The power of computing to organize and analyze information has long been a dominant force in finance, marketing, and other areas of business. But could the same techniques that are used to automatically trade stocks be used to better understand art, literature, music, religion, and the other humanities?

There’s not a lot of money to be made in Shakespeare, and perhaps that’s why the humanities have been slower to use “big data” computing techniques than business and government. But Brian Kernighan, computer science professor at Princeton and acting faculty director of the Center for Digital Humanities at Princeton, believes that computing can lead humanities scholars to new insights.

Kernighan, who is running a seminar for computer science students doing independent projects in the humanities, has seen this firsthand. When the director of the Center for Digital Humanities, Meredith Martin, went on maternity leave, Kernighan decided to do some experimenting to learn something about the field and see where it could lead.

Kernighan’s foray into the digital humanities started with Google Books, an online service that has scanned and converted to digital text more than 25 million books, and which plans to scan every book ever published. Searching Google Books, Kernighan found a reference to his father-in-law in a book from the early 1900s. This led him to investigate how he could explore the genealogy of his family using that as a jumping-off place.

Kernighan plans to tell the whole story of how his project unfolded, and discuss the digital humanities, at a meeting of the Princeton ACM/IEEE on Thursday, December 8, at 8 p.m. at the Princeton Computer Science building auditorium, Room 105. The event is free. For more information, visit, E-mail, or call 908-285-1066.

A good example of the work going on at the Center for Digital Humanities is a project called Mapping Expatriate Paris. The “Lost Generation” writers who lived in Paris between the world wars created works that are now part of the English literature canon. They include Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and others.

Many of these writers were frequent visitors at Shakespeare and Company, a book store and lending library that was owned by Sylvia Beach, a Princeton native.

Last year the project scanned and digitized the logbooks and library cards that contain information on where every individual library member lived, which books they took out, and when. The data tracks 9,000 books, 558 library members, and 22,000 borrowing events.

This year the project is creating an interactive website where users can examine membership statistics and track specific books as they were borrowed and returned. The project gives scholars a glimpse into the reading habits of the most important writers of the 20th century, showing which books were borrowed most often and which books specific members were reading, and at what time.

The Shakespeare and Company project shows the potential of computing to assist the humanities, and also one of the obstacles that has stood in the way. In order for any computing to be done, workers had to first scan hundreds of library cards and other documents and put the information into a usable format.

“Data in the digital humanities comes from relatively old materials, and almost always material that was not born digital,” Kernighan says. “People were writing with quill pens and things of that sort, so getting that data into a useful form is a big part of the problem.”

Kernighan says that behind the scenes, the students working on digital humanities projects are using tools that are standard in the computing world.

Kernighan grew up in Toronto, where his father ran a small chemical firm. He majored in engineering physics at the University of Toronto then earned his PhD in electrical engineering at Princeton in 1969. Computer science didn’t exist as an academic field back then, so Kernighan was in on the ground floor when he developed an interest in the machines. He contributed to the development of such widely used tools as the Unix operating system, The K&R version of the C programming language, and the AWK and AMPL programming languages among many other contributions. He also wrote the first “Hello world!” programming exercise that serves as an introduction to coding for many students.

He worked for 30 years at the computing science research center of Bell Labs and has been a professor at Princeton since 2000.

Kernighan says his foray into digital humanities has been a learning experience, and that the interdisciplinary nature of the work has helped him appreciate other fields of study. “No matter what your field, there is something really, really interesting in it,” he says. “You can discover new interests by poking around. I learned something by doing this genealogy, and I think the students in the digital humanities class are learning interesting things in that way. You get to meet interesting people that do different things than you do, and you discover that what they do is interesting too, even though you may never share their interest deeply.”

Facebook Comments