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A Hypertextual History of Humanities Computing: Introduction

Taken from a paper delivered at CATH'96

First a few disclaimers. I was presented with a two hour slot earlier in August and originally requested to fill it with some "web stuff". Two hours on the World Wide Web, I thought, without any hands on and with only one networked machine would not at all be attractive for either myself or anyone who wandered into the session. Then, I thought to myself, why not extend it to a session on using the Internet in the classroom which would include the World Wide Web and also some of the other means by which teachers have both brought the Internet to the classroom and the classroom to the Internet. With that, and some participating discussion, I could probably fill a reasonably interesting one and a half hours allowing the audience to catch the last half hour of one of the other two sessions. It is, however, always a great risk to base a session on the Internet. Using one computer in a lecture or workshop has its own inherent risks but being dependent on numerous different computers around the world, even to the point of including a video (CU-SeeMe) session over the Internet appeared to be positively foolhardy (even if I was fortunate enough to be allotted an early morning slot before our colleagues across the Atlantic awoke and switched on their networked machines).

Conferences such as CATH usually consist of papers demonstrating the cutting edge of technology and teaching. The recent launch of Windows 95 and the continual trumpet blasts heralding the Internet for the masses serve to remind us that we are in a new age of information technology. The emphasis lies on the present and particularly on the future which, with ever decreasing prices, rapid advances in data storage and networking, looks bright for every computer user including the humanities scholar. Nearly every teacher in higher education is expected to have a computer on their desk, the majority of whom will have a direct Internet connection, and some of whom will have software particular to their own discipline installed on their personal computer, or at least have ready access to such software through their university network.

Humanities computing is an established form and has been for at least twenty years. There are journals dedicated to the use of computers in humanities or its constituent disciplines. There are regular conferences such as CATH or the ACH/ALLC plus the numerous seminars and workshops which occur throughout the year throughout the world. There are well-established humanities computing centres such as Oxford, Princeton, Virginia, Dartmouth, Toronto, Louvain, Utrecht, Tubingen, to name but a few. In addition, each computer centre can be expected to support computing in humanities disciplines without raising an eyebrow.

To all levels in the humanities are computers applied: private research, collaborative research within departments and across institutions, to the rapid growth of computers in teaching, to national projects such as the Arts and Humanities Data Service. At the centre of much humanities computing lies the text in some form or another. So much so, that many non-humanities people still seem to think that all humanities computing requires is a word-processor, an electronic edition of Shakespeare or the bible, and access to on-line library catalogues. And indeed, for many, this is all they might require (though electronic mail would be nice too). There have been, are and will be, as I need not even mention here, far more imaginative uses of the computer in humanities disciplines. At the centre, I still believe, lies some form of electronic text or edition of the text, whether it is created anew with the word processor, examined minutely with some text analysis software, presented on the World Wide Web, or taught in a multimedia context.

It has been said that the computer literacy of a department may be tested by asking how many typewriters that department owns. For the record no typewriter exists in the Oxford University Computing Services; discovered when we wished to complete a form, something the computer and printer still finds beyond its means (along with envelopes). We take the electronic text for granted now that typewriters have demised in favour of the word processor. So many texts are created, read, disposed or stored without having met a printed page. We are used to the conversion of printed texts to electronic form and becoming accustomed to searching texts on CD-ROM and viewing the results or full text on screen (even if we are not quite used to the commercial cost). We are becoming more than used to concepts of hypertext, if the number of books which currently abound on the subject is anything to go by. In fact, when it comes to hypertext the theories have exceeded the reality and more often than not hypertext is less the destabilisation of the author and the demise of the simple reader than it is merely the turning of arbitrary pages, albeit on the screen and pages which might contain some other medium than simply words.

This session is not, however, about the present or future uses of computing technology in the humanities. Why, one might wonder, did I choose to present a session more concerned about the past history of humanities computing when there would appear to be so much to discuss in the present? When I was considering my original session about humanities and the Internet, I had just completed a short article on computing and theology, part of which outlined the history of computing in this subject. I have to confess that my academic preferences lie with historical reconstruction, preferably that sort found in the fourth century Roman Empire. By instinct I tend back towards the origins of some given subject. Humanities computing, of course, has a history, parts of which are almost as inaccessible as the fourth century and almost as far as removed from today's experience. The difference I suppose is that when I speak on a fourth century topic I do not expect to find the subjects of my paper looking up at me from the floor. Fortunately, I cannot say the same when speaking about the history of humanities computing - (yet).

It is good every so often to remind ourselves that we are part of a line of historical development. It is particularly appropriate to do this in times which are described as new, ground-breaking, unique, on the edge of something wonderful or some other expression which somehow sets us apart from the past and makes us the beginning of the future.

A definitive history of humanities computing has yet to be written. Such a work (and hopefully it will be written before the pioneers have passed on to the great data processing centre in the sky) should not be a list of technical specifications and sample program scripts but rather the preservation of the sense of enthusiasm, challenges, and triumphs found in the work of men and women such as those I intend to mention this morning. The more digital our age becomes the more information we are bombarded with. However, the more computer-dependent we become the greater the chance of losing potentially valuable electronic information which may one day form the basis of some historical study. Where are they now? one might well ask of the punch cards and ticker tape of the previous generation. Hopefully, they're in someone's attic; but even if they are, do we still have the equipment to read our sources? Finding and deciphering ancient the texts of ancient cultures will be a welcome change to deciphering the binary code on a set of punch cards. I was informed, rather bluntly I thought, that a history of the individuals who pioneered the use of computers in the humanities would only sell four copies. If this is indeed true then I do not conceal my disappointment. If we, who work in the humanities and use computers in teaching or in research, have no interest in the origins of humanities computing then not only will we risk not appreciating the ways in which computers have indeed transformed the way we study our particular discipline, but we may also continue to labour under the misconception that what we are doing is so radically different from before, and that we doing something new, ground-breaking and on the edge of something wonderful.

[Introduction] | [Pioneers] | [Independence] | [Convergence]

This document created: 4 February 1996
This document last revised: 4 February 1996
Author: Michael Fraser
The URL of this document is http://info.ox.ac.uk/ctitext/history/intro.html