9.301 programming for the humanities

Humanist (mccarty@phoenix.Princeton.EDU)
Sat, 18 Nov 1995 17:26:30 -0500 (EST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 9, No. 301.
Center for Electronic Texts in the Humanities (Princeton/Rutgers)

[1] From: Willard McCarty <mccarty@epas.utoronto.ca> (31)
Subject: programming for the humanities

In Humanist 9.296 Tom Horton asks about what software we need that we do not
have, what we're doing meanwhile, and so forth. I'd like to address a
slightly different question, namely about the meta-tools, which is where I
think the promise lies.

It seems to me that the most broadly useful invention would be a set of
components the "garden-variety" humanist could assemble quickly into a
process. Component-software is not a new idea, but it rests on a genuine
intellectual problem, namely to identify the computing primitives of
text-processing. If a basic set of primitives were suitably identified and
component-packages implemented for them, then perhaps we could close the gap
between the person with the problem (conventionally, the scholar) and the
one who writes or adapts the tools to deal with this problem (the
programmer). When the day arrives that these two can become one on a broad
scale, then I think we'll see an enormous leap in the scholarly use of
computing. Yes, of course, there are programmer-scholars around, but in the
past these have been few, and the programming quite demanding. Too much time
is lost between the conception of an idea about how text might be processed
and the actual processing that the essential interactivity has not happened.

Basically I am arguing that computers are tools to think with. Scholars have
largely had to relegate an important part of their thinking to others. This
is a problem, no?

We do not, then, need yet another wish-list of features. Rather we need to
think on a more abstract level about what these primitives might be. I am
inclined to argue that such thought will best come out of our abstracting
from actual experience in working with humanities data, i.e. out of the
self-awareness of working scholars. There is simply no substitute for this
experience, but it is unmined gold unless we rouse ourselves.


Willard McCarty, Centre for Computing in the Humanities
Departments of Classical Studies and Italian Studies (Toronto)
(416) 978-3974 voice (416) 978-6519 fax mccarty@epas.utoronto.ca