American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 37

Information Technology in Humanities Scholarship:
Achievements, Prospects, and Challenges—
The United States Focus


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 Berkeley Finding Aid Project and the Dumbarton Oaks Hagiography Database <>. 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