Some Thoughts on Forty Years of Humanities Computing - A Signpost to New Directions?

keynote / plenary
  1. 1. Roy Wisbey

    King's College London

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Some Thoughts on Forty Years of Humanities Computing -
A Signpost to New Directions?


King's College London


University of Tübingen







invited paper

The year 1960 marked the beginning of several strands of the speaker's
activities, strands which have remained fruitfully entwined until the present
day. In January 1960 he was appointed Honorary Secretary of the Modern
Humanities Research Association (MHRA), an influential learned society,
established in 1918, becoming its Honorary Treasurer in July 1963, a post he
held until March 2001. Following this he was elected as the Association's
President for 2003. Quite separately, and in a direction more obviously germane
to the present conference, he embarked in June 1960 on his first applications of
the computer to medieval literary texts, after a year or two of growing
awareness, above all through press reports concerning the work of Roberto Busa,
that scholarship had gained a powerful new tool for the compilation and analysis
of natural language. His first paper on the subject was presented in November
1960 to humanities scholars at the University of Cambridge, and published in
The Modern Language Review, an MHRA periodical, in
April 1962. Also in November 1960, he attended and contributed a paper to the
colloquium on the mechanization of literary analysis and lexicography organized
by the Tübingen Computing Centre in conjunction with IBM Germany and the Centre
(CAAL) which Pater (later Monsignor) Busa had established in 1956 at the
Aloisianum in Gallarate.
Also in the autumn of 1960, the speaker had submitted proposals to the University
of Cambridge for what was eventually called the Literary and Linguistic Research
Centre, the doors of which opened in October 1964. Its work gave rise in March
1970 to an international symposium on 'The Computer in Literary and Linguistic
Research' (published C.U.P., 1971) the first of its kind in Great Britain, a
forerunner, and one of the progenitors of the present conference series. There
was a direct link between the symposium and the establishment in April 1973 of
the Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing. Its inaugural meeting at
King's College London was under the speaker's chairmanship, with Mrs Joan M.
Smith as founder Secretary. Within a few years the Association was fostering
international co-operation in humanities computing on a considerable scale. The
range of experience represented by these early developments offers an
opportunity to examine examples of how far the aims of projects undertaken
during this period had to be tailored to what was technologically possible at
the time, and the extent to which that generation's expectations for the future
were realistic, or fell short of what would actually be achieved. Another
question is how far subsequent research has been shaped by events which were not
foreseeable in 1960, for instance the present scale of access to personal
computing, together with its low cost, and the associated ubiquitousness of
e-mail and the web. In seeking new directions for humanities computing it is
sensible to reckon with some developments, such as the availability of
inconceivably large storage capacities, and the processor speed necessary to
harness them for every aspect of the worldwide electronic library. Among the
lessons the past can teach us, on the other hand, is the realisation that we
have little prospect of predicting future technologies, and the radical changes
they will bring about.
In choosing illustrations from the present-day situation in humanities computing,
the speaker draws inter alia on experience he has
gained during the past decade, during which he has played a guiding role in
giving electronic access to the very large archive of MHRA periodicals,
bibliographies, monographs, and other book publications. This challenging task,
which finally and fully brought together various strands of his activities, as
outlined above, represented a striking blend of processes such as the
digitization, computer typesetting, and electronic storage of periodicals, which
it was possible to envisage in 1960, although hardly on the scale required, with
advanced features like mass accessibility for full text searching and article
delivery through the internet. Reference is made also to non-electronic
obstacles in the way of such undertakings, among them legal matters, for
instance intellectual property rights, and commercial considerations like
financial viability. Such concerns are of particular importance to learned
societies which, like the MHRA, see their charitable function as the provision
of a stable, long-term environment for core bibliographies and periodicals, as
well as the generation of funds for future initiatives, above all those which
cannot hope to be self-sustaining at the outset. Recent electronic developments
have ensured that the work of past contributors to MHRA publications is
revivified and that it remains current indefinitely, while helping to fund new
directions of scholarship.

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Conference Info

In review

"New Directions in Humanities Computing"

Hosted at Universität Tübingen (University of Tubingen / Tuebingen)

Tübingen, Germany

July 23, 2002 - July 28, 2008

72 works by 136 authors indexed

Affiliations need to be double-checked.

Conference website:

Series: ALLC/EADH (29), ACH/ICCH (22), ACH/ALLC (14)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC

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