Uncovering the hidden histories of computing in the Humanities 1949-1980: an overview of our findings | Julianne Nyhan, UCL

During the 20 minute sessions yesterday it wasn’t always possible to take long, or even coherent, notes, but as best as I was able I think I was able to represent the flavour of what was being said during each lecture. Here, then, are my notes from Dr Julianne Nyhan’s lecture, on uncovering the hidden histories of computing in the humanities. 

Firstly, Dr Nyhan posed the question – why should we even research the history of the digital humanities? She then went on to detail the Hidden Histories project, which is an overview of the history of the digital humanities from Roberto Busa onwards, utilising “an interdisciplinary method bundle” incorporating oral history by interviewing key players in the field. 

Dr Nyhan commented that there is no comprehensive history of the digital humanities, and we think of it as a revolutionary project but this has become a platitude. What, in fact, are the implications of the word “revolution”? (A key discussion point in Professor Andrew Prescott’s keynote lecture, which I blogged about yesterday). After all, revolution is how we describe most technological developments: what is being overthrown is outmoded, and we’re working towards a better future. Digital humanities has its finger on the pulse and is forward-facing, so why do we need a history of it? History “is but a pack of tricks we play on the dead”, and is subjective and interpretative. So why do we need to study it?

Nyhan said that we need to study it so that we can move away from the short-sighted label of revolution, and an evolutionary model of history that hasn’t necessarily served us well with its implication that the shape of the present was always expected. And given that collaboration is one of our defining traits, scholarly discourse around that is ill-developed. Without a better understanding of our history we can’t think about the sorts of collaborations we need. “For computing to be of the humanities as well as in them we must get beyond catalogues, chronologies and historic firsts to a catalogued histories” Willard McCarthy. What is digital humanities not? Is it “Big Tent”? Is it about building? Infrastructure?

Again reflecting what Professor Prescott had mentioned in his talk, Nyhan commented at this juncture on the long-term historical value of oral history; its reliability, and its subjective nature.

She also discussed the relative neglect of the field of digital humanities by traditional as well as digital humanists, and questioned whether this is because we don’t need a history of something which is changing constantly. Is it fear? Scepticism and dismissal? An implicit judgement about which topics are worthy of history?

The oral histories she has taken, which are to be published soon, have recorded some interesting reminiscences about the early days of the field, such as the “Ride out this computer fad!” comment made to Ray Siemens, or Harold Short’s observation on the experience of working with scholars “who at the outset simply didn’t understand what the potential might be” of the digital humanities; I think Dr Nyhan said it was Willard McCarthy who suggested that the Cold War context was important in explaining the portrayal of computers in the Canadian media, for example, and the level of fear shown towards them. Geoffrey Rockwell suggested that the digital humanities were often viewed as a Trojan horse, which would eventually attack the traditional humanities. 

Dr Nyhan also considered the notion of myth and history, and labels, and the fact we need to become critical and historically aware of the labels we are applying to ourselves. Rockwell addressed this too: are the stories we tell ourselves necessarily true?

She ended her talk by saying that the history of the digital humanities is little understood and under researched, and this is something which must be addressed with urgency – and in addressing that, oral history has a significant role to play. 

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One thought on “Uncovering the hidden histories of computing in the Humanities 1949-1980: an overview of our findings | Julianne Nyhan, UCL

  1. Thank you for writing up this summary of my talk. I’ve just seen it now, and of course the talk was a while ago but I think that you have done a really good job of capturing the key issues. All best, Julianne

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