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June 9, 2011

Stanford's Digital Humanities: A conference that's become cool

Digital humanities comes of age – and the wide range of its interests are spotlighted in a Stanford conference this month.

By Cynthia Haven

Only a few years ago, "digital humanities" – where computing and traditional humanities cross paths – was widely perceived as the province of nerds. No more.

More than 275 participants will be around Stanford later this month when the university hosts "Big Tent Digital Humanities," this year's international conference of the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations

Broadly put, the digital humanities is the nexus between computing and the humanities. Matthew Jockers, a Stanford English lecturer, academic technology specialist and co-organizer, describes the field as divided into two strands: those who study "digital objects" using traditional means – for example, studying the history of videogames; and those who are using computational analysis to do text analysis and text mining.

Stanford alumnus David Rumsey, whose renowned collection of 150,000 historical maps has been donated to Stanford and is being digitized, will deliver the keynote address at 6 p.m. on Sunday, June 19, in Dinkelspiel Auditorium. His talk, "Reading Historical Maps Digitally: How Spatial Technologies Can Enable Close, Distant and Dynamic Interpretations," is free and open to the public.

The conference is occurring at a pivotal time in the burgeoning new field of digital humanities. 

"It's an exciting time because the field is becoming more famous and more mainstream and getting more press," said Glen Worthey, who heads Stanford University Libraries' Digital Initiatives Group and co-organized the conference.

"What's happening is that a field that's been around for a long time is suddenly becoming prominent," Jockers said. "Universities are creating a lot of positions in the digital humanities, trying to build these areas." 

"We believe that any scholar or librarian or programmer or humanist who self-identifies as a digital humanist should be able to find a place in this community and in this conference," said Worthey. Hence, the title, "Big Tent Digital Humanities."

"There's lots of discussion about what the digital humanities means. We're making a bold declaration that it's anyone who wants to join us."

Worthey points out that digital humanities is not "new," in any meaningful sense of the term. The Adam in this digital Eden is Father Roberto Busa, an Italian priest who, in the 1940s, launched the Index Thomisticus, a tool for performing text searches within Aquinas' massive oeuvre. It led the priest to IBM in New York City, 1949. The 30-year project, using punch cards, eventually produced a 56-volume concordance.

"I am full of amazement at the developments since then," Busa wrote in 2004 (he is now 97 years old). "They are enormously greater and better than what I could then imagine. Digitus Dei est hic!  The finger of God is here!"

Stanford may not be the finger of God, but its selection as a venue gives additional weight to the annual conference.

Jockers calls it "introducing the digital humanities to Stanford, and Stanford to the digital humanities, in a more formal way." The two already had a bowing acquaintance: "Stanford has a long history of doing this work, but quietly, without the fanfare digital humanities is getting now. Everyone has been off doing their own entrepreneurial thing," Jockers said.

The 415-page PDF file of conference abstracts gives a sense of purpose to a field whose future no one yet fully understands. Some suggest "digital humanities" will be "a temporary name, because all the humanities will become digital," said Worthey. "I strongly don't believe that."

Worthey thinks the digital humanities will take an interdisciplinary route – in the same way that American studies created a new concentration by weaving together history, literature, political science and other fields, for example.

"I definitely think it's going to be more mainstream," Worthey said.

Registration for the conference is online with costs ranging from $150 for student members of the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations to $500 for non-members.

And there is plenty of room for the nerdy. In the selection of post-conference excursions, a tour of Silicon Valley history won, hands down, over a tour of the Sonoma Wine Country and literary San Francisco. The popular venture will include a visit to "the garages that spawned some of the high-tech greats."

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Contact

Cynthia Haven, Stanford News Service: (650) 724-6184, cynthia.haven@stanford.edu

Matthew Jockers, English: (650) 796-4196, mjockers@stanford.edu

Glen Worthey, Stanford University Libraries: (650) 213-6759, gworthey@stanford.edu

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