American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 37
Information Technology in Humanities Scholarship:
Achievements, Prospects, and Challenges
The United States Focus
III. NEW DEVELOPMENTS AND CHANGE
Some critics of computing in the humanities emphasize the misplaced optimism of enthusiasts
and the dangers inherent in an uncritical approach. Many have expressed fear that resources will
be diverted from more conventional scholarship, and that research will be undertaken not for
its intellectual value, but because it lends itself to the use of computers. Not all forms of research
will benefit equally from new technology, and some are likely to benefit only through word
processing and access to networked bibliographies. Nevertheless, the academic acceptability of
computer-based research has grown steadily over the years. Much important scholarship has resulted from
the use of computers; for example, the seminal study by J. F. Burrows showing how Jane Austen
built up distinctive idiolects to establish and even accentuate the individual characters in her novels.
Less widely acknowledged is the intellectual effort required to design and create sets of
machine-readable data. In historical research, for example, the data extracted from archival material must
be collected, structured, and captured before it can be analyzed; transformation of the source
material into a database requires deep understanding of its structure and nature and in and of itself
constitutes a major intellectual achievement. Good examples include the electronic version of the
Aid Project and the Dumbarton Oaks Hagiography Database <firstname.lastname@example.org>. Furthermore, the design of
teaching tools poses major conceptual problems, requiring attention both to scholarly and
pedagogical content as well as form of presentation and likely psychological impact.
Innovative tools and resources encourage new kinds of research. Scholars can obtain
numerous benefits from study of the ARTFL or Linguistic Data Consortium databases; answers to questions
that could take months to answer using the print sources can be provided in seconds. Computer
graphics techniques are having a profound effect on the ways archaeologists represent and analyze the
data they record. Computer graphics will eventually transform every field of archaeological inquiry,
from survey, excavation, and analysis to reconstruction, synthesis, and communication.
Until recently, it has been difficult to find many examples of scholarly research that could not
have been achieved without a computer. This is changing, as the work of Baker and Ledger make
evident. Humanities computing has been focused on the production of scholarly resources; interest is
now shifting towards the use of these resources and the types of scholarship that can be undertaken
with them. Computers cannot compensate for poor training, limited knowledge, and weak
critical judgement; they are best seen as a researcher's assistant. It is in this way that new technology is
having a profound effect on both research and teaching.
With the impact of new technology, the traditional image of the humanities scholar is
changing. The Internet gives scholars access to bibliographies, discussion lists, electronic journals, and
bulletin boards across North America and the world, thus fostering the development of a
genuinely international community of scholars in the humanities. Recent years have seen the emergence of
a new style of team-based research in the humanities, in part the result of these developments. If
this trend continues, it will require new thinking on the part of institutions and funding agencies.
A common interest in the use of computers is drawing scholars together across the
boundaries between disciplines and subdisciplines in the humanities. Scientists and humanists enjoy
an increasing understanding of each other's methods and preoccupations. This trend has also
served to make interdisciplinary work easier, as can be seen in the collaboration of scientists and
engineers with archaeologists and musicologists.
The use of computers also may change the way humanists think about and organize their
research. Computers facilitate formerly time-consuming tasks; improved access to data at remote sites and
the ability to manipulate these data swiftly offer the scholar the opportunity to become more of a
thinker than a searcher. Computers opened up new and unanticipated areas for investigation which
demand new ways of thinking: they make explicit what in the past has been done intuitively; the
preparation of data in a logical, formalized manner is an intellectually informative task and can reveal types
of evidence and questions that would not otherwise have emerged. At the same time, systems are
being developed which are particularly suited to the way humanists have always thought and
worked: hypermedia and hypertext provide an enhanced form of the browsing and cross-referencing
facilities traditionally demanded by researchers.
This may be one reason why hypermedia authoring tools are widely used in the creation
of courseware. The use of such systems in teaching is beginning to blur the distinction between
teaching and research, which will become progressively less clear-cut as students explore source material
held in electronic form previously available only to their instructors. Indeed, computers tend to
encourage a redefinition of teaching itself and to shift the emphasis towards the learning part of the process.
Preface | I. Background
II. Information Technology and Scholarship | III. New Developments and Change
IV. To Challenge and Invigorate Future Scholarship | V. Principal Recommendations and Follow-up Activities