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Powell, D. (2016). Early English Books in Context: Towards a History of the Technological Humanities. In Digital Humanities 2016: Conference Abstracts. Jagiellonian University & Pedagogical University, Kraków, pp. 315-317.
Early English Books in Context: Towards a History of the Technological Humanities

Early English Books in Context: Towards a History of the Technological Humanities

Writing in Literary and Linguistic Computing, Julianne Nyhan et al argue that “without a better understanding—a more appropriate term might be “body of interpretations”—of the near and distant history of computing in the humanities, we are condemned to repeat the revolutionary trope ad infinitum.” (Nyhan, Flinn, and Welsh, 2013). Willard McCarty, amplifying this, writes that “rather than hypnotizing ourselves with supposedly unprecedented marvels, we must learn to see computing in its historical and social contexts, and so be able to ground modelling in something larger than itself. 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).

Susan Hockey wrote in Companion to Digital Humanities that “humanities computing has a very well-known beginning,” by which she means the decades-long collaboration between Father Roberto Busa and IBM to create a concordance of the work of Thomas Aquinas (Hockey, 2004). This is the heroic first, which Busa, writing in the forward of that same volume, summed up with admirable brevity: “During the World War II, between 1941 and 1946, I began to look for machines for the automation of the linguistic analysis of written texts. I found them, in 1949, at IBM in New York City.” _ This narrative is familiar to many of those working in digital humanities today, and has become openly accepted as the standard historical background for, first, humanities computing and, subsequently, the digital humanities writ large.

This presentation aims to upset this easy narrative by re-situating the history of one type of digital humanities project—Early English Books Online—as one chapter in an overall history of a technological humanities. That history—the history of a technological humanities—the story of how academics have deployed technology to better understand human creations, especially in textual form—or to understand and explore texts—did not begin in 1949. The creation of digital humanities, radiating outward from those early years, is surely part of the larger story of how technology and text have come together and drifted apart over many centuries. I claim that there is a great deal more continuity in the apparatuses, in the knowledge infrastructure of the humanities than we put forward in our “official” histories. In our search for a neat disciplinary history, we elide technology as a whole with the digital electronic computer. Busa’s project likely does represent the beginning of one type of computational textual processing. It bears remembering, however, that his goal was to create a concordance, a type of reference tool and interface in existence in Western Europe since at least the 13th century. What is the history of this type of textual processing in the intervening six hundred years?

Instead of a history of tools for textual work beginning with the rise of humanities computing and moving forward to the present day, I hope to juxtapose a different narrative, one that troubles the rhetoric of a textual digital humanities that arises from a clear break with what came before. I hope to, perhaps polemically, test the boundaries of histories of digital humanities by considering an equally technologically sophisticated pre-digital humanities. Such a reframing opens many avenues of inquiry, including a consideration of Linked Open Data in the context of cooperative cataloguing practices from the 19th & 20th centuries, or contemporary textual analysis tools such as Voyant alongside the imposing machinery of an electromechanical Hinman Collator. This presentation, however, will highlight particularly those technologies of textual reproduction developed prior to the oft-quoted originary moment of 1949. Drawing on the history of Early English Books Online (EEBO), I argue that while a computational humanities may indeed be limited to the last half-century, the technological humanities—in both materialist and cultural senses—have a much longer history.

ProQuest introduces the resource on their front page:

From the first book printed in English by William Caxton, through the age of Spenser and Shakespeare and the tumult of the English Civil War, Early English Books Online (EEBO) will contain over 125,000 titles listed in Pollard and Redgrave's Short-Title Catalogue (1475-1640), Wing's Short-Title Catalogue (1641-1700), the Thomason Tracts (1640-1661), and the Early English Tract Supplement - all in full digital facsimile from the Early English Books microfilm collection. _ 1

In practice, this means that users are able to view the metadata for a given text; view page images of the original, early modern books in TIFF or PDF format; and, where available, view a full text transcription of the volume that are derived from the EEBO - Text Creation Partnership. Efforts to microfilm early English books began in 1931, intensified as World War II loomed, and continue today. Digital images of these microfilmed documents were made (and are still being made) available online first in 1998. The printed Short Title Catalogue (itself published in 1926) has determined what objects were photographed and, subsequently, scanned and put online _(EEBO).

The history of EEBO crosses multiple media, was directly impacted by global war, involves private companies and public universities, and is both analog and digital. To bracket EEBO (or EEBO-TCP) as a only a digital project impoverishes our understanding of how digital technologies have impacted the reproduction, preservation, and use of texts in humanistic scholarship. To write the full history of the early English books project, Early English Books Online, the Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership is to engage in an act of disciplinary archaeology, one that forces digital humanists to grapple with the pre-digital origins and ideologies that inflect contemporary digital resources undergirding scholarship. EEBO is a microcosm through which one body of interpretations of digital humanities might be seen.

As much as it is a history, this presentation is also engaged in answering claims by Alan Liu and Tara McPherson, amongst others, that digital humanities has chosen disciplinarily to disengage from socio-critical questions. _ 2 Thinking through the history of EEBO is one way to approach the digital humanities as a discipline tied to war-driven technological development; the uneasy relationships between private-sector providers and our shared cultural heritage; or the many varieties of labour that are imbricated within the knowledge infrastructures humanists use day in and day out. _ 3 Blending media analysis, historical perspectives, and in-depth knowledge of humanities research tools, I hope to question the boundaries of what we consider digital humanities to be, how we write our histories, and how we move forward.

  1. About EEBO. Early English Books Online. <http://eebo.chadwyck.com/marketing/about.htm>
  2. Hockey, S. (2004). The History of Humanities Computing. A Companion to Digital Humanities. (Eds.) Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, and John Unsworth. Oxford: Blackwell.
  3. McCarty, W. (2008). What’s going on? Literary and Linguistic Computing, 23(3): 253-61, doi: 10.1093/llc/fqn014.
  4. Nyhan, J., Flinn, A. and Welsh, A. (2013). Oral History and the Hidden: Histories project: towards histories of computing in the humanities. Literary and Linguistic Computing, doi: 10.1093/llc/fqt044.
  5. Svensson, P. (2009). Humanities Computing as Digital Humanities. Digital Humanities Quarterly, 3(3). http://digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/3/3/000065/000065.html.

This text was current as of summer 2015 and is available in cached form. Since that time, Proquest has altered the front page description of EEBO to the following:

‘Early English Books Online (EEBO) contains digital facsimile page images of virtually every work printed in England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and British North America and works in English printed elsewhere from 1473-1700 - from the first book printed in English by William Caxton, through the age of Spenser and Shakespeare and the tumult of the English Civil War. ’

Strangely, this newer version eliminates reference to the Early English Books microfilm Collection, as well as collapsing a number of distinct early modern collections of content into what might be called the EEBO brand. See the current version of <http://eebo.chadwyck.com/home> and a cached version <https://web.archive.org/web/20150905141338/http://eebo.chadwyck.com/home> from September 2015.


For work by Liu on this topic, see “Where is the Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanites?,” published in Debates in the Digital Humaniteies, ed Matthew K. Gold <http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/20>. For McPherson work on UNIX and ideologies of race, see “Why are the Digital Humanities So White? or Thinking the Histories of Race and Computation” in the same volume <http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/29>.


It is worth noting that one of the very few publications to deal with the EEBO set of projects in this way was published in Literary and Linguistic Computing (now Digital Scholarship in the Humanities). See Diana Kichuk, “Metamorphosis: Remediation in Early English Books Online (EEBO)” (2007) 22 (3): 291-303. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/llc/fqm018. Kichuk’s efforts have helped establish a historical framework for this discussion; this presentation seeks to contextualise the facts she has brought together and extend their relevance into discourses about DH as a whole.