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The Academic Capacity Of The Digital Humanities In Canada

What is the academic capacity of the digital humanities in Canada? We have a society (SDH/SEMI), we have programs, and we have a wealth of research projects, but how do we contribute to Canadian humanities research? This is a draft report on the breadth of activities in humanities computing (or, as it is now called, digital humanities) across Canada.

This report is being written. It is therefore incomplete and rough.

Note: See The Academic Capacity of the Digital Humanities in Canada for a list of programs, labs, centres, projects and so on.


This is the age of too much information. Wired magazine's current issue has a cover story "The End of Science" predicting that the challenges ahead have to do with the handling of petabytes of information whether human or information gathered about the world. An IDC White paper The Diverse and Exploding Digital Universe estimates that there are 281 exabytes of digital information in 2007, 70 % of it created by individuals and this could grow to 1,800 exabytes by 2011. The humanities have always been the disciplines that try to understand the variety of human histories and expression. Now humanists are contributing to Canada's capacity to both represent itself on the global internet and to make sense of the explosive growth in digital information from pictures taken with digital cameras and uploaded to social network sites to surveilance video shot by corner stores. The problem of too much information has traditionally be discussed as a problem of discovery - how to find the right information - but with Google and other large scale discovery tools the problem is knowing what questions to ask of the digital and how to make our information smart enough to help others answer meaningful questions. The age of the engineering of the net is passing as we enter the Web 2.0 age where individual people matter not web startups and how they interact though social content in different media matters more than raw data. It is the age of content, and that matters to the humanities.

Humanities computing has emerged in Canada as an area of international strength engaged developing models for the representation and interpretation of digital evidence from historical archives to popular culture. The field, often called the "digital humanities" is an interdisciplinary commons that brings together humanists using digital methods in their research, and humanists interested in thinking through computing and its culture. We work both with computers and think about them deeply. Since before the first joint conference of the Association of Literary and Linguistic Computing and the Association for Computing in the Humanities was held in 1989 in Toronto, Canada the field has been active through conferences, centres and societies, so that we now have a mature research and learning community with the academic capacity to enable humanities research with computing methods and resources. An interdisciplinary field that before the web appeared to specialize in electronic concordances is now training the next generation of scholars from philosophy to history so that they can communicate through the web and use the powerful resources on the web. Digital humanists are developing the electronic archives that are the durable research content Canadians use to understand themselves and their history.

The following are some of the ways the digital humanities have developed academic capacity in Canada.


Humanists trained to adapt digital technologies to research in the humanities have become enablers of new form of engaged research. When the SSHRC MCRI on Globalization and Autonomy developed their proposal a central deliverable was a web research compendium that made available summaries and glossary entries on globalization to all Canadians. The technical structure of the compendium was developed by digital humanists on the team to follow best practices of web design and information representation so it can last beyond the years of the project. Researchers concerned with how knowledge can be represented in this new form enhance the capacity of the humanities to reach out through the web to Canadian citizens making research accessible. The real value of the digital humanities is its capacity to bridge traditional questions and the new media. On a larger scale the Synergies project is enabling online publication of Canadian research nationwide.


Computing humanists and other trained in web development and library science have had a major role in developing online forms of dissemination. The online scholarly resources that academics are increasingly using are created by teams that include humanists that have engaged with digital forms. Take, for example, the Internet Shakespeare Editions, led by Michael Best. They make freely available annotated full-text electronic editions of Shakespeare's plays with multimedia performance resources. Publishing research resources like these online significantly widens the audience of scholarship so that it can be used by the public. Analytical data from such sites shows that they are being looked at by thousands of people a day from around the world.


Computing humanists are developing social resources that create opportunities for participation from the wider community. The Dictionary of Words in the Wild is a social image site where users can upload images of textuality in public spaces. Anyone can get an account and contribute - 40 users from around the world have uploaded over 3,500 images.


Digital projects projects, given the range of skills needed to implement a scholarly project, almost always involve collaboration. This collaboration usually crosses classes of academic workers from faculty to students to computing staff. While other humanities fields also call for collaboration (one thinks of editorial or dictionary projects), few involve crossing cultures the way digital projects do and thus one of capacities humanities computing develops is the ability to collaborate across disciplinary boundaries. Any project that needs professional programming (whether contract programming or computing staff work) by definition will mean that there has to be collaboration between a humanities researcher and experienced programmer who is probably trained in computer-science.


Computing humanists have been instrumental in making the case and managing cyberinfrastructure from TAPoR to Synergies that enables researchers across Canada in the humanities and social sciences to have access to digital research infrastructure. Digital humanists run a disproportionate number of centres and projects for their colleagues starting in the late 1980s where centres like the Centre for Computing and the Humanities was established at the University of Toronto. Through these projects and centres the next generation of digitally literate humanists is being trained giving Canada the capacity to use the new media appropriately in teaching and research. Even if there were no tradition of digital humanities, we would need to invent the field as humanists define their computing research and teaching needs.

Digital humanists are now involved in national attempts to define the cyberinfrastructure needed for research in Canada. Canada is a leaders in the development of large scale "national platforms" like Compute Canada, Synergies and the CRKN, built to support research. Digital humanists were involved in the development of all three especially Synergies which is led by Michael Eberle-Sinatra. Of note also is how digital humanists are engaging the high performance computing community to develop models for how HPC facilities like those of the SHARCNET consortium can be used by humanists (see the Digital Humanities and HPC wiki for the SHARCNET workshop on the subject.) Humanists comfortable with the administration and possibilities for computing infrastructure play an inordinately important role ensuring that national cyberinfrastructure is developed for use by their colleagues.

Tools for Research

Canada has been a leader in the development of computer-based research tools going back to the release of TACT by the University of Toronto in 1989 up to the development of the Text Analysis Portal for Research which was supported by the Canada Foundation for Innovation. The leadership of Canada in this field is due in part to innovative grant programs like CFI and the SSHRC ITST program that support digital humanities work where traditional research programs do not. These tools are widely used, the TAPoRware suite of tools, for example, gets between 2,000 and 8,000 tool runs a month from users around the world.

Training and Teaching

Humanities computing has played a major role training undergraduates and graduate students to be able to use computing methods in their research. This training has taken place through specific programs, but more often through courses in existing humanities programs and through training sessions. Training happens both at formal institutes, but also informally through the apprenticeship when students are brought into projects with a digital component. Likewise there is embedded training of faculty that happens when a research project commits to a digital outcome and faculty without digital experience are supported and trained to deliver for an online outcome. Importantly, these apprenticeship and embedded ways of training weave the content area questions closely and authentically with digital practices. Canada hosts one of the most prestigious training institutes, the Digital Humanities Summer Institute organized every summer by Ray Siemens at the University of Victoria. As an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the 2008 Summer Institute put it,

The roughly 100 participants in this year's institute were an unusual mix, different from that of any academic conference I've ever attended. For one thing, there were a lot of Canadians the digital humanities seem to have been planted quite extensively north of the border. But there were also many people from far-flung U.S. institutions, including me, who were drawn to what has become one of the international gathering places for this developing field. A substantial percentage of the participants were librarians, instructional technologists, and other information professionals, but the whole range of the humanities was represented with some clustering in English, history, and foreign languages. (Summer Camp for Digital Humanists by Thomas Benton in the Chronicle of Higher Education)

Beyond research training, Canadian Universities have developed pioneering programs in faculties of humanities and arts. McMaster University developed a Combined Honours in Multimedia which students in the Faculty of Humanities can take with another subject. The University of Alberta developed one of the first MAs in Humanities Computing which again, MA students can take in combination with another humanities program. Both of these programs have hired tenure track faculty in the field.

Instructional Technology

Digital humanists have been at the forefront of adapting technology to instruction in the humanities, especially in language learning. Canadians have a history of developing widely used Computer Assisted Language Learning materials from the mcBOOKmaster and Listen series developed in the 1980s and 1990s at McMaster to the Hot Potatoes authoring environment developed at the University of Victoria which is still widely used today. Bon Patron, developed at the University of Alberta and McMaster is one of the most widely used French grammar checkers in the world with over 100,000 hits a day.


Canada has been an international leader in the area of computing and the humanities. Some historical highlights are:

  • One of the first, and most important, early centres was the Centre for Computing in the Humanities at the University of Toronto. Set up in 1986 with a grant from IBM under the direction of Ian Lancashire from the department of English, CCH, as it was called, trained a generation of graduate students to experiment with computing in their research. The CCH also took a leadership role in development of the field in Canada and abroad.
  • Ian Lancashire and Elaine Nardocchio from McMaster formed OCCH (Ontario Consortium for Computing in the Humanities) in 1987)which quickly turned into COCH/COSH (Consortium for Computing in the Humanities) which has recently changed into an Association, SDH/SEMI a scholarly association that holds an annual conference as part of the Federation Congress.
  • The premiere discussion list in our field, HUMANIST, was founded at CCH in Toronto by Willard McCarty, then Assistant Director of CCH, in 1987 (?).
  • In 1989 the CCH ran the first joint international ACH/ALLC conference, The Dynamic Text, and also, one of the most successful ones. Both Ted Nelson and Northrop Frye spoke at The Dynamic Text.
  • At the Toronto ACH/ALLC in 1989 CCH released TACT (Text Analysis and Concording Tools), a DOS based interactive search and concordance tool that is still one of the best of its kind. Designed by John Bradley, the programming was supported by CCH and Ian Lanshire edited the MLA published Using TACT, still a good introduction to text analysis and available online.
  • In 1990 CCH started one of the first (non-credit) programs to train graduate students.
  • In 1991 CCH began publishing the Computing and the Humanities Working Papers, both in print and now online.
  • In 1991 CCH became a co-sponsor with the Princeton/Rutgers Center for Electronic Texts in the Humanities (CETH) of a Summer Seminar that provided some of the best training internationally in humanities computing.
  • In 1994 the first faculty position explicitly advertised as a "Humanities Computing" position was hired by McMaster University. Geoffrey Rockwell was hired to direct the (then named) Humanities Computing Centre and Language Labs.
  • In 1996 McMaster started an undergraduate program in Multimedia that included a strong humanities computing component.
  • In 2001 the University of Alberta started a two-year MA in Humanities Computing.
  • In 2001 the University of Victoria ran their first Digital Humanities Summer Institute, a premiere HQP and graduate student training institute that draws participants from all over the world.
  • In 2003 the Text Analysis Portal for Research was funded by CFI creating humanities computing research infrastructure at 6 universities across Canada.

Note: See The Academic Capacity of the Digital Humanities in Canada for a list of programs, labs, centres, projects and so on.


The Diverse and Exploding Digital Universe, IDC White Paper, March 2008.
A Survey of Digital Humanities Centers in the United States, Zorich, Diane. Prepared for the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR). 2008.



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