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Meredith Hindley: The Rise of the Humanities Machines

Meredith Hindley is senior writer of HUMANITIES magazine.

Stephen Mitchell suffered from allergies. “When the trees come out, I can’t see. People stand around saying, ‘Isn’t it lovely,’ but I weep,” he told the New York Times in 1965. A thirty-five-year-old professor at Syracuse University, he found sanctuary in the temperature-controlled environment of the school’s computer center, where he surprised many people by showing how computers could be used to advance work in the humanities.

Each year, the Modern Language Association compiled a bibliography of every book, article, and review published during the year prior. Assembling the bibliography from more than 1,150 periodicals and making the accompanying index was an enormous undertaking, and it was all done by hand. Mitchell thought he could automate the process, and MLA agreed to let him try. He spent weeks translating the names of editors, translators, and authors into punch cards and writing the program to interpret the data. Then it was all over in twenty-three minutes. That’s how long it took the computer to compile and print the index, which ran to 18,001 entries.

During the previous fifteen years, computers had been making inroads into the humanities, emerging as more than a passing curiosity by the mid 1960s. The digital humanities—or “humanities computing,” as it was then known—used machines the size of small cars, punch cards, and data recorded on magnetic tape. To many scholars, its methods, which depended on breaking down texts into data elements, seemed alien, as did the antiseptic atmosphere of the computer lab. But for those who didn’t mind working away from the comforting smell of musty old books, a new field was opening up, a hybrid discipline that would receive significant assistance from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which made its debut in 1965....

Read entire article at Humanities Magazine