Advanced computing in the humanities:
Why should one bother?

Christian-Emil Ore
Universitetet i Oslo
Postboks 1123, Blindern, 0317 Oslo, Norge

Almost all production of musical records are digital, from recording to publication on CDs. In the publishing houses we find a similar picture. The only non electronic objects are the proofs, the original photographs and the final printed product. When the DVD (Digital Video Disk) technology becomes widespread in the near future, the analogue video tape will disappear and the home video market will become digital together with digital TV and radio broadcasting.

To day the Internet and the World Wide Web has made electronic publication into an every day thing. In Norway even the bakeries have their own home pages and the Internet addresses are printed on the their paper bags. Five years ago the Web did not exist and almost nobody was familiar with the term «Internet». A few years ago at conferences people still spoke enthusiastically about the new information super highway. Today it is here and a few weeks ago I read in the paper that the US mail plans to give everybody an email address in parallel with their street address.

In this setting one may ask why one should talk about advanced computing in the humanities. Everybody uses computers also the humanists, so why bother? This is correct to some extent. The humanists can already use the commercially available tools like text editors and movie, image and sound manipulating software produced for the industry and for the mass market. Many of these tools are far more sophisticated than the computer based tools used in humanities computing in the past. However, the normalisation of computer technology as an every day object does not necessarily mean that computer based methods will be used in the humanities. As a parallel we can note that the teaching methods at the universities and the way of publication of scholarly works, seen as a whole, have not changed profoundly in the last 100 years.

In the last eight year I have worked as the project co-ordinator and academic supervisor of The National Documentation Project of Norway ( which was a major effort to make central Norwegian resources in archaeology, lexicography, ethnology, folklore, history and place name studies electronically available. The objective was to create digital resources for the participating departments and institutions, but also to create a national multidisciplinary information system combining material from all Norwegian universities.

My impression from working with scholars from a wide spectrum of disciplines is that the attitude towards computer technology ranges from close to open hostility and scepticism to enthusiastic use of computer and computer based methods. As an overall impression I would say that humanist scholars accept the computers as a the future tool of communication although they (correctly) point out that the resources available on the Internet are far from satisfying. Besides, they are asking whether this tool has any relevance for their scholarly methods and their daily work. This is a highly relevant question that should be taken seriously. Thus, if we believe the computer technology as a good thing, it is important to continue to develop tools that will meet the special needs of the scholars, to make resources (text, images, sound databases) available, teach computer based methods to students and to continue to increase the understanding of the benefits for the established scholars of using computer based tools and methods in their research.

The future activity in humanities computing can divided in the creation of digital resources, method development and teaching future scholars. My own work has been concentrated on creation of digital resources and methods for exploiting such resources.

Until the middle of the 90's it was possible, but prohibitively expensive, to create digital photo, movie or sound collections of any substantial scale. Thus most conversion projects concentrated on the conversion of textual material into electronic text (which needs little storage space). In the last few years image and facsimile production has become affordable and storage space is for almost all practical purposes no longer a limitation. The production of electronic facsimiles is cheaper than microfilming and both methods are much cheaper than manual transcription of the texts. This should, of course, be considered as a good thing for the humanities computing, However, it may have the unexpected consequences that it may become even harder to get funding for creating electronic text collection. This may not be a good thing for scholars using the computer as a text studying tool since from an electronic point of view the facsimile is as dead as the original (paper) document.

The facsimile/text discussion leads to the question: Should electronic resources be unedited raw material or will they always some sort of edited material? The computer systems and networks are eminent tools for creating and disseminating facsimile and image collections. As mentioned earlier in their simplest versions these collections make the computers into an advanced microfilm reading machines. Many traditional printed scholarly text editions contains a reconstructed best text with a corresponding commentary apparatus. The establishment of such best texts seems at least for some text philologists to be an important part their work and they find it not very meaningful to just reproduce the text versions as such. The computer technology enable us to combine the raw material publication and the scholarly work. On example is the edition of the Prologue to the Widow of Bath by the Canterbury Tales project.

The introduction of the Internet and especially the Web created a kind of anarchistic attitude to publication and publication rights. There was, and perhaps is, a feeling that publication on the Web was excepted from the ordinary rules of copyright. In the first few years the Web was dominated by individual initiatives, and the traditional resource providers like archives and libraries were almost entirely absent. Still the Web (with respect to humanities resources) is dominated by information provided as a result of separate projects and initiative taken outside the traditional manual providers like libraries and archives. These initiatives give access to valuable material and demonstrated the possibilities, but are electronic equivalents to thematic paper editions. It is however hard to imagine that all material in the libraries and archives will be made electronically available. Thus there has to be established some criteria for the selection of what should be made electronically available. Such a selection may in turn have implication for the direction of research, since areas with available material may seem more attractive to students.

Traditionally the research activity in the humanities have been dominated by the work of the individual scholar. Even in the museums which not unnaturally could be though as a single organisation, the tradition, at least in Norway, has been that the curators have had the responsibility of separate parts of the collections. This is in contrast to the situation in the applied natural sciences where the large projects are the rule. In the humanities computing there seems to be a tendency towards larger, joint projects and more team work. The reason for this may be a need to share the costs, but also because the technology invites to collaboration both inside the institutions but also among institutions on a national and international base. The Text Encoding Initiative and the Arts and Humanities Data Service in UK are examples of fruitful collaboration. Institutions like the museums will benefit form introducing a single information system for all information including scholarly works. Introducing new information systems into existing organisations may and perhaps should result in a reorganisation of the internal information flow and that can be a painful operation if not done with care. This is another aspect of the introduction of computer technology humanities department.

In my work I have been asked questions like «Are the digital resources for the humanities really worth the costs and will they be used?» Of course, we should always keep the cost/benefit question in mind, but I think it is of no use to have a defensive attitude towards the costs. Today, and even more the future, we will see that information will be digital in the first place and then perhaps printed onto paper. Thus it is important for humanists to master the computer technology to get information, to analyse it and to present results. The digitisation projects of existing collections and archives is necessary to make them accessible in the same way as the new information. A properly done computerisation of records in for example a museum will reveal faulty registration and help the revitalising the collections as a studying object. Finally we should bear in mind that publication of source material always has been a core activity in the humanities.