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portal: Libraries and the Academy 3.2 (2003) 346-348
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Computing in the Social Sciences and Humanities,ed. Orville Vernon Burton. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2002. 194p. with CD-ROM $39.95 (ISBN 0-252-02685-3)
This collection of essays and associated CD-ROM offer a significant introduction to the current use of computers in the humanities and social sciences. Appropriately for a publication advocating the use of digital technology, the book is actually an introduction to the CD, which contains a wider variety and greater amount of material. Both the book and CD include high proportions of substantially researched and well-written essays and reports, as well as impressive digital projects on the CD-ROM. Nonetheless, addressed to a very diverse audience—computer experts and the technologically challenged, as well as subject specialists in numerous fields—the two linked publications lack conceptual focus and argumentative force. Faculty [End Page 346] members, administrators, and librarians are likely to select a few useful items from a large menu, while waiting for a more convincing case for the computer-induced academic "renaissance" invoked by the editor.
Long associated with the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois, editor Orville Vernon Burton has been a long-time leader in promoting computers in the humanities and social sciences. Although the idea for this hybrid publication emerged from a conference in 1993, only a few of its contents originated there because the rapid pace of technological change required new contributions. The book's authors are all academics involved in various projects and centers using computer technology in teaching or research. Four of their eight essays provide reflective introductory overviews, addressing the history of technology in academia, electronic texts and their import, gender and technology, and the impact of intellectual property law on collaborative research. The remaining essays concentrate on more specific topics, including technology in the classroom, surveys conducted on the Web, computer assisted content analysis, and the use of telecommunications by social activists.
The eclectic CD-ROM—Wayfarer—reflects its creators' intention to provide "something for everyone, from the generalist in the humanities to the social scientist who seeks specialist programs and tools for analysis." (p. 2) The CD is well designed, making browsing the contents easy and intuitive. Sixty-five papers and applications address five large themes—new directions for the future, research, teaching, multimedia projects, and ethics. Following the outline of the book, these five sections digitally reproduce the printed essays along with additional ones on the theme, as well as sophisticated applications. Practically anyone working on computers in academia can find something of interest here, although experts in particular fields will also note occasionally dated material previously published. The book and CD work best as samplings offering overviews, examples, and bibliographic leads. One can even update these useful resources through a Web link. Numerous articles and books fulfill similar functions—a comprehensive list of them can be found in the exhaustive footnotes to Wendy Plotkin's essay published here—but Orville Burton's publication is both up-to-date and comprehensive.
Of course, Burton claims more for his book and CD, and perhaps the future will bear him out. He wants to promote the renaissance in collaborative interdisciplinary research that he thinks current advances in computer technology make possible. The items he has published, and particularly the applications and research reports, are intended to illustrate how technology has reached a new level—in sheer computing power and in software sophistication—that allows wider use of digital technology to address creatively and systematically previously intractable research problems. Since these problems are interdisciplinary in nature, he anticipates that collaborative teams will tackle them. An example is Jeremy Atack, Fred Bateman, and Mary Eschelbach Gregson's project tracking people in the federal manuscript census returns to address questions in the history of the rural North in the mid-nineteenth century.
Yet, other factors carry more weight in determining whether research possibilities are realized than their technological feasibility. Will the institutions funding research want such studies...