Humanities Computing

Humanities

…to understand the legitimacy of a culture we need to investigate its relation to the archive, the site for the accumulation of records. Archive reason is a kind of reason which is concerned with detail, it constantly directs us away from the big generalisations, down to the particularity and singularity of the event. Increasingly the focus has shifted from archiving the lives of the good and the great down to the detail of mundane everyday life. (Mike Featherstone, 2000)

With a particular emphasis on hypertext theory, coupled with a survey of the field of Humanities Computing, I will explicate how Milkbar.com.au positions itself within the eclectic applications of online electronic scholarship in the Humanities.[1] Hypertext theory has (since the early 1960s) made significant inroads into the Humanities because hypertext is the seminal concept energising the global Internet.[2] And Humanities Computing is the most influential field of practice-based computing in the Humanities. Milkbar.com.au borrows practices from both Humanities Computing and hypertext discourse.

If we acknowledge that hypertext is a pioneering form of authorship then we must also take into account the state of the author in contemporary thought.  Since Roland Bathes' confrontational essay The Death of the Author in 1977 few scholars place the same emphasis on ‘brilliance and transcendence'.[3] The author is recognised as a part of a discursive language and cultural system and not the possessive individualism and enclosure of individual genius. Part of this cultural system is the reality of the institutional influence (as well as geographical influence) upon individual authorship.

Hypertext authorship is not only about enclosed media units with reference to internal documents but also refers to external documents that may be situated anywhere. [4] Hypertext authorship (like all authorship) is both internal and external (or even local and global) with pertinent references to others in the field.

The Humanities could be broadly defined as the study of human expression through the works and thoughts of human culture over time. This narrows to within national boundaries, academic traditions, schools of thought, sub-disciplines, and individual scholars. There are duties and concerns within the Humanities of the older schools and innovative approaches that have traditionally been the domain of the newer schools.

Humanities Computing as a field (defined by conferences, journals, research centres and projects) tends to centre on the older more traditional schools such as Oxford, the King's College London, the University of Virginia, the University of Sydney and Brown. [6] It tends to have a focus on linguistic techniques, be concerned with text manipulation and have a close relationship to the Library and information Sciences.

In fact, many of the Humanities Computing centres are situated within large research libraries such as Alderman at the University of Virginia or Green Library at Stanford.[7] The irony with the field of Humanities Computing is that it is technically innovative but highly traditional in its scholarly substance.

Not surprisingly newer Humanities schools tend to have an approach to electronic scholarship that suits their particular institutional traditions. These include The Centre for History and New Media at George Mason University in Virginia, Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, Matrix (The Centre for Humane Arts, Letters, and Social Sciences Online) at Michigan State University, and perhaps my own institution being RMIT University in Melbourne.[8] In a nutshell, the realities of electronic authorship differ between institutions according to their particular economic and cultural circumstances.

The older schools have been particularly active in Humanities Computing and have made enormous contributions to providing text encoding tools, GIS (Graphical Information Systems) and data-set standards for the use of Humanities scholars everywhere. [9] However, there still needs to be a great amount of critical theoretical work done (something that Historians are not famous for) on, for instance, TEI (Text Encoding Initiative) and its dictums such as ‘maximally expressive and minimally obsolescent".[10] Text encoding is part of interpretation, thus in part institutional authorship; how does this authorship combine with say, EH Carr's What is History or even Keith Jenkins's Re-Thinking History?[11]

Globally, there is a disproportionate amount of Humanities Computing work being undertaken in the United States. This does not mean that researchers are not producing Humanities Computing works in Australia; rather they are being produced in an array of diverse disciplinary frameworks. [12]

The main centres and individuals within Australia that are encouraging electronic scholarship are the Archaeological Computing Unit at the University of Sydney (Ian Johnson and Andrew Wilson), and Creagh Cole of The Scholarly Text and Electronic Imaging Service (SETIS, also at the University of Sydney).[13] There is the Historian Heather Goodall of the University of Technology in Sydney, John Burrows of the Centre for Literary and Linguistic Computing at the University of Newcastle and the Historian Professor Paul Turnbull of the Australian National University (ANU). Turnbull has been working on a project for a number of years with the aim of placing Captain Cook's diaries online (and creating useful interoperable electronic publishing standards for other Historians).[14] And there are also numerous other individual scholars who are pursuing electronic Humanities projects (in all sorts of universities and fields) who may not be engaging with the discipline of Humanities Computing at all.[15]

I tend to agree with Willard McCarty, the founder and long time moderator of Humanist that:

Whether it is a discipline is really a secondary issue, perhaps even a distraction; what matters is whether we can regard it as an essential part of our academic self-definition.[16]

Through Humanities Computing's relationship with the library, the ‘academic self-definition' of many in the field has tended towards the creation of tools and scholarly resources that include archives, reference material, text encoding tools and the facilitation of greater access to digital artefacts for researchers and the public.[17] This is what libraries tend to do and what they do well.

However, as an independent researcher, I never deliberately set out to create a technical standard or archival resource for the Humanities. As an independent researcher I am not really equipped to do this; I am an Historian not a trained archivist or a library scientist. Although I did seek to advance the processes and methodologies within electronic scholarship, it is not this project's only raison d'etre. It also aims to critically advance knowledge about globalisation within a local setting. It does this through the conceptual and technical advances of hypertextual interactive video. [18]

Historians, ethnographers, and archaeologists can make many choices between a number of academic tools depending on the particular problem to be addressed. Scientific process-based research is perhaps better suited to the library sciences or the information sciences where the aim is usually to provide valuable processes for other fields. However, as Espen Aarseth from the University of Bergen argues:

A field based on the premise that it exists primarily to exist and ‘contribute to' other fields will never reach a healthy, self-respecting identity for scientific or scholarly enterprise. Contributions to other fields should not be offered, they should be obvious.[19]

In my mind, the better Humanities Computing projects will always be about providing a balance between a suitable question and a suitable process. We may not always get this right, and perhaps this is part of our experimental practice, but it must always be a deep-seated goal in our methodologies. All too often, projects may advance the pragmatic processes involved in using the technology, but the researcher's understanding of broader historical and cultural issues may not be that advanced.

One of the most effective means that I can see in undertaking research in this medium as an independent post-graduate student in the Humanities is through the framework of the Electronic Theses and Dissertation (ETD).[20] This is for a number of reasons and perhaps this is only a transitory position.

Authorship in a Global Hypertext

Apart from making work available to broader audiences, the online hypertextual environment can also reveal the evolution and influences of the writing. Personal papers are usually relegated to the task of historical research; they are the private words imbued with the special charm of creativity in action.[21] However, here I provide the external (yellow) links to the online creative building site so that the final text is given a new dimension of transformation and depth. Likewise, it reveals the processes involved in scholarship in the online ‘global' network environment.

In terms of what sort of history can be undertaken online, there are some major limitations. The choices are limited by copyright, cost, technical schemas and by the particular skills of the researcher. A researcher who has a strong background in programming may wish to build universal tools for the Humanities or design software applications to address particular historical questions.

However, there is a danger in narrowly focussed process based research (that may be only self referential) in that it may be costly and superfluous to the Humanities if it does not engage with real-world Humanities problems and debates. There must always be room for informed historiographical and methodological-led uses of technology, not just scientific led approaches.

Authoring Oral History Online

Accordingly one of the skills of electronic scholarship (as with most scholarship) is learning to contain your research ambitions. In electronic scholarship this can only be achieved through technological literacy. A greater technical literacy within the Humanities can help to address the chasm between what is said about the Internet and what it can actually do. It is all about balance.

In my mind the Internet is the least advanced of all mediums in terms of evoking stories (in comparison to say television and film). How do you tell stories in this medium and if you cannot tell stories, then of what use is it to a narrative discipline such as history?

As I have discovered, oral histories are well suited for the Internet because restrictive copyright legislation restricts the scholarly use of the enormous potential of our archived aural and visual record.[22] There is no copyrighted material used in Milkbar.com.au simply because as an independent course of study it was not pragmatic. Arguably, this is perhaps why many other independent electronic-scholarship researchers have used archives that are either copyright free or held in family collections.

An oral history (especially one that uses digital video) is not only legalistically and economically suited for independent research, but also addresses some of the capacities of new media tools. As Peter Loizos, the ethnographic filmmaker argues:

…monographs do not normally create the illusion of direct access to an observed and recorded world, films tend to have this impact upon viewers until they have trained themselves out of seeing them as records of the real…[24]

Online video histories can evocatively represent the past well because the individual can be seen and heard. Oral histories are fundamentally verbal, meaning that in many cases (especially evocative histories such as Milkbar.com.au) it may be better to use new media communication tools rather than textually translate them within a book.

Oral history methodologies usually require the researcher to first provide a theoretical perspective or historical problem and then undertake the oral interviews. They then look for converging trends and contradictions among the evidence and then provide the analysis in the form of a book or monologue. In this work, the methodology is a little different as part of the authority of the Historian is given to the user.

The 'hypertext-Historian' does relinquish some of the control over the material (or at least the power relations of authorship are changed). The authorship in this work is embedded in the technology; it is embedded within the selection, interpretation, integration, and then the assembled contexts, juxtapositions and representation of the real.

Together this forms an argument. However, this argument is within a broader set of parameters than those allowed by the sequential reading of the printed codex. In some ways, the reader becomes in part author, or at least they can make their own way through the ‘archive' and perhaps (within reason) gain differing insights from the material than I originally intended.

In most oral histories projects, the interviews are locked away in archives and libraries and are very rarely used outside of the original raison d'etre of the Historian.[25] It is advantageous to place oral histories online because the user not only has direct access to the Historian's evidence but, as the Historian Linda Shopes argues, the user is able to get a much better understanding of the character and the context in which the interview was recorded (for better or worse).

One thinks of irony, for example, as something that is communicated by tone, not words, and so can be lost if not rendered orally. Similarly, hearing, rather than reading, narrator's accounts can render them more compelling, more humane or chilling, more three-dimensional. Quite simply then, by reproducing actual recorded sound, web publication of interviews is perhaps more appropriate than print publication.[26]

Oral histories are people's histories in that they are usually the everyday recollections that are left out of recorded institutional memories. They are records of everyday life and are important traces to help us understand past people and practices. Perhaps this is also a good reason for Internet publication; local digital histories can record the city around the archive, not just the city within the archive. The level of access to the Internet lends itself towards community histories because specialist histories are already well serviced by our ‘official' archives (and even the broader Humanities Computing field).

In some ways, hypertextual authorship can help us reveal some of the chaos of history without resorting to theoretical ineptitude. However, writing about hypertext and the processes of electronic authorship in the Humanities is a difficult task because it is like writing about writing. Nevertheless, it is extraordinarily important for us to critically understand the significant contributions of Humanities Computing scholars beyond the technical perspective.


[1] However I do concur with Featherstone that It is difficult to draw disciplinary boundaries within a medium where moving around electronic texts in a globally linked network environment is part of its central feature

Featherstone 2000 Op.Cit. p166.

[2] The term hypertext was coined by Ted Nelson in 1965, Theodore H Nelson, "A File Structure for the Complex, the Changing and the Intermediate" Proceedings, Association for Computing Machinery, 1965.

[3] Roland Bathes, "The Death of the Author" Image, Text, Music, (Trans. Stephen Heath), Fontana, London, 1977, pp.142-148.

Likewise Foucault and Derrida vanquish the individuality of the author, the author's status, the author's originality, and the conditions that have fostered the authority of ‘the man and his work'.

[4] See: Jay David Bolter's Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing, Lawrence Erlbaum, New Jersey, 1991

Bolter later went on to co-author a much more considered book, Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1999.

[6] For an in depth discussion of whether Humanities Computing is an academic field or not see the conference papers from this seminar held at The University of Virginia in December 1999. "Is Humanities Computing an Academic Discipline?" The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, The University of Virginia.

<http://www.iath.virginia.edu/hcs/> (Accessed August 20, 2002)

And accordingly, I have for a number of years been interested in the work of Ed Ayres and Will Thomas of the Virginian Centre of Digital History (VCDH) at the University of Virginia; one of the leading institutions for the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI). The Valley of the Shadow project (a large on-going collaborative work) has perhaps made a greater contribution to heightening the awareness of digital history than any other project. However, the particular reason that I like this project is not so much for its somewhat tangled application of technology, but because it stands out for its historiographical approach. Although it focuses on perhaps one of the defining events in American history, it does this largely through the traces of everyday people (methodologically like Milkbar.com.au). Most of the records held within this ‘thick description' database chart the lives of soldiers and people living their lives within two separate communities on two separate sides of the Mason-Dixon line and thus of the Civil War "The Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War", The Virginian Centre for Digital History, the University of Virginia

<http://www.iath.virginia.edu/vshadow2/> (Accessed 28 August, 2002)

[7] "Humanities Digital Information Service", Green Library, Stanford University

<http://www-sul.stanford.edu/depts/hasrg/hdis/about.html>

[8] The Centre for Media and Learning at the City University of New York

<http://www.ashp.cuny.edu/index.html> (Accessed 28 August, 2002)

The Centre for History and New Media, George Mason University

<http://chnm.gmu.edu/index1.html> (Accessed 28 August, 2002)

Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, University of Maryland

<http://www.mith.umd.edu/> (Accessed 28 August, 2002)

Matrix – The Centre for Humane Arts, Letters, and Social Sciences Online, Michigan State University

<http://matrix.msu.edu/>(Accessed 28 August, 2002)

RMIT University Media Studies

<http://www.rmit.edu.au/adc/mediastudies> (Accessed 28 August, 2002)

[9] See: Digital Resources in the Humanities (DRH) conference series for an idea of some of the recent Humanities Computing Projects

<http://www.drh.org.uk/> (Accessed 17 October, 2002)

[10] Text Encoding Initiative

<http://www.tei-c.org/>(Accessed 15 August, 2002)

[11] EH Carr What is History, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth 1964.

Keith Jenkins Re-Thinking History, Routledge, London, 1991.

[12] For Instance, there is "the Centre for Linguistic and Literary Computing" at the University of Newcastle

<http://www.newcastle.edu.au/centre/cllc/index.html> (accessed 18 June 2002),

and: "the Archaeological Computing Laboratory" at the University of Sydney

<http://www.archaeology.usyd.edu.au/acl/index.html> (Accessed 18 June 2002) and: "the Scholarly Electronic Text and Image Service (SETIS)" also at the University of Sydney

http://setis.library.usyd.edu.au/setweb/humres.html (Accessed 18 June 2002)

[13] "The Scholarly Electronic Text and Image Service" (SETIS) at the University of Sydney

http://setis.library.usyd.edu.au/setweb/humres.html (Accessed 18 June 2002)

[14] Paul Turnbull et al "the Endeavour Project", the Australian National University and partners

<http://coombs.anu.edu.au/~cookproj/> (Accessed 28 August, 2002)

Turnbull, also until quite recently was the president of H-Net; Humanities network online which comes out of Michigan State University and is possibly the world's largest online academic discussion network (with about two hundred and fifty thousand subscribers spread among six hundred lists) "H-Net: Humanities and Social Science Online", Matrix, Michigan State University,

<http://www2.h-net.msu.edu/> (Accessed October 21, 2002)

[15] This recently created network, The Australian e-Humanities Network, has an aim to "facilitate access to the latest digital resources and research techniques for Australian Humanities researchers". The web site of this organisation contains a database of Australian Humanities Computing projects:

"The Australian e-Humanities Network" the Australian Academy of the Humanities, the University of Newcastle, the University of Sydney.

<http://www.ehum.edu.au> (Accessed 21 October, 2002)

[16] For an in depth discussion of this see: Willard McCarty "What is Humanities Computing? Towards a Definition of the Field" Kings College London

<http://www.kcl.ac.uk/Humanities/cch/wlm/publications.html>(accessed 17 June 2002)

[17] the Text Encoding Initiative(TEI)

<http://www.tei-c.org/>(Accessed 18 June 2002)

[18] "Historical Voices" is one of the most ambitious online oral history projects from MARIX at Michelin State University

<http://www.historicalvoices.org/> (Accessed 28 August, 2002).

Few Humanities Computing projects have yet to utilise the potential of online streaming media however, there are some emergent developments within the field of online ethnography:

Michael Wesch, "Nekaliminin.net" The University of Virginia

<http://www.people.virginia.edu/~mlw5k/> (Accessed 18 June, 2002)

This project produced by a student in anthropology at the University of Virginia is for a post-graduate qualification.

[19] Espen Aarseth, The University of Bergen "The Field of Humanistic Informatics and its Relationship to the Humanities" <http://www.hf.uib.no/hi/espen/HI.html> (accessed 21 September, 2002)

[20] One of the major concerns in any Humanities Computing project is cost. Some projects are collaborative ventures costing many hundreds of thousands of dollars whilst others, like this one, constitute independent research pursuits. There is only so much that an individual researcher can do in this medium when taking into account economic considerations.

[21] Luca Toschi "Hypertext and Authorship" in Nunberg (ed.) The Future of the Book, University of California Press, Berkeley,.p.200.

[22] For a personal experience of this see: Craig Bellamy "Original PhD Proposal"

<http://www.milkbar.com.au/begin6.html> (Accessed 28 August, 2002).

[24] Peter Loizos, Innovation in Ethnographic Film: From Innocence to Self-consciousness 1955-1985, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1993,p.68

[25] For instance, the FROM LUNCHROOM TO BOARDROOM project produced by the University of Queensland Library (Stories and Images of Women's Achievements in the Labour Movement 1930's – 1970's) utilises a publishing engine that relies on the text from transcribed oral interviews. This project did initially rouse my interest, however after exploring the software developed for it for the library environment by The Distributed Systems Technology Centres (DTSC) through their SuperNova project, I decided it was inappropriate.

"FROM LUNCHROOM TO BOARDROOM" Stories and Images of Women's Achievements in the Labour Movement 1930's – 1970' The University of Queensland Library

<http://media.library.uq.edu.au:8080/lunchroom/index.html> (Accessed 28 August, 2002)

"Research Projects: SuperNova" Distributed Systems Technology Centre

<http://www.dstc.edu.au/cgi-bin/redirect/rd.cgi?http://archive.dstc.edu.au/research> (Accessed 28 August, 2002)

[26] Linda Shopes "Oral History Online" History Matters, George Mason University

<http://historymatters.gmu.edu/mse/oral/online.html> (Accessed 28 August)

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