Uncovering the “hidden histories” of computing in the Humanities 1949–1980: findings and reflections on the pilot project

July 17, 2013, 08:30 | Long Paper, Embassy Regents C


Despite the relative longevity of Digital Humanities (its origins are usually pinpointed to at least 1949, when Fr Roberto Busa, an Italian, Jesuit priest, began work on an index variorum of some 11 million words of medieval Latin in the works of St Thomas Aquinas and related authors) very little is known of history. In this paper we will present the key findings of the pilot stage of the ‘Hidden Histories’ project, which is building an oral prosopography that explores the social, cultural and intellectual factors that helped to shape the work of Digital Humanities scholars since c.1949. We will also demonstrate that Oral History is an important and productive methodology in such research and that it has resulted in the creation of primary sources that not only offer new information and interpretations of the field but that can also be used for further historical research.

Research context and key aims

Contributions and notes towards a history of the field have been appearing since at least 1996 (for example, Fraser 1996; McCarty 2003; Hockey, 2004). The most substantial contribution published to date, that of Hockey (2004), is a chronological outline that emphasises key developments such as TEI. As welcome and important as such contributions are they neither are, nor aim to be, comprehensive histories of the field. As McCarty has argued “For computing to be of the humanities as well as in them, we must get beyond catalogues, chronologies, and heroic firsts to a genuine history. There are none yet.” (McCarty 2008: 255).

Nevertheless, more recent and ongoing research is enabling us to fill in aspects of the broad outlines of such a history. Barnet has researched, inter alia, the evolution of the Memex (2009) and the hypertext editing systems HES and FRESS (2010); Rockwell et al (2011) have presented on the incunabular history of computing in Canada and both Willard McCarty (forthcoming, see http://www.mccarty.org.uk/) and Edward Vanhoutte (forthcoming, see http://www.edwardvanhoutte.org/onderzoek/index.htm) are at work on book-length studies of DH literary history and editions.

Looking to the history of computing we can identify a number of the technological developments that gave rise to the possibility of viewing computers as more than mere number crunchers that were unsuitable for use in Humanities research. Given the nature of the Humanities, and its long standing oppositions — between, inter alia, techné and episteme; lone scholars and collaborative teams; discipline and interdiscipline— we hold that the very fact that the computer was used in Humanities research at all is as significant as the results it has yielded. However, the social, cultural and educational factors that helped to shape the early uptake of computing in the Humanities are little understood; it is this gap that the project sought to address. A key aim of the pilot was to investigate the appropriateness of Oral History as a methodology for capturing memories, observations and insights that are rarely recorded in the scholarly literature of the field. Accordingly, we carried out a number of pilot interviews in order to test and refine our methodology, aims and research questions. This paper will describe the key findings of the pilot project 'Uncovering the “hidden histories” of computing in the Humanities 1949–1980,' which has resulted in the creation of primary sources that will further research in this area (for example, McCarty, Nyhan et al forthcoming; Rockwell, Nyhan et al forthcoming; Short, Nyhan et al forthcoming; Siemens, Welsh et al forthcoming; Unsworth, Welsh et al forthcoming).


During the pilot phase oral history interviews were carried out with ten prominent scholars in the field including, among others, Willard McCarty, Geoffrey Rockwell, Harold Short, Ray Siemens, John Unsworth. Now into a further iteration of the project the range of people who are being interviewed has been extended. This is to ensure a better balance between the contributions of emeritus, established, mid- and early career scholars as well as gender. Also being interviewing are those who have not necessarily followed a purely academic career path but have worked in research management, funding, foresight and strategy and service or support positions.

The chief methodology of the project was an oral history one. Oral history has been defined as “the investigation of the past by means of personal recollections, memories, evocations or life stories, where the individual talks about their experiences, attitudes and values to a researcher” (Hitchcock and Hughes 1995, 220). Semi-structured interviews were based around the following questions:

  • 1) Please tell me about your earliest memory of encountering computing technology
  • 2) Did you receive formal training in programming or computing?
  • 3) How did you first get involved in what we now refer to as Digital Humanities?
  • 4) Which people particularly influenced you and how?
  • 5) What about scholars who were not using computers in their research do you have some sense of what their views about humanities computing were?
  • 6) What was your first engagement with the 'conference community' and how did that come about?

Content analysis was initially investigated in order to analyse the interviews; however, this was ultimately rejected in favour of a close reading approach. As will be explored in greater detail in the full paper one of the chief strengths of an oral history methodology is its propensity to expose, rather than gloss over the heterogeneity, dissent and difference that is an integral part of the history of computing in the humanities. In seeking to move away from the hitherto evolutionary and catalogue-based approach to the history of computing in the humanities that has often been pursued it seemed especially important to give due regard to this.

Key themes that emerged from the interviews

The forthcoming publications referred to above are to transcripts and audio recordings of five interviews carried out during the pilot phase. The paper will present the key findings of the pilot project based on an analysis of all of the interviews carried out. Specifically we will:

  • (i) Identify and reflect on the advantages and disadvantages of using an Oral History methodology for such research

We will also explore in detail two of the key themes that emerged from the interviews and their implications:

  • (ii) The interviews revealed that historically, both the entry routes through which people entered the field and the levels of formal training in computing that they had access to differ substantially. For example, Willard McCarty did not have access to formal training in computing when he was at Reed college in the 1960s, instead he learned programming ‘by doing’ (McCarty, Nyhan et al forthcoming). In contrast, Ray Siemens, had access to formal training in computing when he was in the English department of the University of Waterloo in the mid-1980s (Siemens, Welsh et al forthcoming). All data collected on this theme will be presented and possible implications discussed. For example, looking to the present time, as more and more dedicated Digital Humanities courses are being founded in countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany, Canada and the USA etc, students have the opportunity to undertake formal and focused training in the subject. It will be most interesting to see, in due course, how this formalisation of the routes of entry into the discipline will effect interpretations about what it is. Will we still be having the ‘what is digital humanities’ debate in ten years and how important will it be to understanding the early history of the emergence of the discipline?
  • (iii) Some interviews, for example, that carried out with Harold Short reveal the importance of the social, intra-personal and administrative work that appears to have been so central to the establishment and institutionalisation of Digital Humanities. Nevertheless, this work tends to be of lower profile that formal scholarly research and is rarely explored in historical studies of the field. The data collected on this will be presented and its wider comparative context with other emerging disciplines will be explored.


The history of Digital Humanities is a research topic that has been neglected not only by those working in long established Humanities subjects but also by the Digital Humanities community itself; much interesting and essential work in this area remains to be done. This paper will present the new findings that the Hidden Histories project has uncovered and will also argue that Oral History has a central role to play in such research. Furthermore, it will draw attention to the pressing need that exists for histories of Digital Humanities.


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Barnet, B. (2008). The Technical Evolution of Vannevar Bush’s Memex. Digital Humanities Quarterly 2.1
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Unsworth, J., A. Welsh, J. Nyhan, and J. Salmon. Postmodern Culture and more: an Oral History Conversation between John Unsworth and Anne Welsh. Digital Humanities Quarterly [Forthcoming]