E-text in the humanities: Top ten four contributions


Electronic text allows users to quickly and easily analyse text in a variety of ways. The computer's ability to search and sort text quickly far exceeds human ability. Using computers to count and sort text goes back to the early days of computing. In fact, Susan Hockey claims that the first electronic text project in the Humanities focused on this feature. Father Roberto Busa's Index Thomisticus, a concordance to the works of St. Thomas Aquinas, begun in 1949, catalogues all 11 million words in the texts of Aquinas, and presents them in alphabetical order (2000, p. 5). Since then much progress has been made in the analysis of e-text. One recent compendium of essays on computing in the Humanities includes no fewer than three separate chapters on e-text and analysis: "Stylistic analysis and authorship studies," "Preparation and analysis of linguistic corpora," and "Textual analysis" (Schreibman, Siemens, & Unsworth, 2004).

E-text is also widely used in database programs which allow information to be stored and retrieved efficiently. Databases allow entries to be searched, sorted, and compared in myriad different ways. The data can be exported from the database for use in other applications or situations. The benefits of e-text and databases are not just in the easy of sorting and retrieving data, but it their ability to handle complex queries, so to find precisely the right piece or pieces of data in large collections of information. The rapid proliferation of online catalogues, search engines, and search directories speaks to the importance of these features not just in the Humanities, but in our daily lives. Only once the necessary data has been located, it can be put to use, and this leads us to the last of my list of four significant contributions e-text has made to the Humanities: access.