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Information technology for the arts

25 March 2013
Jane Austen

Who knows what Jane Austen really looked like?

What did Jane Austen look like? We have no idea, says Ralph Adam.

According to experts, other than a couple of youthful drawings by her sister, there are no known pictures of her. While we may not have any visual images of Austen, many of us can imagine her features through an intimate knowledge of her writing.

For scholars, familiarity with an author’s published work is not enough and many have devoted their lives to travelling the world, exploring the content of libraries and archives in order to examine Austen’s correspondence, her manuscripts and her texts; analysing in great detail her use of language and grammar, comparing her work with that of her contemporaries in an effort to build up a different sort of picture of her mental processes, techniques and relationships. Similar efforts have, of course, gone into studying the work and lives of many other famous people.

The need to negotiate access to personal collections of material and the cost and inconvenience of travel has been a big problem for academic literary research. Much the same applies to work in all areas of the humanities where resources are often very limited.

The arrival of the Internet and, later, the web has had a great impact: a new discipline, ‘humanities computing’, more recently called ‘digital humanities’, has appeared relying on computational methods to answer research questions or challenge paradigms. Nowadays researchers use new forms of scholarship that result in more than texts and papers; they no longer need leave their desks, libraries or computer labs. Those distant and disparate archives are now accessible online, often as single databases. Increasingly, researchers are moving into exciting new areas using multimedia, metadata and dynamic environments, generating different types of questions and developing novel work styles.

Thus, ‘The valley of the shadow’, originally intended as a printed book showing life in two US towns on opposing sides during the American Civil War, became a digital project involving a team of librarians creating a huge archive of thousands of letters, diaries, maps, census and government records, newspapers and speeches to allow in-depth study of the period.

Recent events like the ‘Digging into data challenge’, supported by European and North American funding bodies, and the annual EVA London conference, show how exciting, innovative research topics involving the integration of computer technology, using text-analysis, geographic information systems, online collaboration and interactive games, for example, are becoming mainstream. Examples of recent investigations include: aspects of cultural heritage, the usability of mobile apps, oral history archiving, digital curation, QR codes in architecture, theatrical illusions and the use of biometrics in the recognition of Roman faces.

Melissa Terras of University College London has emphasised how widespread is the use of IT in both the humanities and the cultural sector. The arts will have an increasing need for well-trained people with strong technical skills so it is imperative that future employees have a sufficiently strong grounding in both areas to enable them to go on to apply technology to complex cultural issues. Perhaps, even showing us what Austen’s face was really like!

More info

A good description of the field is in: Svennsson, P, Humanities computing as digital humanities DHQ: Digital Humanities Quarterly, vo. 3, no 3 (2009).

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