[ECAR Summer 2008] Vernon Burton – Keeping Up with the E-Joneses in Humanities and Social Science Computing


Vernon Burton is Professor and DIrector of I-CHASS at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Our culture makes us look at things differently – humanities and social sciences vs. computer science. When they talk they think they know what each other are saying, but they often don’t.

He started out using computers in the 1970s to analyze census and tax records in a large southern community – was banished to running his jobs between midnight and 4 am.

Narrative historians in the 70s despised the computer. Even though historians have moved away from quantitative techniques, ease of use of software and information is encouraging students to search out quantitative methods. In the last decade humanities computing has come into its own. The web has provided access to lots of the humanities record. In 1993 the humanists who saw the Mosaic browser went wild.

He notes that there’s a great need for cyberinfrastructure in the arts and humanities, but that departments can’t afford to build it themselves. So it makes sense for there to be hubs of this activity – one is I-CHASS that he directs.

He cites an example of one of his grad students who’s studying the gentrification effect of gay and lesbian couples moving into neighborhoods – using digital mapping technologies with census data to study that. He says that’s the future of research in the humanities, but we’re not training historians for that kind of research.

He talks about SEASR – http://seasr.org/ – which provides cyberinfrastructure for the humanities.


Cartography of american colonization database

Unicorn: toward enhanced understanding of virtual manuscripts on the grid. – he’s got real questions about the value of the grid efforts – not driven by the scholars themselves. The scholars don’t even have enough support for the use of normal technologies. But this is a model project for a grid use in humanities.

ageoflincoln.com – his book, which contains “augmented reality” 3d content.

HistorySpace – information rich virtual environments for historical scholarship.

Enhanced Knowledge Discovery for Social Science – representing the views of underrepresented populations. Tools for automating data analysis to pull quantifiable data from multiple sources.

E(d)2 – Emancipating Digital Data: Scanning and Image Analysis of the Lincoln Papers – http://isda.ncsa.uiuc.edu/lpapers

Vernon makes the point that what won the world wars weren’t the generals, but the farm boys from the Midwest and South who knew how to make things work with bailing wire when needed, and that’s what we need for humanities and social sciences now – folks who work between the scholars and the computer scientists to make things happen. We also need to develop new models for publication and sharing of knowledge.

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