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When the book met the computer

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NOVEMBER 14, 2013

At first, the disciplines of computer science and the humanities seem unlikely bedfellows. But for UC Berkeley graduate student Christopher Church, marrying the two is not only feasible, but timely — and needed.

The marriage of technology and the liberal arts is often referred to as the digital humanities, a term that has grown increasingly popular on UC Berkeley’s campus as the Internet and other electronic mediums of communication, research and analysis establish themselves as the norm.

For Church, the former Digital Humanities Coordinator for the history department, the digital humanities is about moving the liberal arts into a technological age.

“It’s time to get the books out of the library,” Church said, in reference to digitizing the humanities and making them more accessible to researchers and the public.

But for all the conversation surrounding the digital humanities, defining what the term is, exactly, proves to be a difficult task.

 “The digital humanities are not even a distinct field by itself,” Church said. “What it is exactly is a question those involved in it are trying to answer.”

 Upon further thought, he added, “a good way to think of it is as a mindset or an approach.”

Quinn Dombrowski, a Ph.D candidate who works with UC Berkeley’s Information Services and Technology, said that the definition of digital humanities depends on the needs of the scholar.

“There’s no single goal,” she said in an email. “A scholar motivated by public outreach might publish an engaging digital exhibit of photos and documents about an author. A researcher who wants to answer questions that couldn’t be explored before might work with a programmer to develop a new tool.”

Aside from what it is, what the digital humanities does is an easier and more interesting question for Church.

“One of the goals of digital humanities is to update the humanities for the new Internet,” he said. “It is about challenging methodologies – rethinking the way disciplines operate with new technologies, a new set of tools.”

Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies professor Abigail De Kosnik’s work is an example of “updated” humanities research. De Kosnik runs a project she calls “Fan Data,” which examines online fan fiction archives to aggregate data, such as the time period in which Harry Potter fans write the most fan fiction.

“You can step back and look at the bigger picture,” said Andrea Horbinski, one of De Kosnik’s Ph.D students. “You couldn’t do that with traditional close-reading — there is just too much material.”

The opening of D-Lab, an initiative aiming to increase digital literacy among scholars of various disciplines, this spring bolstered support for the digital humanities on campus. Located on the third floor of Barrows Hall, the D-Lab offers technology workshops, training, and project consulting — resources which are available for graduate students and undergraduates alike.

For Professor el Ghaoui, the digital humanities not only helps the liberal arts, but those on the technology side as well. El Ghaoui said that working with the humanities gives engineers meaning to what they do.

“I think it is important to create an ongoing dialogue between engineers and the humanities,” he said. “This is a fantastic opportunity for computer science.”

Clarifications: A previous version of this article may have implied that Christopher Church supports physically removing books from libraries. In fact, Church's comment that "it's time to get the books out of the library" was in reference to digitizing the humanities and making them more accessible to researchers and the public.
Corrections: A previous version of this article said that the D-Lab is located on the fifth floor of Barrows Hall. In fact, it is located on the third floor. A previous version of this article also incorrectly defined the D-Lab as an initiative aiming to increase digital literacy among humanities scholars. In fact, the D-Lab's work is not limited solely to humanities scholars.

Contact Savannah Luschei at 


NOVEMBER 18, 2013