WHITEPAPER and Final Performance Report: “Reconstructing the First Humanities Computing Center”: NEH Digital Humanities Advancement Grant HAA-255991-17 USF, TAMPA, FL, 2017-2019

Steven Jones, Howard Kaplan, Julianne Nyhan, Marco Passarotti, Geoffrey Rockwell, Paola Senna, Stéfan Sinclair, Melissa Terras

Research output: Working paper


In 1956, the Jesuit scholar Roberto Busa, S.J. founded the first dedicated center for humanities computing. (This is not the same as undertaking the first act of humanities computing. Nor does this historical "first"--however significant--mark the only intellectual lineage of what we now call the digital humanities.) Busa named the center CAAL, the Centro per L'Automazione dell'Analisi Letteraria--the Center for the Automation of Literary Analysis ("Letteraria" was sometimes replaced with "Linguistica"--or "Linguistic"). The idea was to use IBM punched-card machines to process language instead of numbers, to treat language as data. After several years in various temporary locations, in 1961 Busa's operation moved into a former textile factory in Gallarate, Italy, outside Milan, where IBM punched-card data processing machines were installed. Teams of student operators, most of them young women, in conjunction with scholars based at Father Busa's college in Gallarate, the Aloisianum, worked there for six years (1961-1967) on a lemmatized concordance to the works of St. Thomas Aquinas, the Index Thomisticus , as well as other projects in punched-card data processing. In the 1970s, the Index Thomisticus was finally printed in 56 bound volumes. In other configurations and locations, in Boulder Colorado, for example, and back in Italy, CAAL continued to operate for years. But that six-year period in the former factory stands as a significant moment in the history of humanities computing, though its details have become obscured with time. The machinery was returned to IBM in 1967 and the main building was demolished sometime between January 2010 and March 2012. As evidence of the site, how it was actually configured and equipped, we are left with (1) Busa’s own published accounts of the story of CAAL; (2) accounts by some of the former punched card operators; (3) the documentary record in the Busa Archive, including about 80 photographs, commissioned and staged by Busa himself, often as illustrations to press reports; (4) a few outside contemporary reports, for example in the typed manuscript still in the Busa Archive for a Dutch book on early humanities computing by Félicien de Tollenaere, Nieuwe wegen in de lexicologie (1963); and (5) some documents in the IBM Archives and other collections.

This project is part of an ongoing widely-collaborative scholarly effort to “reconstruct” (by researching and modeling) the 1961-1967 instantiation of CAAL in its multiple dimensions, not in any final way or to settle every question, but in order to raise new questions and to reveal what we don't know about the first humanities computing center and the work that was done there. Our goal is to explore in detail the infrastructure, workflow, and the historical and institutional contexts for this significant site (literally and figuratively) in the history of humanities computing. Busa’s work was a historic milestone for humanities computing, one strand of which fed into what we now call the digital humanities, an interdisciplinary field of increasing significance in the academy and the wider public arena. Busa’s work is often treated as a myth of the origin of humanities computing. We want to complicate the myth with history. One of our premises is that technology includes material and social infrastructure, and we’ve tried to illuminate issues important to the humanities broadly considered, such as the gendered labor involved in this kind of work, the specific roles of Cold-War funding and corporate sponsorship for humanities research, and the emergence of new forms of interdisciplinary scholarship across science and the humanities.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherNational Endowment for the Humanities
Publication statusPublished - 16 Dec 2019

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