No such thing as Humanities Computing? An analytical history of digital resource creation and computing in the humanities.

  1. 1. Claire Warwick

    School of Library, Archive and Information Studies - University College London

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This proposal reports on a research project, funded by a British Academy small grant to investigate the history, development and institutional context of a range of digital resources and computing projects in the humanities. This history is very recent, but rich and realtively neglected, except for Hockey, (forthcoming). The most long lived of such projects have existed only since the early 1970s. However, the pace of technological and institutional change has caused rapid, dramatic changes in this period. This research therefore aims to provide an analytical history of the field and its developments, placed within the context of institutional infrastructure and that of government policy and funding structures.


The work began with a pilot project undertaken at the Department of Information Studies, University of Sheffield. (Warwick and Carty, 2001) Research was based on a small sample of projects on the History of Science: the Hartlib project, (University of Sheffield); the Darwin Correspondence Project, (University of Cambridge); the Robert Boyle project (Birkbeck College, London); the Mueller Correspondence Project and the Newton Project (Imperial College, London). Interviews conducted during the pilot project established the need for a of history of such projects which would place them in the context of the broader field as it has developed from the 1970s to the present.

Humanities computing (HC) projects may collaborate with a University Library, Computing Services, or Research Centre. However, in many cases they comprise small teams of academics, working on a limited budget. Although the teams make every effort to document technical decisions that they make, they were concerned about a lack of time to construct a history of the project, whether oral or written.

Researchers feared that they were working in isolation from other teams, since, especially in the early days of development, many scholars working in the area were unaware of each others' existence. As a result valuable knowledge may be not be shared. Similar difficulties might be encountered, and solutions developed without the benefit of others' hard won experience, costing valuable time and resources. (Hunter, 1995, Flanders, 2000) These problems have been ameliorated by advice from bodies such as the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI). Yet, given the diversity of material in the Humanities, many projects worried about whether they had applied the TEI dtd 'correctly' in the mistaken belief that others found this easy.

Research teams also shared a corpus of knowledge and experience about broader factors affecting the academic progress of each project, and how it was related to the broader scholarly, human and institutional context. Such knowledge was being lost, and many thought that it ought to be preserved, not only as a record of early work, but also as a resource that future researchers might draw upon when planning new work.

It became apparent therefore that there was a need for research into this area. This should not only be technical in nature, since what documentation exists tend to be in he area of technical decisions. (For example Leslie, 1990, Lucas and Short, 1999, Pearn, 1999) .The research described in this proposal therefore concentrates on less tangible factors such as the reasons for beginning the project, problems encountered, changes and developments that took place, the response of more traditional researchers in the humanities and how the result of the work were integrated into libraries and scholarship in the humanities.

In the pilot project, those interviewed thought that such research should be done by someone from outside individual projects, libraries or e-text centres, so that a comparative view could be developed. This research therefore aims to analyse trends and problems, and to chart how the history of the sector has developed.


In order to acquire rich qualitative data which can be examined in depth, (Patton, 1990) representatives from a sample of projects were interviewed. Documentation provided, or articles written about the project have also been consulted.

Sample choice

The sample was chosen to represent the diversity of the field and to provide a comparison between work in the USA and the UK. Because of the small scale of funding it has not been possible to carry out research in continental Europe, but this is anticipated for a future grant application. The small size of the pilot study allowed us to come to very tentative conclusions. A wider range of projects has therefore been consulted. Respondent in the pilot study had stressed the important influence of HC centres and government bodies, so research was carried out not only on individual projects, but also on larger HC centres and with representatives of bodies such as the Arts and Humanities Data Service (AHDS) and the Resource Discovery Network (RDN). These have been chosen to reflect the following criteria.


Interviews undertaken reflected the difference in scale between small individual and digital libraries such as the E-text Centre at the University of Virginia. HC centres tend to provide an overarching structure for a variety of projects. It was therefore important to examine how such centres have developed, and how smaller projects relate to them. Location: Our original research concentrated on projects in the UK. However, some of the most important developments in HC have happened in the USA. It is vital to gain a comparative perspective on this area, and the way that transatlantic collaboration has begun to take place. Research was therefore carried out at Brown University Scholarly Technology Group, the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities (IATH) and the Center for Digital History (CDH) at University of Virginia, the Perseus Project at Tufts University and the Center for Electronic Texts in the Humanities (CETH) at Rutgers University. These have been compared to UK centres such as the Humanities Advanced Technology and Information Institute (HATII) at the University of Glasgow, Oxford University Learning and Research Technologies Groups (formerly the Humanities Computing Unit), the Centre for Computing in the Humanities at Kings College London, as well as individual projects such as The Perdita Project at Nottingham Trent University.


The projects that began in the 1970s, such as the Oxford Text Archive, often developed on an adhoc basis with little funding. This is different from recent initiatives, funded by research grants and systematically managed, such as the LEADERS project at UCL. Comparison of such projects was therefore made to determine what effect the age of the project has on its procedures, and how the framework under which it operated might affect its research.


Digital resource collections have been designed to serve different purposes. Some, like the Oxford Text Archive (OTA), historically had little sense of collection policy, aiming to collect as much heterogeneous material as possible. Others concentrated on one particular writer, or type of resource. Some were created for teaching, or to further a particular kind of research. This research therefore aims to investigate what impact these different purposes had on the development and life of the resource.


At the time of writing the proposal the interviews are being completed. Should the paper be accepted, findings can be discussed more fully, and will be presented under the headings discussed above. However, prelimary results suggest that the issue of funding and administrative structures has been vital to the development of projects and HC centres. They also indicate a marked difference between UK and USA examples. USA projects are typically more developed before seeking external research grant, due to the availability of funding from their own university. The vision of the university in which HC is undertaken was also vital and when this changed so did that of projects in HC. This is so noticeable that the title of this paper is a direct quotation from an interviewee reflecting on such a change in policy. It is clear that HC centres play an important part in shaping individual projects, and where local support was absent, despite government funding and central advice, problems of the non-use of standards and a lack of awareness of good practice are still noticeable. Unresolved issues included how to communicate with and gain respect for HC research from the more traditional scholarly community, and how researchers and academics should be rewarded for such work within traditional promotion and remuneration structures.

Relevance to conference themes

Although all those interviewed in this study speak English, the paper nevertheless addresses cultural differences between the USA and the UK and the manner in which HC work is carried out, funded and supported by institutions. The research also applies empirical methods from information studies, and social science (ie the analysis of qualitative interview data) and aims to consider the institutional role of HC within the contemporary academy.


All URLs last visited 24/10/03.

Bibliography Flanders, J. (2000). 'Writing about it: documentation and humanities computing'. Paper given at ALLC-ACH Conference, Glasgow University, July 21 - 25 2000.
2. Hockey, S. (forthcoming) 'A History of Humanites Computing' in Ray Siemens, Susan Schreibman and John Unsworth (eds.) Blackwell Companion to Digital Humanities. Oxford: Blackwell.
3. Hunter, M. (1995). 'How to edit a seventeenth-century manuscript: principles and practice'. Seventeenth Century, 10(2), pp.277-310. Lucas, A.M. & Short, H. (1999). 'Anticipating Technical Advance in Recreating a Scattered Correspondence: the Mueller Correspondence Project'.
4. Pearn, A. (1999). 'The Darwin Correspondence Project: evolution of an electronic resource'. Paper given at DRH Conference, September 12-15th 1999, King's College, London.
5. Paterson, A. (1991). 'Windowing the past: a seventeenth century technological archive and its electronic exploitation'. In: Lucker, J.K. (ed.), IATUL Proceedings: Proceedings of the 14th Biennial Conference of IATUL, Cambridge, Mass. USA, July 8-12 1991: New Technologies and Information Services - Evolution or Revolution?, pp.164-168.
6. Patton, M.Q. (1990). Qualitative evaluation and research methods. 2nd ed. London: Sage.
7. Warwick C and Carty, C. (2001) Only Connect, a Study of the Problems caused by platform specificity and researcher isolation in humanities computing. In Arved Hubler, Peter Linde and John W.T. Smith, (eds.) Electronic Publishing 01, 2001 in the digital Publishing Odyssey. Proceedings of an ICCC/IFIP Conference at the University of Kent at Canterbury, 5-7 July 2001 pp. 36-47

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Conference Info



Hosted at Göteborg University (Gothenburg)

Gothenborg, Sweden

June 11, 2004 - June 16, 2004

105 works by 152 authors indexed

Series: ACH/ICCH (24), ALLC/EADH (31), ACH/ALLC (16)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None