American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 41

Computing and the Humanities:
Summary of a Roundtable Meeting


Michael Joyce summed up roundtable sentiment by emphasizing the need to maintain dialogue while also constructing a knowledge representation that could perpetuate the roundtable's deliberations. While there might always be uncertainty about what to discuss regarding the collaboration of the humanities and computing sciences, such a representation could help frame future discourse, rendering the issues more coherent and tractable. It could be complemented by information tracking the propensity of humanists to assimilate different kinds of technology—avoiding the risk (noted by Michael Neuman) of over-generalizing, given the differences across the humanities in terms of willingness and ability to experiment with new technology.

Willard McCarty asserted that further discussion is needed for its own sake and to support two additional objectives. First is the need to "clarify and communicate the nature of what is going on in humanities," to disseminate examples of the collection of data and the creation of access (such as an international effort to search out, catalog, and maintain a database). Second is the need for institutional models to illustrate current and future possibilities for collaboration among computer scientists and humanists.

Several participants urged additional work on existing projects as well as broader sharing of knowledge about ongoing projects. That broader sharing should be extended in particular to humanists fairly new to computing. Bruce Schatz argued that "[t]he main thing to do is to undertake a project or a series of projects that make it clear that humanities computing really works. . . . The best project would be one that the general public really cares about."

In summary, the roundtable participants offered the following suggestions in response to Dr. Wulf's original question about what CSTB might do to help foster a better understanding of the human record. They highlighted a series of activities that might perpetuate the rich and complex dialogue on the convergence of humanities and computing science:

  • Publish a summary of the day's proceedings. One summary might be published by CSTB; another might appear as an American Council of Learned Societies' Occasional Paper; a third venue might offer a summary on the Web, with appropriate links to the projects mentioned.

  • Organize focus groups to explore over time: methods and methodologies in the humanities and computing sciences, areas where collaboration between humanists and computing scientists might be most effective, and the potential influence of technology upon democracy.

  • Organize and help fund a conference or conferences that would cover multidisciplinary demonstrations of technology in teaching and research; presentations of existing institutional models for teaching and applying technology; exploration of the uses of technology in the humanities, and how these applications benefit society as a whole; discussions of current standards (what has proven successful, what is needed for greater interoperability); exploration of the ways the business sector could be more integrated in supporting technology in the humanities, and means by which greater advocacy on the part of the business community might be achieved; presentations of case studies that highlight interdisciplinarity and shared taxonomies, including projects in the K-12 area; and a review of current debate on intellectual property, copyright, and the determining legal and economic phenomena relating to these areas.

  • Organize and help fund a one-day meeting of humanities scholars to identify important collection material appropriate for digitization, and to foster coordination of digitizing projects in the United States.

  • Sponsor a longer-term project to coordinate digital library initiatives in the United States with those of foreign libraries and nations.

  • Establish discussion groups that would continue deliberations on themes relating to accessibility, including: bandwidth, rural access to digital resources, and wireless technology.

  • Establish a body to continue discussions on the organizing themes of the roundtable: methodologies in the humanities and computing sciences, institutional and economic issues, and standards.

Other observations and recommendations included:

  • Promulgating the roundtable's themes at existing conferences and venues, such as the Coalition for Networked Information, Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing, Association for Computers and the Humanities, the various humanist professional society meetings, the digital library conferences, and SIGGRAPH and other professional computer science conferences that focus on approaches to presenting, representing, finding, organizing, and sharing information.

  • Encouraging greater awareness of the importance of humanities computing, and more integration of humanities applications in future Digital Library Initiative competitions. That the Digital Library Initiative was singled out is symptomatic of a lack of frameworks for "pushing" the frontiers of computing and the humanities. Whether that particular initiative may be expanded to embrace more humanities projects is less important than that some initiative or program exist to foster computing and the humanities.

  • Exploring ways to reward more programmatically the creation of meta-information.

  • A formal endorsement by CSTB of the importance of humanities applications, and publication of a report on recommended outcomes of the collaboration of the humanities and computing sciences.

I. Introduction and Background
II. Toward a Common Language: Methods and Context
III. Software and Standards Development
IV. Economic and Institutional Issues
Notes | Appendices

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