepare its delivery system, and develop its interface for academics and other users. In this
project, the interdisciplinary collaboration reshapes not only the notion of history, and of the reader of history,
but also of the ways in which history is made. The Orlando collaboration has involved a training and research
partnership with graduate students which has become a new model for graduate education in the departments
in which it is housed.
At this stage in the development of humanities computing, which is its move from the margins of our
humanities disciplines to somewhere much closer to the centre, we are faced with the need for new kinds of
collaboration. One of these must happen within our research mandate of humanities computing; the other in
the practices of the institutions in which we are housed.
As the work of humanities computing is progressively mainstreamed and the need expands for
electronic resources whose scholarly quality and authority is undeniable, it will be important for scholarly
projects to reinforce one another’s effectiveness by developing tools and tactics for convergence. As projects
of scholarly quality and reliability emerge, they can expand their utility and resonance in new partnerships.
For instance, conversations have been initiated on the convergence of the several literary projects dealing with
women’s writing in English. Together with the Brown Women Writers Project, the Victorian Women Writers
Project, British Women Romantic Poets, the Dickinson Archives, and the Perdita Project, the Orlando Project
has discussed the possibility of networking our various but related resources. Great synergy and enhanced
utility would result, we believe, from bringing together a collection of independent text collections united by a
central architecture that translates among their different knowledge representations. To allow for a single
point of access to these established electronic text projects, however, will require a metadata standard that will
allow the information they contain to be searched, retrieved, and shared effectively. Only then will a unified
means of interrogating them be possible.
Provision of tools for this kind of integrated access to existing projects of reliable scholarly quality
will be a major challenge to institutional and international collaboration in the next stage of our development.
Now that humanities computing infrastructure is being strengthened and solidified, in Canada particularly
with the national and multi-institutional support for TAPoR (the Text Analysis Portal for Research), we need
to work towards tools that permit increased convergence and interlinking of currently discrete materials.
Numerous fields in addition to women’s writing or literature generally—history and law, for instance, in
which the separation between source and secondary materials remains strong—stand to benefit from the
investigation of possibilities for relating primary and secondary material which are involved in the kind of
collaboration I have just sketched. We need to find ways of fostering such collaboration that overcome the
various institutional and economic constraints, as well as the varied trajectories, of related projects.
But challenges in collaboration will not be restricted to research nor to the development of new tools
to enable effective research and new knowledge production in the humanities. They are also being posed – in
spades— in the area of our institutional presence and practices. So successful has the humanities computing
project been in the decade of the Web that it is becoming mainstreamed into the teaching agenda of graduate
and undergraduate programs. While only a few years ago this experiment in the bringing together of texts and
technologies was a small specialization within the broad range of humanities research and a very marginal
operation in relation to the teaching mandate of departments, it is now poised to become a curriculum
requirement at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. The need for highly qualified personnel in
humanities computing will increase enormously in the next decade, and our free-wheeling interdisciplinarity
will need to move into the phase of building new institutional structures for its work and of finding funding
for the training of a professional cadre to support teaching at both levels of curriculum. As reliable scholarly
on-line resources multiply and links between them make them increasingly useful instruments of mainstream
teaching and research, the humanities computing experiment will be mainstreamed as an important element in
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