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Humanities in the Digital Age

Story by
Nancy Joseph
September 2009Perspectives Newsletter

Imagine a world in which students can walk the streets of classical Rome on their computers or click a button to see changes T.S. Eliot made as he composed his greatest poems. Imagine computer scientists, linguists, and archaeologists working together to decode the written languages of long-dead civilizations. 

The UW already employs digital technology for projects like these. And with support from a recent $625,000 Challenge Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Simpson Center for the Humanities is planning a Digital Humanities Commons to create and evaluate the next generation of digital humanities scholarship. 

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“Digital technology is transforming our scholarship,” says Kathleen Woodward, director of the Simpson Center. “Using sophisticated computer programs, UW researchers have been able to analyze the patterns of repetition in Indus Valley script, a critical step toward deciphering this ancient language, impossible without digital technology. There’s also the potential to search 10,000 novels for a specific expression or a multitude of images for a visual gesture, to track that and then interpret what it means. Everything is changing very, very fast.” 

Woodward outlines three major goals for the Digital Humanities Commons: to animate knowledge using audio, video, and interactive features that bring the humanities to life; to circulate knowledge within academia and in the broader community; and to understand digital culture's history and its potential. She describes the Commons as a think tank—one that will take place every summer—that will bring together historians, artists, and textual scholars, computer scientists, and other experts in the humanities to collaborate on digital humanities research and then share their discoveries through graduate-level courses.

The Simpson Center was one of only two centers nationwide to receive a digital humanities Challenge Grant, the largest NEH grant of its kind ever awarded to the UW. It helped that the humanities at the UW have a proven record of exploring the use of digital technology for humanities research. Current examples include: 

  • The Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project, which chronicles civil rights struggles in our region through a website with oral histories, rare photographs, and documents. 


  • The Early Buddhist Manuscript Project, which employs high-quality digital scanning and imaging technologies to literally piece together broken fragments of 2,000-year-old manuscripts, revealing for the first time some of the earliest known written documentation of one of the world’s most important religions.


The NEH Challenge Grant offers a 1:3 match with gifts from private donors. Don Petersen, past-president of the College of Arts and Sciences Board, has stepped up with the first major private gift toward this project.

“It’s a magnanimous gift that has allowed us to make our first major deadline for the match—and more,” says Woodward. “And Don Petersen’s gift is inspiring other people to invest in this project as well.”

Woodward points out that, for many donors, having the project vetted by the NEH is a huge plus. “The NEH peer review panels are brutal—I’ve sat on one—so to have a panel of reviewers from across the country endorse this really means something,” says Woodward.

Although the Simpson Center is still working toward completion of its match, with plans to create an endowment that will provide support for faculty and graduate students, the center is already offering opportunities to explore the digital humanities, including an annual digital humanities course for graduate students that links to an annual guest lecture by a leader in the field. 

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