13.0274 "Computers, Literature & Philology" report

Humanist (humanist@kcl.ac.uk)
Tue, 16 Nov 1999 22:08:23 +0000

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 13, No. 274.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

Date: Tue, 16 Nov 1999 21:00:58 +0000
To: humanist Discussion Group <Humanist@kcl.ac.uk>
From: "Domenico Fiormonte" <mc9809@mclink.it> (by way of Humanist
Subject: CLP 2 seminar report
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I am pleased to be able to respond to those who were
asking for news of what happened at the seminar
"Computers, Literature and Philology". The seminar web-
page contains all the abstracts we were sent
(http://til.let.uniroma1.it/appuntamenti/seminar.htm) whilst
Repubblica On Line and other e-magazines talked about
the event (see
ssici/classici.html and http://www.edscuola.com).

I'd like to preface what I have to say with a few words:
Humanities Computing in Italy is pretty lively. It's an
important, perhaps even critical moment for the
recognition of Humanities Computing as an
independent discipline. We have groups which are active
in all the major universities: Rome, Milan, Turin, Florence,
Bologna, Trieste, Pisa, Siena, Catania, Viterbo, etc.
Some of these groups are made of young researchers
who work on a voluntary basis, some others enjoy full-time
jobs and have access to national funding.

There was a time when many members of this varied
galaxy met to talk about common projects. With the
advent of the Web and multimedia, each group went off
on its separate way. If this scattered potential were
harnessed together, even partially and minimally, Italy
would be one of the European leaders in the
Humanities Technology field.

The Rome meeting aimed to be a step in this direction:
comparing ourselves with our major foreign counterparts,
and trying to find areas of collaboration within the Italian

The 'theoretical' core of the conference was the debate
on electronic encoding of texts. For many (not Humanist
members, of course!) encoding is an arcane concept,
stuff for specialists. Speakers at this conference
explained in simple words that this procedure represents
a crucial turning point in contemporary culture: the move
from paper-based to electronic media.
Encoding is in fact the procedure by which a digitized text
retains a 'memory' of what it used to be like on paper:
formatting, first lines, spelling features, etc.. Just think of
the enormous library and archive heritage in our country.
The scenario is clear: this 'obscure' concept of
encoding is going to play a vital role in our cultural
inheritance. A lot of financial resources, too, are at stake.
Who will decide / influence the way in which our
country's cultural resources will be put into electronic
form? What tools will be used? What criteria will be
adopted? As you can see, the theme of
the conference went far beyond its title.

Today, every library, archive, or documentation centre has
to think seriously about the 'transportability' and the
'fidelity' through time of the information they hold. It was to
respond to this need, to make information available and
searchable, that mark-up languages were evolved, and in
particular, special embedded signs which
assign a structure or a specific feature to a sequence of
characters. But what interpretative problems, at a
theoretical and even practical level, does text-encoding
This is what Dino Buzzetti (University of Bologna) talked
about on the first day, followed by Lou Burnard (Oxford
University) who gave illustrations of what could be
achieved with XML mark-up language. Lou Burnard also
presented the Text Encoding Initiative, the international
consortium which is involved in standardising encoding
using SGML. The TEI standard has been adopted (for the
first time, I think, in Italy) by the TIL (Italian Texts Online)
project, presented on the second day.

In the afternoon, Fernando Magan (Centro Ramon
Piņeiro, Santiago de Compostela) spoke about a project
to digitize manuscrits of medieval Galician which include
iconographic and musicological elements, adopting, for
precise philological reasons to do with the texts in
question (issues sometimes overlooked by non-
specialists), SGML but not TEI standards. The day had
opened with Jon Usher (University of Edinburgh) who
reminded delegates of the primacy of the cultural object,
the 'text in search of interpreters' (cfr. abstract

The other speakers of the day, all of an excellent
standard, ranged in their topics from encoding the
"Novelle Porrettane", to the didactic planning and
application of the Decameron Web, one of the first
hypertexts on line dedicated to the teaching of Italian
language and literature. A novel feature, and an
intellectual success, was the participation of the
commercial sponsors, who spoke in an illuminating way
about the real-world parameters within which they worked
to produce their software. IBM, Expert
System and Inso / Sherpa are involved in different
sectors: high-level public access (IBM's major project with
the St Petersburg Hermitage Museum);
practical language tools (Expert System); large-scale
textual database management (Inso).

On the last day, Allen Renear (Brown Univesrity),
Elisabeth Burr (Duisburg University) and Tito Orlandi
(University of Rome) closed the proceedings with a
discussion on the practical and theoretical principles
which might be used to create a formal curriculum in
Humanities Computing. The divergent perspectives of
Renar and Orlandi were particularly revealing (and
useful): Renear stressed the importance of the
relationship between the market and society
in general, Orlandi, instead, underlined the need for a
prior, rigorous, academic training before specific
Humanities Computing studies.
For Allen Renear, we are at a turning point, and this
implies re-thinking all the humanities disciplines, whilst for
Tito Orlandi, the problem is how to respect
(preserve?) the traditional, existing disciplines, when
faced with the challenge and possibilities of new
technologies. In other words, here too, we were faced
with the fequent USA-Europe dichotomy: dynamism (and
haste?) on one side, prudence (conservative?) on the

Apart from the papers, the final discussion justified the
whole conference by achieving a political goal: a
representative group of the Italian delegates at the
conference will present a request to the CUN (Italian
Universities National Council) for the inclusion of
Humanities Computing amongst the recognised
disciplines in the Reformed University Code.

The battle has hardly begun, and will require the
commitment of everybody who considers that this subject
is not just a device for protecting the 'self-interest' of arts
graduates, but that it can be the means of effecting and
managing the large-scale changes which the 'information
society' will inevitably bring about (digitizing our cultural
heritage, distance education, etc.)

Thanks for bearing with me,

Domenico Fiormonte (translated by Jonathan Usher)
University of Edinburgh
School of European Languages and Literature