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What's Next for Digital Humanities?


Father Roberto Busa

Father Roberto Busa, whose project to index the works of St. Thomas Aquinas marked the beginning of Digital Humanities.

Credit: Roberto Busa, S.J., and The Emergence of Humanities Computing

In 1946, an Italian Jesuit priest named Father Roberto Busa conceived of a project to index the works of St. Thomas Aquinas word by word. There were an estimated 10 million words, so the priest wondered if a computing machine might help. Three years later, he traveled to the U.S. to find an answer, eventually securing a meeting with IBM founder Thomas J. Watson. Beforehand, Busa learned Watson's engineers had already informed him the task would be impossible, so on his way into Watson's office, he grabbed a small poster from the wall that read, "The difficult we do right away; the impossible takes a little longer." The priest showed the executive his own company's slogan, and Watson promised IBM's cooperation.

"The impossible" took roughly three decades, but that initial quest also marked the beginning of the field now known as Digital Humanities. Today, digital humanists are applying advanced computational tools to a wide range of disciplines, including literature, history, and urban studies. They are learning programming languages, generating dynamic three-dimensional (3D) re-creations of historic city spaces, developing new academic publishing platforms, and producing scholarship.


 

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