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Julianne Nyhan wanted to reveal the history of digital humanities

Digital humanities is a field that covers everything from medieval texts to high-tech work with images. Julianne Nyhan wanted to reveal the history of the field, and went to Italy to interview pioneer female punchcard workers.

What is digital humanities, actually? There is very little agreement of that, says Julianne Nyhan, lecturer (assistant Professor) in Digital Information Studies at University College London, who recently visited the University of Gothenburg to talk about her research.

– Over the past numbers of years, very many answers have been given to that question, says Julianne Nyhan.

– But I think we can say a couple of things with some certainty. Digital humanities tend to cover three key areas. The first is that it tries to answer questions or explore questions about the Humanities that could otherwise not be answered, or to ask old questions in new ways – often using new and cutting edge technology.

The second area addresses the reversal of this process, when technology is questioned through the lens of the Humanities, and the third area looks at typical structures and processes of the modern university – and how some of them may be reformed.

– For example, innovative ways of publishing and innovative forms of communicating information and making knowledge accessible.

One very typical digital humanities method is using XML and TEI, two systems of inserting codes into text.

– You do that in order to make the information machine readable and searchable in a more conceptual way, and to be able to connect it with other projects.

Another method is data analysis, or data mining. In addition to reading one text very closely and deeply, text analysis is used to cover a very broad range of texts, often from a certain period. The use of such methods can make it possible for patterns in a range of texts to be detected, patterns that couldn't otherwise be seen with the 'naked eye'.

– A classic example of that is the work that Dr Ian Lancashire has done on Agatha Christie. He and his colleagues analyzed her printed output and found that the vocabulary changes that he was seeing in her work were likely to be related to the dementia that she is thought to have suffered from in her later years, says Julianne Nyhan.

According to Nyhan, the name "digital humanities" has been used for about ten years, and the field's popularity and influence has grown markedly over that period. Even so, Nyhan says that the history of the field has been ignored until quite recently.

Therefore, her main project the last years has been to uncover hidden histories within the area of digital humanities. Her research will result in a book later on this year.

– I identified some of the people who were working in the field at an early stage, and interviewed them about the types of issues that don't otherwise tend to appear in the published literature. How did they first encounter computing? Why did they want to use computing in their research? How were they able to find funds, colleagues, who inspired them? I asked those types of social and cultural questions.

TheImage removed." class="img_right_xl" src="" align="right" /> field of digital humanities is said to have started in Italy in the mid 50’s, when a priest called Father Roberto Busa decided to do an immense piece of work: a concordance of the works of St Thomas Aquinas in medieval Latin.

– Think for example of the index in the back of a book: it can tell you all the places where a specific word is used in the text. You can make a very general comparison between that and a concordance. Father Roberto Busa set out to do something like this for the works of St Thomas Aquinas. There are millions and millions of words in there, and Latin is, of course, inflected, so he realized quickly that this wasn’t something he could do by hand.

Father Roberto Busa visited several universities in America, looked at various technologies and encountered punchcard technology. He was one of the first people to realise that this technology could be used in Humanities research.

– He realized that this could be a way forward, and subsequently secured funding from IBM which lasted for the next 30 years. At one point he had a team with over 60 people working with him on this project.

He also set up a school in Gallarate, Italy, where women – and later men too – could get training in keypunch technology. After their graduation, some of them could continue to work with the concordance project with Busa, and others went on to take jobs in banks and an early machine translation project.

The archive of Father Roberto Busa was recently accessioned by a university in Milan, and Julianne Nyhan just completed some research on it. Among other things, when the archive was accessioned, she and her colleagues were able to view the many historical photographs that are included in it.

Her colleague, Professor Melissa Terras, noticed that some of the photos were of women, of whom only two were named in the corresponding documentation. Terras and Nyhan also found that very little indeed had been published about the women who worked on Busa’s project. Therefore Julianne Nyhan wanted to meet the women in the photographs in Milan and ask about their job in the 50's and 60's." class="img_right_xl" src="" align="right" />

– When I went to Milan I managed, with the invaluable help of Busa’s former colleagues, to track down a number of the women and to interview them. It was really fascinating to uncover their story, which had been totally lost in this historical record.

– In one case it was startling to realise that the women never really had been given any indication of the importance of the work they were doing.

Julianne Nyhan says that over the past two or three years, there has been a great increase in the interest of the history of the digital humanities. A very positive development, she thinks.

– Something that is digital is very now and very fast changing, but it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have a history, and it doesn’t mean that that history isn’t relevant to how things are today and how things may happen in the future.

Julianne Nyhan expects digital humanities to be taken up more and more in the future. But she hopes to see less of an emphasis on instrumental uses on digital humanities.

– I'm personally not especially interested in understanding how digital humanities lets us do things faster or easier. Actually, Busa himself already made this point many years ago, says Julianne Nyhan.

– What we need to do is to think about how the use of computing and research can enable us to answer or to explore research questions that wouldn’t otherwise be possible to do. That then allows us to consider a whole load of new questions, about the importance of our work, the future for what we do and the boundaries of what we do.

Julianne Nyhan
Julianne Nyhan is a lecturer (assistant Professor) in Digital Information Studies at the Department of Information Studies at University College London.

She first came across digital humanities in the year 2000 at University College Cork, Ireland. She then got involved in a project that digitized and encoded in TEI the texts of medieval Ireland.

XML = Extensible Markup Language

TEI = The Text Encoding Initiative

The older images shown here are kindly made available under a Creative Commons CC-BY-NC license by permission of CIRCSE Research Centre, Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Milan, Italy. For further information, or to request permission for reuse, please contact Marco Passarotti, on marco.passarotti AT, or by post: Largo Gemelli 1, 20123 Milan, Italy.