20.266 being strong as well as healthy

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Thu, 19 Oct 2006 08:46:42 +0100

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 20, No. 266.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Wed, 18 Oct 2006 09:04:00 +0100
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: being strong as well as healthy

In the latest issue of the Times Literary Supplement, no. 5402, for
13 October, appears an article by Alex Burghart, "Web works", on the
development of freely distributed electronic resources for medieval
historians. Burghart is Postgraduate Research Assistant in the
Department of History, King's College London, and a member of the
Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England project, www.pase.ac.uk,
launched this last May. Burghart writes that the project,

>could not have been done in any meaningful form without a
>computerized system to permit the sifting and rearranging of
>information. Nor could the project have justified its cost without
>the internet. As public money has paid for the research, the public
>should not have to pay for it again, and the database is and will
>remain free at point of use. Less than a decade ago, the project
>would have been forced to rely on CD-ROMs which users would have had
>to pay for along with any upgrades and improvements added after the
>initial purchase. As it is now, we can tidy data as we go, using
>users as advisory editors as they provide feedback through the site,
>drawing on the experience of the specialist audience to hone the
>accuracy of the reference work and allowing (almost) effortless
>vision and revision....
>The work itself is a slog. Much data only becomes really interesting
>when seen in comparison with a great deal else; individually typing
>the names and economic credentials of every man, woman and
>institution in Domesday Book is indeed as tedious and physically
>gruelling as it sounds. This is work at the coal face rather than
>the cutting edge. What aspiring researchers increasingly do is
>provide the medium through which others will write history rather
>than write it themselves; a sensation not dissimilar to having
>someone solve the crossword clues as you fill in the squares. But
>data entry quickly teaches you fresh respect for the scribes who
>gave their lives to copying and reminds you that apprentices have
>always had to do the dirty work. The satisfaction comes in making
>something that will be used.

He goes on to contrast the usefulness of this "work at the coal face"
with the usual fate of PhD dissertations -- to remain unread in
library vaults (if not turned into books that most often would have
been far better if delayed in the rewriting until the author had
fully recovered from the peculiar experience of writing in that
peculiar genre).

PASE and other projects of its kind are fruits of both institutional
and professional investment as well. When such products of
collaborative work emerge into the world of daily scholarship, the
individuals named on the cover-page, corresponding to authors on a
printed titlepage, fit into a recognizable category, and so we have
no difficulty in understanding their responsibility for the
publication. What's newer and so more difficult to grasp is the role
of the academic department where the humanities computing work was
done and where this digital publication will continue to be an object
of specific care. If, as seems likely, the academic world judges such
products of scholarship to be what is wanted in this perpetually
incunabular digital age of ours, then the institutional road ahead is
plain. Simply put, one needs to have a collaborative research (and
teaching) department whose bread-and-butter, rather than jam on the
side, is the intellectual coal-face labour such as Burghart describes.
Outsourcing or hiring it in piecemeal is impractical and often
financially impossible. And once you have such a department, much
else becomes possible, such as teaching programmes.

Are we healthy? Here, I think, is a way to be strong. In the spirit of full
disclosure, I must admit to talking about my own department, of which
I'm obviously proud. But the longer-range matter is to continue to figure
out how to give what we do a "stone body", as Mircea Eliade said in a
very different context.



Dr Willard McCarty | Reader in Humanities Computing | Centre for
Computing in the Humanities | King's College London | Kay House, 7
Arundel Street | London WC2R 3DX | U.K. | +44 (0)20 7848-2784 fax:
-2980 || willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk www.kcl.ac.uk/humanities/cch/wlm/
Received on Thu Oct 19 2006 - 04:21:30 EDT

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