Understanding Jane

September 2012

Jane AustenImagine the research processes of a scholar specialising in Jane Austen. What do their day to day methodologies entail? Close reading of Austen’s texts, plus those of her contemporaries? Exhaustive analysis of parts of speech, the underlining of verbs and nouns, in her various books? Travelling to archives throughout the world to get access to Austen’s correspondence and manuscripts? Keeping up with the various literature published on the topic? Melisssa Terras MBCS introduces digital humanities.

Computational technologies are changing the breadth and scope of humanities research. 1100 pages of fiction written in Jane Austen’s own hand are now virtually reunified at www.janeausten.ac.uk, allowing scholars to access, read, and compare high quality images of original manuscripts whose material forms are scattered around the world in libraries and private collections. 

A scholar today could download all of Austen’s works, and undertake detailed research on the language they contain using freely available online tools. Literature review in the humanities has been transformed in the same way as the sciences, with repositories such as JStor allowing desktop access to research. There is now a growing interest in the creation of digital tools, infrastructure and resources specifically for those undertaking teaching and research in the humanities.

The field of digital humanities exists at the intersection of computational technologies and the arts and humanities. It aims to produce applications and models that make possible new kinds of research, both in the humanities disciplines and in computer science and its allied technologies. It also studies the impact of these techniques on cultural heritage, memory institutions, libraries, archives and digital culture.

Although the use of computing in humanities research has been undertaken since computational technologies were available (Father Roberta Busa pioneered the use of computers for linguistic and literary analysis in the 1950s by using IBM’s mainframes to index the works of St Thomas Aquinas) it is only recently that the field has coalesced into a recognisable movement.

There are now 167 Digital Humanities centres worldwide and in 2011, 134 academic courses in Digital Humanities were available. There are over 1800 subscribers to Humanist, the Digital Humanities email discussion list and nearly a thousand registered users of DH Answers, a community based question and answer board for digital humanities topics, that last year saw 1387 posts on 223 questions, read by over 28,837 unique visitors from 164 countries.

The Alliance of Digital Humanities Organisations oversees the provision of this infrastructure, as well as organising the highly competitive digital humanities annual conference, and publishing the main journals in the discipline, LLC: The Journal of Digital Scholarship in the Humanities and Digital Humanities Quarterly.

The computer science

Where is the computing science in all this? Is digital humanities just about the reuse of existing technologies and infrastructure? A core element of DH is also to engage with computer science and its allied technologies to answer real world problems in the Arts and Humanities, to develop new infrastructures, and to understand how technologies might be applied and appropriated by the humanities and beyond.

A major success of humanities computing (as digital humanities was called until the turn of the millennium) is its role in developing markup languages with the Text Encoding Initiative: the methodology and application of markup languages as applied to texts studied in the humanities went on to influence and instruct the development of XML, eXtensible Markup Language, which is the bedrock of many online computational systems.

At the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities  we aim to bring together work being done in many different departments and centres, including the university’s library services, museums and collections. The centre’s location in central London also makes it an ideal base for collaboration with organisations outside UCL, such as museums, galleries, libraries and archives.

We are currently working alongside UCL Computer Science to aid in the virtual reconstruction of damaged and deteriorated documents held in London Metropolitan Archives and with UCL Medical Physics and Bioengineering to apply benchmarked multi-spectral imaging techniques used in the medical sciences to ancient documents.

We are undertaking research with UCL Civil, Engineering and Geomatic Engineering into applying 3D scanning processes to museum spaces, and working with UCL Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis on the use of hand-held mobile devices within museums to encourage user interaction with museum objects, and building an iPhone app with them to allow on-the-go text analysis.  

We have collaborated with UCL Laws on Transcribe Bentham, an online crowdsourcing initiative that was given the Award of Distinction in the Digital Communities category of the highly prestigious Prix Ars Electronica. We also are working with outside institutions such as the British Museum, the British Library and the Imperial War Museum: using our expertise on use and users of digital resources in the humanities to impact design of their online and offline collections.

2010 saw the first intake for our interdisciplinary MA/ MSc in Digital Humanities at UCL, a research-led programme that creates linkages between teaching in the UCL Department of Information Studies and UCL Computer Science and drawing upon modules offered in different parts of the UCL faculties of Arts and Humanities, Social and Historical Sciences, Engineering Sciences and the Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment, to investigate the application of computational technologies to the arts, humanities, and cultural heritage.

Our aim is to produce interdisciplinary individuals with practical skills to apply computing science to the arts and heritage: allowing both students who have a background in the humanities to acquire necessarily skills in digital technologies, and for those with a technical background to become informed about scholarly methods in the humanities.

The use of computational technologies in the arts, humanities, and cultural and heritage sector is now becoming so widespread that it is imperative that we produce individuals with a grounding in both areas that can go on to apply technology to complex cultural problems.

The field of digital humanities is increasingly robust and growing exponentially: you may not have heard of us before this introduction, but it is an area of great interest, and we welcome contacts with any computer scientists wishing to learn more and to collaborate. 

Things have changed for the individual Jane Austen scholar: tools and methods need to be developed for everyone interested in accessing cultural and heritage material via digital means.

 
Melissa Terras is the Reader in Electronic Communication in the UCL Department of Information Studies, and Deputy Director of UCL Centre for Digital Humanities. She holds an MA in Art History and English Literature, an MSc in IT with distinction in Software and Systems (both Glasgow University) and a Doctorate in Engineering Science from Oxford. She is the secretary of the Association of Literary and Linguistic Computing and General Editor of Digital Humanities Quarterly. In general, you can find her on twitter: @melissaterras, or at m.terras@ucl.ac.uk.

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