Notes from the Field

  • The Short Guide
  • by Jeffrey Schnapp
  • March 5, 2013

Where Does the Digital Humanities Come From?

The Short Guide is an open excerpt from Digital_Humanities, by Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner, Jeffrey Schnapp, MIT Press, 2012.


This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-nonComercial-ShareAlike license, available at or by mail from Creative Commons, 444 Castro Street, Suite 900, Mountain view, California, 94041, USA. 


Questions & Answers I
Digital Humanities Fundamentals

Where does the Digital Humanities come from?

The roots of computational work in the humanities stretch back to 1949 when the Jesuit scholar Roberto Busa, working in collaboration with IBM, undertook the creation of an automated approach to his vast Index Thomisticus, a computer-generated concordance to the writings of Thomas Aquinas. By means of such early uses of mainframe computers to automate tasks such as word-searching, sorting, counting, and listing, scholars could process textual corpora on a scale unthinkable with prior methods that relied on handwritten or typed index cards. Other early projects included the debut, in 1966, of Computers and the Humanities, the first specialized journal in the field. Seven years later, the Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing (ALLC) was founded, with the Association for Computers and the Humanities (ACH) following in 1978.

By the mid-1980s computational methods for linguistic analysis had become widespread enough that protocols for tagging digital texts were needed. This spurred the development of the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI). This important undertaking reshaped the field of electronic textual scholarship and led subsequent digital editing to be carried out in Extensible Markup Language (XML), the tag scheme of which TEI is a specialized subset. The first human- ities-based experiments with database structures and hypertextual editing structured around links and nodes (rather than the linear conventions of print) date from this period, as do the many pilot projects in computational humanities in the United States sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and other agencies, organizations, and foundations.



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