AHA and DH

Anthony Grafton:

Lieberman-Aiden and Michel [of the Google N-Gram/”culturomics” research project] immediately saw the force of this objection [lack of any humanists on their research team]. Over time, they will find historians and other humanists to work with, and historians will test and use their method. More significant than this glitch are the two larger points, connected but by no means identical, that it suggests. The first is simple: apparently, historians have not established, in the eyes of many of their colleagues in the natural sciences, that they possess expert knowledge that might be valuable, or even crucial—even when a scientific project is concerned with reconstructing part of the human past.

More striking still was the collaborative nature of the project. When it comes to organizing research on a large scale, historians have a great deal to learn from their colleagues in the natural and social sciences. As new forms of scientific research offer historians research possibilities that complement the textual record, as digital archives and exhibitions expand and digital research methods become more accessible, historians will have to learn how to form and work in teams. And they will have to learn to create these not only in the traditional way, in which a principal investigator devises a project, raises funds, and hires staff to carry it out, but also in the way embodied by Culturomics—in which early career scholars as well as senior ones form teams, and in which multiple forms of organization—partnerships as well as hierarchies—can take shape.

To make this possible, historians will need to find ways—as our colleagues in many other disciplines have done—to award credit to multiple creators for a single project. We will also have to create physical and social spaces—as the natural scientists at every major university already have—where interdisciplinary collaborative research can take place. And, of course, we’ll have to find financial support for these expensive enterprises, at a time when research support for the humanities is not easy to scare up. Individual universities from Stanford to George Mason have already done some of this, with impressive results. But the rest of us have a long way to go.

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