Presented at the International Online Meeting, London, Dec. 5-7, 1995:

"Of Bodies Chang'd to Various Forms, I Sing:"

The World Wide Web and the Metamorphosis of Humanities Scholarship

Hope A. Greenberg University of Vermont, USA

Keywords: World Wide Web, WWW, Internet, humanities scholarship, on-line publishing, digitizing images, primary sources, electronic text centers

Abstract: Humanities scholarship is alive and well on the Internet and in many cases is pushing the technology beyond that which is needed for the simple electronic billboard approach taken by many commercial sites on the World Wide Web. This discussion looks at some of the resources to be found on the Internet, both those created by large organizations and those developed by individuals. The Web provides an exciting environment that is eagerly being enlarged, strengthened and challenged by humanities scholars.

1. Humanities Before the Web

A growing number of real-world humanities scholars would scoff at the popular stereotype of the tweedy professor, surrounded by dusty tomes, who doesn't know a laptop computer from a walkman. Today's scholar is more likely to point with pride to the growing wealth of digital manuscripts, many of them in imaged formats, and then complain that computing has lagged behind the needs of the Arts and Humanities.

Even before the World Wide Web and its associated browsers made access to Internet-based multimedia projects easy, humanities scholars have used the Internet to further their teaching and research. The earliest on-line resources of electronic mail and discussion groups continue to be the lively stomping grounds of scholars. In the area of History alone the H-Net lists, with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and hosted by the University of Illinois Chicago and Michigan State University, sponsors fifty-seven electronic discussion groups on subjects ranging from agricultural history to the design of historical databases. Like most lists, these groups allow scholars to discuss new ideas, share methodologies and teaching approaches, publish book reviews, job announcements, syllabi, course materials, and other materials. They also serve as a forum for asking and answering questions for colleagues and students.

Early Internet projects involved putting public domain text corpora into digital format. The Online Book Initiative, the Gutenberg Project and the Wiretap site are just a few of the many efforts to make electronic versions of texts freely available to the Internet community. Electronic text centers generally housed in university libraries, bring these and CD-ROM based texts to their local communities as well. In addition, centers like the Electronic Text Center at the University of Virginia are working on ways to make Internet-available texts as robust as CD-ROM texts by adding images and searching capabilities.

Internet versions of that mainstay of academic life, the scholarly journal, are slowly being accepted. Many of these are an outgrowth, augmentation, or derivation of paper journals. For example, a recent electronic journal on p aremiology, or the study of proverbs, De Proverbio, began with many articles originally published in Proverbium, a paper journal. Other journals, particularly those exploring the possibilities of hypertext literature, eschew the paper world and thrive in electronic form only.

2. Humanities Without the Web

The vision many scholars have of the Web is that of a giant repository of all the world's knowledge. This perennial quest to capture and store information has been pursued throughout time from the creation of the library of Alexandria to Ted Nelson's early incarnations of Xanadu. In this vision we wish to orgiastically consume information, glutting ourselves on more and more detail. But it is a vision that quickly pales in the light of reality. There is too much information. There has always been too much information, hence the development of indexes, tables of contents, reference works, finding aids, library catalogs, and on-line search tools. We have spent years developing ways to cope with this information in the paper environment, often by simply ignoring large sections of it.

In the traditional library model the answer to too much information is to have a reasonable selection of materials available at each discrete geographical location. Given the growing wealth of material, not to mention the wealth it takes to maintain it, it is not surprising that the concept of “reasonable selection” is breaking down. The impulse to store more information more cheaply via such media as CD ROM does not solve the problem of access as a recent scholar pointed out when he sent the following plea to an on-line discussion group:

"Is there any way to use the internet to search the Chadwick-Healy data bases in English poetry and drama? The nearest school with both sets is ten hours away."(1)

The answer, of course, was no. Moreover, individual libraries have always had items that were singular or rare, the Special Collections. For the scholar, travel has often been the only option for viewing these unique documents.

3. Humanities on the Web

The Web allows us to rethink this model. It is here that the most exciting possibilities for scholars are to be found. This is not simply due to the ease with which digital documents, including graphics, sound and video can be created and stored. The Web allows for self-publishing, for timely dissemination of new materials and ideas, and for flexibility. It encourages synthesis and linking rather than duplication and rehashing. It allows for a depth, a richness not duplicated in other media or other models.

One year ago the number of humanities Web sites could be covered fairly comprehensively in a paper of this length. Today that is no longer possible. Indeed there are a substantial number of Web pages whose sole purpose is to collect lists of humanities-related sites and projects. (Some of these are provided at the end of this paper.) However, a brief look at a few sites shows the diversity and broad range possible in this networked environment.

It seems appropriate to begin with one of the earliest, the Vatican Exhibit: Rome Reborn. Found on-line at EXPO, the project originally presented information from the Library of Congress. EXPO now contains six large exhibits. The Vatican Exhibit grew out of a physical exhibit on display from January 8, 1993 through April 30, 1993. It presented some 200 manuscripts, books, and maps from the Vatican Library, particularly those focusing on humanists and their studies. According to the exhibitors, it "presents the untold story of the Vatican Library as the intellectual driving force behind the emergence of Rome as a political and scholarly superpower during the Renaissance." Although the physical exhibit has long since left Washington, D.C., the on-line exhibit is still visited by thousands of people. This particular exhibit bridged the old and the new by offering a large full color hardcover exhibit catalog as well.

Also, resident at EXPO are 1492: An Ongoing Voyage, an exhibit titled Scrolls from the Dead Sea: An Exhibition of Scrolls and Archeological Artifacts from the Collections of the Israel Antiquities Authority as well as a collection of materials from the Soviet Archives. More recent additions, and those whose materials are not drawn directly from the Library of Congress, are the Exhibition of Fossil Life from the University of California, Berkeley's Museum of Paleontology and the exhibit The "Palace" of Diocletian at Split , an architectural history exhibit focusing on the city of Spalato founded by the emperor Diocletian.

As might be expected by its title, The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, or IATH, at the University of Virginia, contains several compelling Web projects. The Valley of the Shadow: Living the Civil War in Pennsylvania and Virginia looks at two communities in the Shennandoah Valley, each on either side of the Mason Dixon line. Conceived by Professor Edward Ayers of the History department the project draws on population and agricultural censuses, rosters of both the Union and Confederate soldiers, official records, maps and diaries. It uses a hypertextual narrative form with connection to the source materials because it intends to "make available not merely information about the past but also to make palpable the complexity of the past, its interconnectedness, its contingency and multiplicity."

IATH is also home to Jerome McGann's Rossetti Archive. McGann's goal is to create a "structured database holding digitized images of Rossetti's works in their original documentary forms." To do so he is not relying solely on the Web but has developed tools using SGML applications. This is partly due to the search limitations of the current incarnation of HTML and partly due to copyright considerations for the original images. However, he has developed a Web prototy pe to experiment with.

Dscriptorium is another image collection "devoted to collecting, storing and distributing digital images of Medieval manuscripts." Other image collections, like those from the iconography collection of the Bodleian library or the Papyrus Archive at Duke University , are also being brought online. Several projects involve a combination of Web and other digital methods. The Electronic Beowulf, for example, is creating an electronic archive of digitized images from manuscripts of the epic poem. At the moment the Web serves as a vehicle for sharing information about the project as well as some samples.

Projects like these have inspired many others on the Web including the Ovid Project. The University of Vermont, houses a broad collection of Ovid materials from which the multimedia Ovid Project will draw its content as it evolves. Today it includes electronically imaged engravings from a rare 17th century German edition of Ovid's Metamorphoses by artist Johann Wilhelm Baur. This collection of 150 engravings has been photographed, stored on PhotoCD and is currently being brought on-line. Ultimately, other rare illustrated editions from UVM's collection will be made available on this Web site and with them links to related resources.

This digitization and digital dissemination of primary resources provides an advantage to scholarship beyond that of simply making large image collections accessible. The creators of the Blake Archive, in making available the writings and graphical works of William Blake express this advantage as "a hope that the archive will set a new standard of accessibility to a vast collection of visual materials that are central to an adequate understanding of romantic art and literature. Difficulty of access has handicapped and distorted even the best scholarly efforts." Thus, the added dimension provided by an on-line development of these works provides the scholar with a richer, more complete, experience not possible through other reproduction media.

The Web also brings the ability to share newly discovered or rediscovered works to a broad and geographically disparate audience quickly. The discovery of a series of previously unknown prehistoric cave paintings in the south of France is one such example. Discovered only in late December 1994, the first images were available on the Web in January 1995. From there they can be seen by thousands of visitors immediately without physical incursion and damage to this rare resource, leaving the original site intact so that it can be studied in its entirety.

However, one of the most exciting possibilities for scholars is the fact that The Web is indeed a web, that is, an environment that encourages collaboration. Materials can be shared and created jointly, without concern for geographic limitations. An example of this kind o collaboration can be found at George Welling's From Revolution to Reconstruction site. The objective of this project focusing on United States history "is to provide a starting point, to which scholars and students from all over the world could add in an attempt at collective authoring. Initially begun as a student assignment at the University of Groningen, The Netherlands, the project now invites contributions from history students and professionals alike.

Another dimension of this multifaceted Web (though some might argue that this is the Web's most annoying feature) is the fact that it is not limited to major projects but can be a publishing vehicle for all. Smaller projects with a limited focus, even individual portfolios, for example, are just as much a part of the Web as massive undertakings. Hope Hall for the Humanities, whimsically named by the author who never expects to endow a brick and mortar building, contains several such projects. Historic barns in a northern Vermont town and images, texts and commentary on Godey's Lady's Book, a popular mid nineteenth century magazine are represented along with papers and related materials. This type of portfolio allows the scholar a way to not only collect their work but to share it easily.

4. Whither the Web?

This ability for all participants to self publish, is, however, one of the most controversial. Traditional publishers see their roles threatened, maintaining that unlimited publishing means including the worthless with the worthwhile. Scholars wonder how the peer review process, a process which is supposed to add validity to published items, can be maintained in this environment. Libraries and other collectors of archives wonder how Web projects, as ephemeral as they can be, will survive.

The Web, in its present incarnation, is not yet a tool that can be applied to all scholarly endeavors. How it can be improved to meet the needs of scholars, how it will adjust to the realities of the scholarly world and how it will survive (even outlive?) Academia are the topics of many conferences and articles. However, most agree that its potential is enormous. Its capacity for providing an environment that encourages a multiplicity of possibilities is central to the Web vision. It can be an exhibit space for images, a collection of related resources, links to other Web sites, a focal point for a small course or for a broad discourse, a portfolio for a scholar's work or a vast museum-like space, all at once.

When I first broached the subject of the Ovid project to the University of Vermont's Director of Computing, he enthusiastically gave the approval for a limited amount of funds to get the project off the ground. When he saw the first set of images he conjectured that digitizing these sorts of holdings, of which the library has many, could become a massive project—one that might be, he suggested wryly, more appropriately funded by the library. When I suggested the project to a professor of Classics, who uses the Ovid materials regularly in his classes, he immediately asked if we could include all the slides he has been using for his course along with his syllabi and related documents. (The answer, of course, was yes, and these materials will be added to the Ovid Project site as they become available.) An art professor, seeing the images, has encouraged her students to use portions of them in their computer art works.

These three responses, one envisioning expanding possibilities, the other suggesting ways to utilize the project as a whole, and the third focusing on drawing from specific portions of the project images to create new works, show not only how Web projects can be adapted to many uses but how they also act as sparks to generate new ideas and new ways of looking at resources. Combined with the communications capabilities that the Internet makes possible, this potential has generated the kind of excitement among humanities scholars that some see as equalling that ascribed to the era that gave birth to the humanists, the Renaissance.

1) From the archives of FICINO@UBVM.CC.BUFFALO.EDU, an electronic discussion group devoted to exploring the Renaissance (back)

Hope A. Greenberg
Humanities Computing Specialist
Academic Computing Services
University of Vermont
Burlington, Vermont 05490 USA

voice: (802) 656-1176
fax: (802) 656-8148

Selected Web Humanities Resources

18th Century Resources on the Net:
Guide to resources
Textual database of French texts. Some areas available only to consortium members.
Association for History and Computing:
Web and other resources for computing historians
A full-text electronic library
Collection of humanities related Web sites
Egyptology Resources, Univ. of Cambridge:
A collection of references to Web and other Internet resources
Rome Reborn, 1492, Dead Sea Scrolls, Soviet Archives and other exhibits
From Revolution to Reconstruction:
Collaborative project in United States History, from George Welling, University of Groningen, The Netherlands
Humanities Computing at Oxford University Computing Services:
Guides to their projects and related humanities resources
Institute for Advanced Technologies in the Humanities:
Web-based and other humanities computing projects
Jane Austen:
Hypertext versions of her works, related documents and links
Library of Congress:
Exhibits, links to records, Thomas: congressional records database, etc.
Multiple Author's and E-Text Centers:
Linked list of humanities projects, e-text centers
The Labyrinth:
Medieval Studies resources and links
The World of the Vikings:
Resources, museums, educational materials about Vikings including a link to the Electronic Beowulf project
Voice of the Shuttle:
Alan Liu's collection of humanities resources
WWW Virtual Library: Humanities:
Large index of resources maintained by the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, Göteborg University