Our commitment to the digital humanities

July 14, 2010

(Cross-posted from the Official Google Blog)

It can’t have been very long after people started writing that they started to organize and comment on what was written. Look at the 10th century Venetus A manuscript, which contains scholia written fifteen centuries earlier about texts written five centuries before that. Almost since computers were invented, people have envisioned using them to expose the interconnections of the world’s knowledge. That vision is finally becoming real with the flowering of the web, but in a notably limited way: very little of the world’s culture predating the web is accessible online. Much of that information is available only in printed books.

A wide range of digitization efforts have been pursued with increasing success over the past decade. We’re proud of our own Google Books digitization effort, having scanned over 12 million books in more than 400 languages, comprising over five billion pages and two trillion words. But digitization is just the starting point: it will take a vast amount of work by scholars and computer scientists to analyze these digitized texts. In particular, humanities scholars are starting to apply quantitative research techniques for answering questions that require examining thousands or millions of books. This style of research complements the methods of many contemporary humanities scholars, who have individually achieved great insights through in-depth reading and painstaking analysis of dozens or hundreds of texts. We believe both approaches have merit, and that each is good for answering different types of questions.

Here are a few examples of inquiries that benefit from a computational approach. Shouldn’t we be able to characterize Victorian society by quantifying shifts in vocabulary—not just of a few leading writers, but of every book written during the era? Shouldn’t it be easy to locate electronic copies of the English and Latin editions of Hobbes’ Leviathan, compare them and annotate the differences? Shouldn’t a Spanish reader be able to locate every Spanish translation of “The Iliad”? Shouldn’t there be an electronic dictionary and grammar for the Yao language?

We think so. Funding agencies have been supporting this field of research, known as the digital humanities, for years. In particular, the National Endowment for the Humanities has taken a leadership role, having established an Office of Digital Humanities in 2007. NEH chairman Jim Leach says: "In the modern world, access to knowledge is becoming as central to advancing equal opportunity as access to the ballot box has proven to be the key to advancing political rights. Few revolutions in human history can match the democratizing consequences of the development of the web and the accompanying advancement of digital technologies to tap this accumulation of human knowledge."

Likewise, we’d like to see the field blossom and take advantage of resources such as Google Books that are becoming increasingly available. We’re pleased to announce that Google has committed nearly a million dollars to support digital humanities research over the next two years.

Google’s Digital Humanities Research Awards will support 12 university research groups with unrestricted grants for one year, with the possibility of renewal for an additional year. The recipients will receive some access to Google tools, technologies and expertise. Over the next year, we’ll provide selected subsets of the Google Books corpus—scans, text and derived data such as word histograms—to both the researchers and the rest of the world as laws permit. (Our collection of ancient Greek and Latin books is a taste of corpora to come.)

We've given awards to 12 projects led by 23 researchers at 15 universities:
  • Steven Abney and Terry Szymanski, University of Michigan. Automatic Identification and Extraction of Structured Linguistic Passages in Texts.
  • Elton Barker, The Open University, Eric C. Kansa, University of California-Berkeley, Leif Isaksen, University of Southampton, United Kingdom. Google Ancient Places (GAP): Discovering historic geographical entities in the Google Books corpus.
  • Dan Cohen and Fred Gibbs, George Mason University. Reframing the Victorians.
  • Gregory R. Crane, Tufts University. Classics in Google Books.
  • Miles Efron, Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois. Meeting the Challenge of Language Change in Text Retrieval with Machine Translation Techniques.
  • Brian Geiger, University of California-Riverside, Benjamin Pauley, Eastern Connecticut State University. Early Modern Books Metadata in Google Books.
  • David Mimno and David Blei, Princeton University. The Open Encyclopedia of Classical Sites.
  • Alfonso Moreno, Magdalen College, University of Oxford. Bibliotheca Academica Translationum: link to Google Books.
  • Todd Presner, David Shepard, Chris Johanson, James Lee, University of California-Los Angeles. Hypercities Geo-Scribe.
  • Amelia del Rosario Sanz-Cabrerizo and José Luis Sierra-Rodríguez, Universidad Complutense de Madrid. Collaborative Annotation of Digitalized Literary Texts.
  • Andrew Stauffer, University of Virginia. JUXTA Collation Tool for the Web.
  • Timothy R. Tangherlini, University of California-Los Angeles, Peter Leonard, University of Washington. Northern Insights: Tools & Techniques for Automated Literary Analysis, Based on the Scandinavian Corpus in Google Books.
We have selected these proposals in part because the resulting techniques, tools and data will be broadly useful: they’ll help entire communities of scholars, not just the applicants. We look forward to working with them, and hope that over time the field of digital humanities will fulfill its promise of transforming the ways in which we understand human culture.