American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 41

Computing and the Humanities:
Summary of a Roundtable Meeting


Opportunities for computing and the humanities will come about in a broader context of institutional and economic realities, many of which are changing for a variety of reasons. Humanities have in common with computer science disciplinary dependence on colleges and universities; humanities tend to make particularly heavy use of libraries, as well. Educational institutions and libraries are evolving in response to the combined influences of constrained budgets, demographic change, intellectual and sponsor motivations for interdisciplinary collaborations, and the influence of information technology on costs and pedagogy.7

Michael Lesk pointed out that achieving critical mass in content is dependent upon capturing content, which can be expensive.

Running a digital library in the humanities is a problem. There is not a lot of money for these projects. There is vastly more material being produced now because of the Internet, but these resources are certainly not being catalogued. We really do not have a good answer to the question of what to do with material that is unlikely to be used.

Lesk described how libraries serve the need for information that individuals might not be able to afford, and suggested that returning to individual acquisitions might diminish the diversity of information supported by the pooling function of a library.

Notwithstanding expectations for substantial change, scholars and leaders in these institutions work within social structures for academic recognition—tenure, promotion, access to research facilities—that seem to resist change. The result is that cross-disciplinary work is viewed with skepticism by many in academia, who fear that such work will not be rewarded comparably to intradisciplinary work, and that work involving development and implementation of systems may be stunted because of insufficient support for specialized implementation staff, documentation, evaluation, and other essential complements to the core intellectual work. Mary Shaw, for example, called for rewards for producers of editorial services, indexes, meta-indexes, and information evaluation and certification services.8

The structure and composition of typical humanities departments may impose additional constraints. For example, less faculty turnover as well as significant dependence on adjunct faculty who are not integrated into the university community tend to work against the introduction of new ideas and methodologies that might otherwise foster more activity in computing and the humanities.

Against this backdrop, two sets of concerns emerge as particularly strong among humanists: intellectual property rights as a driver of costs and constraints, and the infrastructure for computing and communications in the humanities. The vision articulated by Jerome Saltzer of comprehensive inspection of electronic content from desktops (and the ability to jump from citation to source) cannot currently be realized for reasons relating to access to copyrighted material in addition to the continued scarcity of access to computing and communications systems for many humanists.


Whether the emphasis is on scholarship or on applications aimed at a broader public, humanities work is intended to be published and disseminated. In Willard McCarty's words, the Web "is a mechanism to publish documents to be used actively by people, certainly by humanists who are compulsive publishers." An associated need is increased awareness of digital content, which can itself be supported with information technology.

Information technology tantalizes by reducing reproduction costs, but dissemination also depends on the technology available to users. Drawing on frustrations associated with a large-scale Web publishing activity relating to the Civil War, Edward Ayers remarked that humanists are much stronger in the production than in the dissemination of electronic content. Infrastructure—computer equipment and communications bandwidth—remains expensive enough to be limited to institutions and scholars otherwise interested in electronic resources. Pessimistically, he suggested that

. . . if we cannot get this into the hands of people who want to touch the cultural heritage of the past, then I do not think it is worth the trouble. But when you have people out there with thirty students clustered around one computer on a 14.4 modem waiting for these pieces of the past to materialize before them, we are running into serious problems. And when it does materialize, if we have not equipped the teacher to point out what it might mean, then we are actually creating problems at the same time that we are supposedly creating potential.

The economics of access are complex and outside the scope of this discussion, but they should be recognized as motivating alternative approaches to format, medium, and other aspects of information technology.9 The importance of affordable innovations is underscored by humanists.

Costs depend on media choices and institutional relationships, all of which are in flux at this time. Edward Ayers described his center's ventures with CD-ROM publishing, explaining that CD-ROM provides higher bandwidth more easily in classrooms. He acknowledged, though, that while CD-ROM meets immediate needs, it may not have a long-term future.

It may be appropriate to consider separately material that must be captured electronically and newer material created directly in electronic forms. The opportunities to broaden access and use of newer material require planning and support to realize their potential, explained Edward Fox, who shared experiences in proselytizing, negotiating, and balancing scholarly and economic considerations through a project relating to the electronic publishing of dissertations.

Underlying the discussion of dissemination and access is what Stephen Franklin called "the gorilla behind the door": copyright. Humanists, like other members of the academic community, increasingly are concerned about the intellectual property quagmire. Many copyright holders have been keen to reassert their rights at the expense of fair use and other exemptions in the digital age, and many creators have been discouraged from publishing complex material by the difficulty of traversing the thicket of permissions. Franklin spoke of his own institution's fear of being sued for copyright infringement, which induces a chilling effect on the use of digital properties. On the other hand, pointing out that humanists are rediscovering the importance of being creators and owners of intellectual property as well as users in the digital environment, Stanley N. Katz briefly referred to the suit that the American Council of Learned Societies had brought against Viacom for infringing its rights.

Douglas Bennett noted that copyright discussions have tended to take place in an esoteric world with little connection to a group like that assembled for the roundtable: "Hardly anybody who knows what we want to do, and why we want to do it, is in the copyright discussion and vice versa." Participants agreed on the need to move beyond this situation. Humanists emphasized the need to preserve the "complicated fabric of balances" that copyright law has provided in the past. That balance has supported free circulation of information (for educational purposes) as well as recovery of costs by information aggregators and distributors. Accepting that people should be paid for good work and that money should change hands, Bennett asserted the need to preserve the basic principle of "limited sharing," analogous to the "first sale" principle, which allows one to pass on to others a book one has bought: "If we do not have limited sharing again, we are in big trouble."

Bennett also raised the issue of a potential parting of the ways between the commercial and educational worlds.

We are dangerously close to a situation where copyright in the future is shaped entirely around the needs of mass "infotainment" companies: Viacom, Disney, Warner, etc. What will work for them and work well for them and be good for the purposes they serve is probably not good for education and research. Underneath virtually every business plan being developed by that world is a pay-per-view strategy. Pay-per-view is deadly to the world of scholarship and research.

Size and Wealth: Perception and Reality

Budget constraints affect all consumers, but humanists tend to find their resources more constrained than computer scientists and other members of the academic community. This concern is compounded at smaller institutions such as four-year colleges. Roundtable participants noted that access to computing and communications systems at colleges and universities is less automatic for humanists than for computer scientists. If scholars and other users lack desktop, building, and/or campus computing and communications resources, the nature and resource allocation of a project must encompass such infrastructure development or it must compensate for such a lack. Yet new technology may alter expectations and economics. As Jerome Saltzer joked, humanists may have benefits similar to those of developing nations, in the sense that they may leapfrog older and less effective technologies installed elsewhere.

The humanities are typically far less "capital-intensive" than other fields. They also tend to be less able to leverage a commercial or industrial base. William Wulf pointed out that, as a result, it is customary to speak of "the computer industry" but not a "humanities industry." Participants also noted that the dependence of museums and similar institutions on charity and other grants combines uncertainty with limited resources. This leads some to call for broader advocacy, as Joseph Busch put it, to "elevate the strategic importance of the humanities and arts in the public eye." In short, as the University of Pennsylvania's James O'Donnell has been known to quip, the humanities have traditionally been a "cheap date."

Mary Shaw asserted a need for seed funding to support "spontaneity" in scholarship, and humanists and technologists pointed to the need for funding for computing and humanities to flow over significant periods of time. To date, many projects have received only start-up funds, which fail to guarantee continuity. Michael Lesk cited the example of a library obtaining funding to initiate or install new technology without support for long-term maintenance. There appears to be inadequate recognition of how technology creates obligations for the future. The NetLib program for distributing mathematical software continues to depend on NSF support; it is not self-sustaining. Edward Fox summarized the temporal element in humanities programs:

We have to support projects over time, and we have to support people over their careers. We have to deal with the rhythms of life and of people in different parts of the world and how they can collaborate across time. We have to deal with process and how we change and evolve and how students mature over their careers.

The inherent difficulties perceived by humanists tend to vary with their response to circumstances. Joan Shigekawa described a trend toward entrepreneurialism among younger artists, who expect less from charitable sources and are creating new approaches to fund-raising.

We had a group of artists organized by the National Association of Artists' Organizations, based in Washington, D.C., come to the Rockefeller Foundation. All of them were under thirty. And they had quite a different point of view, a different outlook about even the making of art. It was much more entrepreneurial, like a throwback to the 1950s in not expecting so many foundation grants and not being dependent on them. These young artists are in a pioneering, self-sufficient, and entrepreneurial mode across the board, whether they are dancers or painters. Something is evolving, and it is in its earliest stages. We have been watching it with great interest, while at the same time looking for the areas where a small investment could be helpful.

Along similar lines, Stephen Griffin, Program Director of Special Projects at the National Science Foundation, estimated that thanks to cost-sharing, the Digital Libraries Initiative (DLI) achieves leverage of two or five to one (recognizing the difficulty of valuing collections of intellectual material). DLI partners provide staff, indexing services, and other non-monetary resources. Current projects in the four-year initiative receive $1 million annually in federal funds. Griffin acknowledged limitations in coordination among federal agencies not directly involved in the DLI as well as difficulty in creating mechanisms for co-sponsorship of nonscientific research activities. He speculated about future options: "More than anything else, the structure of the new program will have to ensure that any type of activity, whatever its domain, can be funded at any time during the course of the effort. We will have to create a much more flexible program than the one currently available."10

Mary Shaw also noted that a real opportunity lurks within the problem:

The normal expected financial scale of computer science and the normal expected financial scale of the humanities, including the arts, are very, very different. This presents both a problem and an opportunity. The problem is fairly obvious—that it is very hard to collaborate across a gap of that size. Things that look like a big deal on one side look like a little deal on the other side, even though they turn out to be a big deal when you try to go through institutional procedures. However, this may also be an opportunity, in that there is a scale of funding in technology that, if we thought carefully and creatively, might admit an incremental funding for collaborative projects that could leverage the technology developments. Assuming genuine collaborations rather than shotgun weddings, this could provide a quite respectable level of funding for the humanities partner as an add-on to a large project. Not only funding, but also a test to the technology that is being provided as part of the larger project, would thereby be ensured.

Questions about the lowest common denominator, and about where practical compromises are possible, are likely to become increasingly important as humanists and computer scientists work toward grander ends.

I. Introduction and Background
II. Toward a Common Language: Methods and Context
III. Software and Standards Development
V. Next Steps: Talk First to Select Actions Better
Notes | Appendices

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