Cover of ROBERTO BUSA, S.J., AND THE EMERGENCE OF HUMANITIES COMPUTING, featuring a black-and-white photo of a priest looking up at a punchcard.

Demythologizing the Priest and his Punched Cards

Andrew C. Stout, Covenant Theological Seminary

Review of Roberto Busa, S. J., and the Emergence of Humanities Computing: The Priest and the Punched Cards (New York: Routledge, 2016). $150.00 hardback, $38.47 ebook.

Digital humanities (DH) is a contested field—contested in terms of its definition, its scope, and its long-term relevance. One issue on which there has been much consensus is the central place given to the work of Roberto Busa when charting the origin of DH. It is standard fare in DH publications to cite Busa’s Index Thomisitcus as the first major project in humanities computing, the classic example of this being Susan Hockey’s history of humanities computing in the foundational volume A Companion to Digital Humanities (2004). In Roberto Busa, S.J., and the Emergence of Humanities Computing, Steven E. Jones complicates even this supposedly straightforward narrative, and he manages to do so even while indicating fruitful ways of understanding and advancing work in the field.

Roberto Busa (1913–2011) was an Italian Jesuit priest and scholar trained in philosophy at the Papal Gregorian University in Rome. A philological approach to studying the metaphysics of Thomas Aquinas eventually led Busa to travel to North America in 1949 in search of machine assisted methods for compiling a lemmatized concordance that included every word in Aquinas’s writings. Through correspondence and archival records, Jones tells the story of Busa’s collaboration with IBM to develop the Index Thomisticus using IBM’s iconic punched cards, a form of data storage for early computing. It is not difficult to see how contemporary scholars working in DH could point to this early relationship between a humanities scholar and the corporate technology leader as a point of origin for the field. Jones explains his demythologizing project: “It’s not my aim to debunk [the myth], but only to provide a more complicated picture of its history, to fill in some of the rich contexts out of which the myth arose in the first place” (9–10). While Busa is unquestionably an important figure in charting the development of humanities computing, and eventually DH, Jones is interested in situating Busa within a complex historical web of developments in media and technology.

This goal leads Jones to dismiss another, more elusive myth—the myth of “progress.” Nowhere is the temptation to view historical developments as an inevitable upward progression more evident than in studies of technology. Jones counters this assumption by attending to historical contingencies and “adjacent possibilities” as he traces the working relationship between Busa and IBM. Busa’s use of punched-card processing systems allowed him to process an impressive amount of data, but the system was hardly cutting edge. While these systems used technology that had been in place since the nineteenth century, IBM’s Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator (SSEC) was also on display in the company’s Manhattan showroom. This iconic early computer was not made available to Busa, but it played a large part in IBM’s public image. Jones discusses the computing culture surrounding the SSEC at length as a way of setting Busa’s work in historical context. One major aspect of this context is the neglected role of women in the history of computing. Jones emphasizes that “there were women everywhere in early computing, in one capacity or another, from wartime ‘computers’ using calculating machines, to plugboard ‘programmers,’ to keypunch operators, to system operators and some software programmers, once that became a possibility” (64). There were many women who worked as operators with Busa on the production of the Index Thomisticus, and Busa trained many young women to be operators at his Center for Automation and Literary Analysis in Gallarate, Italy. However, the substantive work done by these women was often categorized as simply “clerical,” and the twenty first century has seen a major decline in the number of women in professional programming. The myth of progress is further complicated as Jones discusses tensions between academic, political, and corporate interests, as well as issues of advertising and the public perception of computing. He also highlights the array of alternative technologies that were on offer at the time that Busa was processing his punched cards.

Jones constructs a layered and detailed historical narrative that takes account of the personalities, spaces, and material objects involved. This serves to flesh out Busa’s own accounts of his work (which Jones cites frequently) and IBM’s corporate records. Jones’s ability as a storyteller is particularly evidenced by the “exploded view” that he offers of the initial 1949 meeting between Busa and Thomas J. Watson, Sr., CEO of IBM. He focuses on various details of the image of the two men meeting in IBM’s offices to explain the political, social, and technological issues that set the stage for the initial conversation and conditioned the ongoing relationship.

Several aspects of Busa’s projects draw out the relationship between developing technology and the humanities as they relate to research and teaching. First, the public demonstrations that Busa gave of his work—particularly one held at IBM World Headquarters on Madison Avenue in June of 1952—show how the interactions between computing and humanities research influence pedagogy. His demos before interdisciplinary groups of scholarly, corporate, and ecclesiastical figures were impressive displays of automated technology, but “it turned out to be the general concepts of how to use punched-card machinery to treat language as data to be processed … that influenced practice over the long term” (82). By introducing punched-card technology into philological analysis, Busa began to demonstrate how vast amounts of data generated from a text could also generate new perspectives on that text. His teaching demonstrations alerted scholarly and corporate communities to the way that the iterative process facilitated by computing allowed for a deconstruction, fragmentation, and reconstitution of texts, making technology a real collaborator in the process of creating meaning. Through these technology demonstrations, Busa sought to convince a varied audience of influential people of the usefulness of his adaption of technology in the service of the hermeneutical process. With the growth of Silicon Valley, we have all come to be aware of the formative capacity of this sort of technology demo. Jones cites Steve Jobs’s Apple Computer events and TED Talks as formats comparable to the demos of Busa and other early tech innovators. As with these more recent examples, the intent of Busa’s demos were not simply to transfer information about a new technology. Just as the public unveiling of a new Apple product creates expectation and emphasizes the way that a new iPhone, iPad, or other device can have a transformative effect on our lives, so Busa’s demos were designed to inform, impress, and indicate the potential his punched-card technology had to transform humanities research.

Second, Busa’s Center for Automation and Literary Analysis (CAAL) featured a pedagogical method that was transformed by the interaction of humanities scholarship and computing. Jones describes the CAAL, founded by Busa in 1956, as “a vocational ‘training school for key-punch operators,’ technicians of automated accounting machinery.” The CAAL’s “first reason for being was research … with students working in effect as interns, learning on the job for two-year stints” (119). The students at the CAAL (predominantly young women) found themselves in an environment that combined elements of the laboratory, factory, and religious community as they gained experience operating IBM machines as they worked to create, among other projects, an index for the recently discovered Dead Sea Scrolls. The CAAL was supported by a network of corporate and governmental patrons, and it benefited from Busa’s continuing relationship with IBM. The operators didn’t receive diplomas for their training, but they gained experience in marketable job skills. This combination of scholarly research with vocational training in computing technology leads Jones to describe CAAL as “arguably the first humanities computing center” (134). Many of the same critiques that have recently been leveled at DH initiatives in higher education (see Allington, Brouillette, and Golumbia 2016) can be seen in Jones description of the CAAL. Corporate, government, and scholarly interests were intertwined in Busa’s projects. New technical skills were learned in a context that served humanities research.

Jones demonstrates the two-way street of the pedagogical process—available technologies shape the processes of research and learning, and educational traditions influence the adoption and use of new equipment and methods. This can be seen in the contrast between the industrial model on which CAAL was based and the humanistic impulse behind its work. The training school was “both internship and production line for data processing of texts” (125). The CAAL was housed in an old industrial building, and IBM’s machines were arranged on the old factory floor. The image invoked by the setup is some combination of a factory line and a scriptorium. Technical skills were being learned not simply to manufacture a product but for the deeper understanding of a literary text. One important way Jones illustrates this dynamic is by highlighting Busa’s Jesuit identity. Jones suggests that the Jesuit focus on higher education and on broad engagement with secular culture contributed to Busa’s willingness to build networks through unlikely partnerships and to view the creative implementation of technology as an extension of humanities research.

Jones, like many practitioners, delights in the indeterminacy and indefinability of the broad field of DH. By inspecting, atomizing, and reconstituting the historical context and technical details of Busa’s career, he succeeds in demonstrating that this indeterminacy was present from the outset. Jones pushes back against definitions of DH that tie the field too rigidly to Busa’s project. He wants a definition with broad enough boundaries to include work in areas such as media studies, video games, social media, and more. Elsewhere, he defines DH broadly “as an umbrella term for a diverse set of practices and concerns, all of which combine computing and digital media with humanities research and teaching” (5). Paradoxically, Jones demonstrates that Busa’s project was only one of any number of contributing factors to the development of humanities computing and (later) DH while also uncovering new and unexpected ways that the details of that project are relevant to the expansion of the field. Though Busa initially presented his work in humanities computing terms—with machines filling a utilitarian role in otherwise traditional humanities research—digging into the material specifics of his projects reveals that technology and its layered applications were making theoretical contributions at every stage of his research. With this substantive and engaging book (as well as the Tumblr site that augments the book), Jones has made an essential contribution to the field of DH.


Allington, Daniel, Sarah Brouillette, and David Golumbia. 2016. “Neoliberal Tools (and Archives): A Political History of Digital Humanities.” Los Angeles Review of Books. May 1, 2016.

Hockey, Susan. 2004. The History of Humanities Computing. In A Companion to Digital Humanities, edited by Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, and John Unsworth. Oxford: Blackwell.

Jones, Steve E. 2014. The Emergence of the Digital Humanities. New York and London: Routledge.

About the Author

Andrew C. Stout is the Access Services Librarian at the J. Oliver Buswell Jr. Library at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO.

The cover of Amongst Digital Humanists, featuring a photo of a man in a suit with his face blurred by pixelation.

Doing DH as/or Digital Scholarship: An Ethnography of Scholarship, Properly Done

Review of Amongst Digital Humanists: An Ethnographic Study of Digital Knowledge Production by Antonijević, Smiljana, Published by Springer, 2016.


Amongst Digital Humanists: An Ethnographic Study of Digital Knowledge Production (2015) by Smiljana Antonijević is among the first long-form ethnographic studies of theory and practice in Digital Humanities (DH) scholarship. This study seems in direct response to Christine Borgman’s 2009 call for a “social studies of digital humanities.” Borgman writes:

Why is no one following digital humanities scholars around to understand their practices, in the way that scientists have been studied for the last several decades? This body of research has informed the design of scholarly infrastructure for the sciences, and is a central component of cyberinfrastructure and eScience initiatives . . . The humanities community should invite more social scientists as research partners and should make themselves available as objects of study. In doing so, the community can learn more about itself and apply the lessons to the design of tools, services, policies, and infrastructure (Borgman 2009, para 76).

Borgman’s comments and Antonijević’s book provoke a central question, however: Why must DH invite social scientists to study DH practices? What’s the downside? Why can’t we study and learn more about ourselves, ourselves?

DH has been considering the state of the field, its infrastructures, its mode of training and sustainability for decades (see Bowles 1965; Hockey 1986; and Selfe 1988). In considering and explaining the field, DH scholarship has long included methods that Borgman might describe as “following digital humanities scholars around” such as interviews, observations, and surveys (Svensson 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012; Hayles 2012; Nyhan 2012; Keener 2015 to name several). Unlike the social science studies about cyberinfrastructure that Borgman cites as examples, however, the DH scholarship to which I am pointing is not presented as social science even when it employs similar methods of data collection and analysis. In part, this difference is due to the particularities of how analyzing and writing about field research and data collection as qualitative empirical study is done in the social sciences (Becker 1996). When Borgman refers to particular scholarly practices such as “social studies” in the academy, she is pointing to long-standing and rigorous theory-driven practices that require theoretical development, expertise, long years of study, and a deep immersion in the community under examination.

As a social scientific study, Amongst Digital Humanists provides a rich collection of ethnographic data about the daily practices of scholars who produce knowledge by employing digital technologies in the humanities. In the first chapter, Antonijević describes the history of DH and the many debates that inspired her study as well as her methods and her particular epistemological perspective. The three central chapters focus on her findings, which include a snapshot of how scholars from different fields inside and out of the humanities engage with digital technologies as a form of “capacity building” that is constantly impacted by organizational factors that underlie digital scholarship such as training, professionalization, and sustainability. In its call for “universal humanism” and “pluralistic futures” (156), Antonijević’s final chapter uses these findings to argue for a delineation between DH and digital scholarship (DS) that she maintains would ensure a more diverse and inclusive discourse community around DH/DS in higher education rather than the “exclusionary, accusatory, or dismissing discourses and actions” that DH is currently perpetuating (156). Her pointed critiques of DH include (a) that participants are undertrained; (b) that their scholarship lacks clear evaluation criteria and venues; and (c) that their once well-funded projects are unsustainable, all of which makes for a prevailing DH culture against which, she asserts, we must “fight” (155).

Unfortunately, Antonijević’s conclusions about DH seem to reflect how she framed her study and the behaviors and interactions of the homogenous communities she chose to follow rather than reflect a more comparative engagement with epistemes and disciplines across DH as she claims to pursue at the book’s onset. Ethnographers typically believe that if “properly done,” ethnographic methods are the best methods for better understanding “real-world social processes” (Forsythe 1999, 129), but to do ethnography “properly,” the ethnographer must use data-gathering methods that are framed by a particular philosophical stance and conceptual structure. Influenced by the writings of Strathern (2005) and Bourdieu (1988), who stress comparative approaches and understand the world as constructed and situated, Antonijević asserts that her methods promote a constructed and situated appraisal of DH (34), but Antonijević’s laudable call for pluralism and her desire to “challenge assumptions of epistemic cultural essentialism” (31) in DH are undercut by the study’s scope, which overlooks and underplays alternative DH communities, histories, and methods. Instead of a comparative approach, Antonijević props up a particularly narrow version of DH by willfully ignoring this wider range of DH work, meanwhile creating a convenient, straw-man version of DH to attack.

In particular, who and what she chooses to study helps prop up this limited view of DH. While rich in breadth of experience, her examples are narrowly situated both geographically – primarily Western European universities (with one US site) – and in terms of resources as each of these sites include robust and well-funded research programs.  In her attempt to give “an empirical basis for inquiry into the changing landscape of the humanities” (34), Antonijević describes with explicit detail her visits between 2010 and 2013 to 23 educational, research, and funding institutions in the US and Europe. She describes surveys, interviews, and observations with 258 participants including researchers, faculty, students, university administrators, librarians, software developers, policy makers, and funders. These projects include Alfalab: eHumanities Tools and Resources (Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences or KNAW); Digitizing Words of Power (KNAW and the University of Amsterdam); Humanities Information Practices (KNAW, Oxford Internet Institute, and University College London); and Digital Scholarly Workflow (Penn State University). In the conditions she describes, DH does look like a cog in a vacuous political engine run by a terrible oligarchy of newly clothed emperors (Kirschenbaum 2014).

In Antonijević’s version of DH, alternate kinds of DH work are largely ignored. Examples of DH that could thwart some of her conclusions about DH include (but are not limited to) programs where greater importance is placed on teaching rather than research initiatives, such as Bard College’s Experimental Humanities Concentration and Initiative, which is situated within a small liberal arts college focused primarily on the arts, and the digital humanities community at Salem State University, which seeks “to create DH opportunities for underserved student populations and a model for building DH at regional comprehensive universities” (Risam, Snow, and Edwards 2017). Other examples include many of the international groups such as the Centre of Educational Technology at the University of Cape Town, where researchers think critically about educational technologies, or transnational groups such as RedHd (Red de Humanidades Digitales) in Mexico, which seeks to think about DH from a global perspective that requires DH to consider how access to computing power and technology on a small scale must be accommodated in our understanding of DH work across a large number of less wealthy global communities (Galina 2013).

In contrast to the narrow range of sites that Antonijević has chosen to study, the definition of DH work she uses to frame her study covers too broad a swath. In Antonijević’s study, the digital scholarship she describes has, at its core, a fundamental separation between digital tools and the research workflow. In her attempt to capture how digital technologies are being used in humanities research, for example, Antonijević begins her interviews asking respondents what digital tools they use in each of eleven research “phases” that she shows them on a visual prompt. These phases include research activities: collect, find, analyze, write, communicate, organize, annotate, cite, reflect, archive, and share. She writes about this initial tactic:

The use of the visual prompt enabled me thus to develop a more detailed overview of the variety of digital tools scholars use in their research practices, and to understand the influence these tools have on segments of scholarly practice that become routinized and thus invisible to analytical activity. (39)

Antonijević is including and describing scholars who use digital tools while they conduct research but she is interviewing scholars who do not consider the digital tools analytically as part of their research, reflecting a definition of the DH scholar that is in direct opposition to a prevailing notion in DH about what counts as good DH scholarship.

In contrast, many have shown that digital humanities is a field in which a critical awareness of how digital information technologies influence perspectives in and on research in the humanities is essential to rigorous DH scholarship. DH scholarship typically makes visible how codes and platforms (Chun 2013; Manovich 2013), media archaeology (Kirschenbaum 2007; Parikka 2012), digital scholarly communications (Fitzpatrick 2007), publishing (McPherson 2014), gaming (Flanagan 2009; Jagoda 2013), geospatial analysis (Elliott & Gillies 2009), interactive, multimedia design (Balsamo 2011), and machine learning (Heuser and Le-Khac 2012; Piper 2017), statistical analysis (Burrows 2004; Ramsay 2011), and visualization (Drucker 2011; D’Ignazio and Klein 2016) influence scholarship in the humanities. It is quite true that the scholars Antonijević interviewed and observed use digital tools, but it is not accurate or productive to say that the broad swath of participants in her study accurately portrays the “digital humanists” that the title Amongst Digital Humanists promises to better understand.

To be fair, Amongst Digital Humanists demonstrates well that research practices employing digital technologies in the humanities can be particularly difficult to study with ethnographic methods. Scholarly practices in the humanities can often occur privately, independently, idiosyncratically, and outside of the more public and regimented lab spaces that are traditionally studied in Science and Technology Studies (STS) (see, for example, Knorr-Cetina and Mulkay 1983; Knorr-Cetina 1999; Latour 1988; Latour and Woolgar 1986). In particular, Antonijević, Beaulieu (2004; 2010), and Borgman (2009) mention the difficulty of “rendering ‘public’ philosophical, historical, or literary knowledge” (Beaulieu 2004, 456) that is produced through research practices in the humanities. Doing social science studies—like doing DH—requires an epistemological framework and a community of practice and the kinds of ethnographic methods that Antonijević employs in her study are part of a century-old tradition that is changing and becoming increasingly more difficult as the methods of work that ethnographers study changes in the digital age (Forsythe 1999). Scholars in STS have shown that digital technologies can make certain kinds of work and infrastructures unobservable even when (as in Star 1999) there are well-meaning subjects who seek to describe their work for the ethnographer. Yet, given these difficulties, it is the study’s narrowness (in terms of projects) and breadth (in terms of defining DH) that ultimately weakens the foundation of her concluding arguments about DH.

Finally, with her limited sample of DH projects and communities and a narrow viewpoint of DH history, Antonijević misses the main point of and the opportunities present in the vast range of DH scholarship that seeks to expose and critique the bindings between knowledge production and intellectual communities or epistemes, technologies, and cultures. Whether one speaks of DH or DS, the politics of institutions that support digital technologies can never be untethered from how knowledge production happens in higher education. In response to a recent piece in the Los Angeles Review of Books (Allington, Brouillette, and Golumbia 2016) that positions DH as the site for a neoliberalist take-over of the humanities in higher education, for example, Alan Liu (amid a more general outcry by many scholars both in DH and without) revisits his own misunderstood critiques of DH in order to consider what he calls the “critical potential of DH” (Liu 2016b). Liu shakes an admonitory finger at the LARB authors for not seeing “that digital humanists have real critical goals too” (2016c). He then points to his newest book project where he lays out these goals:

I call for digital humanities research and development informed by, and able to influence, the way scholarship, teaching, administration, support services, labor practices, and even development and investment strategies in higher education intersect with society, where a significant channel of the intersection between the academy and other social sectors, at once symbolic and instrumental, consists in shared but contested information-technology infrastructures. (Liu 2016a).

Like the LARB authors, Antonijević sets up the contours of her study to portray DH as the site of what ails the humanities in higher education in general. Unlike Liu, Antonijević observes but does not see DH; as such, she chooses not to see its potential.

A social studies of the Digital Humanities could help us acknowledge truly rigorous DH scholarship as well as steer us away from scholarship poorly done, but straw man theories about the enemies among us distract us from focusing on the fundamental concerns around issues of academic rigor, professionalization, funding, and public engagement at the heart of the humanities in higher education today. Antonijević’s claim to understand the world as constructed and situated is in direct contrast to her assertion on the book’s last page that diversity and inclusivity in higher education means understanding that “regardless the size of any current disciplinary ‘tent,’ digital knowledge production is intellectually, technically, and culturally unbounded” (156). Indeed, the interviews and observations collected in Amongst Digital Humanists show that digital knowledge production in digital humanities is necessarily culturally bounded. Antonijević’s DH is a convenient, tactical, and situated version of DH that serves the book’s ultimate ends: to tell us about uncritical scholarship (scholarship done improperly). As a result, Amongst Digital Humanists provides a detailed snapshot of how different kinds of scholars in the humanities use digital technologies in well-resourced research communities in Europe and the United States on individual, disciplinary, and organizational levels, but Antonijević’s shortsighted version of DH shortchanges the impact such a rich and complex view of digital scholarly work in the context of humanities knowledge production could have made on better understanding the real-world, social processes of critical digital humanities.



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About the Author

Tanya E. Clement is an Associate Professor in the School of Information at the University of Texas at Austin. She has a PhD in English Literature and Language and an MFA in fiction. Her primary area of research centers on scholarly information infrastructure as it impacts academic research, research libraries, and the creation of research tools and resources in the digital humanities. She has published widely in DH. Some of her digital projects include High Performance Sound Technologies for Access and Scholarship (HiPSTAS), In Transition: Selected Poems by the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven and BaronessElsa: An Autobiographical Manifesto.

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