CSDH/SCHN Beginnings

Ian Lancashire
University of Toronto

Some think that CSDH/SCHN began, about thirty years ago, as the Consortium for Computing in the Humanities / Consortium pour Ordinateurs en Sciences Humaines (COCH/COSH), a prescient name, given that “Coc/sh” has three senses: a mathematical function, the hyperbolic cosine; chlorpromazine, an antipsychotic drug; and a blunt weapon. But others may still remember that our Society’s first name was OCCH, the Ontario Consortium for Computing in the Humanities (without a French equivalent), and how that came about. “Och!” is of course an English-Scottish expression of surprised and pained disapproval, a not uncommon reaction in the humanities to the numeric. Although OCCH became COCH/COSH some time ago, its story may be worthwhile to recount.

Look at this picture, taken in 1989, four years after the University of Toronto took a deep breath and founded the Centre for Computing in the Humanities (CCH) with that sitting man as Founding Director and, standing behind him, Willard McCarty as Associate Director. They had just survived the first joint meeting of ACH and ALLC, in Toronto, with an attendance of 425 and Northrop Frye as a keynote speaker. I had received a substantial annual budget for CCH, and few instructions on how to use it, except to succeed. From 1983 to 1986 I had lobbied to secure a cooperative agreement with IBM Canada for the Centre for Computing in the Humanities, and many more challenges and promised deliverables still lay ahead before I stepped down as Director, after eleven years, in 1996, and as President (English) of the Society, after ten years, in 2003.

OCCH was founded by the effervescent Elaine Nardocchio of McMaster’s French Department at a Symposium held Thursday April 17, 1986, from 2 to 4, in the CCH conference that secured the IBM cooperative in humanities computing for Toronto. Titled “Computers in the Humanities: Today’s Research, Tomorrow’s Teaching,” the conference was hosted by myself, co-chaired by Russon Wooldridge of Toronto’s French department, and co-sponsored by the Toronto-Waterloo Cooperative on Information Technology. It attracted 145 registrants from over fifty institutions. Wooldridge and I put together a software fair with 34 exhibitors. All in all, a Who’s Who of humanities computing in the mid-1980s came to Toronto for the event. The keynote address was delivered by Joseph Raben, editor of our subject’s first journal, Computers and the Humanities. Attenders included Susan Hockey (Oxford), Paul Bratley and Serge Lusignan (Montreal), Jacques Dendien (CNRS INLF), Nancy Ide (Vassar), Donald Ross (Minnesota), Frank Tompa and Philip Smith Jr. (Waterloo), Paul Fortier (Manitoba), David Packard, John B. Smith (North Carolina), Karen Jensen (IBM Yorktown Heights), R. L. Morrissey (ARTFL, Chicago), Alastair McKinnon (McGill), Michael Preston (Colorado), and John R. Abercrombie (Pennsylvania). Elaine’s session on the new Ontario consortium included representatives from seventeen Ontario institutions. This mass of international and provincial linkages with CCH persuaded Ken Fockler, the manager of Scientific and Education Programs, IBM Canada, to support a cooperative with the Humanities.

Negotiations for that began seriously when, from October 31 to November 4, 1983, IBM Canada sponsored a trip from Toronto of a small group of its computing humanists to IBM labs in San Jose, Palo Alto, Stanford, and Berkeley. We were put up at the IBM Ranch nearby, where everyone gathered in the popular common room, the individual rooms being deliberately spartan. IBM Canada used its ranch for business talk. I believed then, as now, that new tools bring new knowledge – a position attractive to Mike Brothers, my IBM host for the trip, who had mainframes to lease – but my own application was interactive concording for text analysis, especially of poetry. IBM Canada representatives reacted to this with a far-away look in their eyes. They had taken me to IBM academic conferences about proved applications — grammar checking, databases, and statistical analysis — and seemed preoccupied by what they would say to senior management if they proposed a cooperative focused on analyzing poetry. At Stanford our schedule included, atypically, an interview with the director of the Humanities Institute. He sat at a long, grand table and spoke happily of the shared IBM PCs that the company had recently made available to his fellows, largely for word-processing. IBM Canada then asked me to explain my proposal. The dignified Director listened, thought a while, and said that he had never heard of analyzing poetry with an interactive concordancer. He allowed that it would be valuable to interrogate Spanish poetry in that way, that it was innovative, and that just the other day a seminar on a Spanish poem had been held in this very room where it might have been useful. Although pioneers Harry Logan at Waterloo had done a concordance in 1960, and Toronto professor of Spanish and Portuguese, Robert Jay Glickman, had published a text-indexer named PRORA in 1966, so that the idea was hardly new, my heart nonetheless sang. However, IBM representatives received the Director’s news solemnly. San Jose and Palo Alto labs did not analyze poetry.

I had several mighty backers at Toronto: David Nowlan, Vice-President of Research, an economist who loved equations and their tools and who brought a Cray supercomputer to the university; and Brian Merrilees, a French medievalist who was Vice-Provost, and a friend of Serge Lusignan and Paul Bratley at the Université de Montreal, who established a computer-based scriptorium for medieval texts. Brian also admired the expertise in the Centre d’analyse de textes par ordinateur at the Université de Quebec à Montreal, and the great enterprise in train at Waterloo. However, IBM Canada dithered, asking for more iterations of my proposal. Its managers watched IBM stock dividends carefully and anticipated the questions they might face in arguing for a cooperative about text analysis. The university’s current cooperative with IBM Canada ended that month, and bills for IBM mainframe services would soon add up. The Director of Computing Services who would have to pay them reported to Nowlan. Those services then employed John Bradley from Waterloo, whose mainframe concordancer, COGS, we used. A wonderful person with a long vision, Nowlan funded Arts and Science to set up the Centre for Computing in the Humanities on August 20, 1985, despite a lack of support from IBM. Of course, the real work then started: how would Toronto and I make my proposal more attractive to IBM Canada’s needs? Maybe it was time to ask someone else to write it.

I kept on drafting. Colleagues in Computer Science (Graeme Hirst) and the Social Sciences (EPAS, a unit of the social sciences that needed partners) were already linked with CCH, but IBM Canada was evidently interested in a like cooperative with Mechanical Engineering. A linkage between it and CCH proved to be reasonable, partly because I — who would have guessed? — organized English composition courses for the professional faculties, was an English professor, and probably knew how to teach essay-writing: hadn’t I even taken a course in Technical Writing at the University of Michigan? And I was of course happy to teach fourth-year Engineering students how to write and speak publicly (they proved to be the most hard-working undergraduate classes I had taught). IBM Canada could then package CCH as a desirable (and indeed necessary) corollary to its Mechanical Engineering cooperative. As important, I had friends in Mechanical Engineering. And then there was Elaine Nardocchio, who had done a survey of humanities computing faculty at other Ontario universities after Alastair McKinnon’s proposal for a Canadian National Centre for Computers and the Humanities failed to get SSHRC funding in 1982. It occurred to various thoughtful administrators, why not make CCH responsible for feeding analytic tools not just to Toronto researchers, but to researchers province-wide? The conference on humanities software I had originally proposed, on April 1, 1985, as an IBM deliverable grew into an international event a year later in which OCCH, the Ontario Consortium for Computing in the Humanities, was created with Elaine as its president, with CCH as tool-provider for fifteen other Ontario member institutions.

Our angels included IBM Canada, for sure, but the ones who shaped the CCH and OCCH were David Nowlan, who believed that the humanities needed numeric text analysis; Brian Merrilees, a scholar’s scholar who wanted Toronto to be associated with Quebec researchers; Elaine Nardocchio, who had impressive organizational skills and great charm and was the very best of hosts; and myself, a pragmatic writer of proposals in which poetry gradually admitted other needs to the table. These my old friends are no longer with us, but the effects of their collusions have been far-reaching. For example, after I hired Willard McCarty as my Associate Director following the conference, he proved to have valuably different ideas from my own. I wanted to help our departments to use computers in research and teaching, but Willard believed that we were forging a new discipline. He set up Humanist (using Bitnet, and first announced in June 1987 in the OCCH newsletter) to gather the leaders. Our free interactive concordancer Text-Analysis Computing Tools (TACT), the Clarendon Press Humanities Computing Yearbook Willard and I put together, and the first joint meeting of ACH and ALLC, the international and American computing societies, in 1989, hosted by CCH, gave him many opportunities to gather converts. Willard also had a place where young DH-ers of like ambitions could be trained: for instance, Geoffrey Rockwell, a student of philosophy who worked under John Bradley, programmer of TACT in the University of Toronto Computing Services; Ray Siemens, my research assistant, and also a quick study of Willard’s enterprise; a youthful, good-natured French graduate student, Bill Winder, who worked with Russ Wooldridge and myself; and Stephen Reimer, then a graduate student in English at Toronto, who shared my enthusiasm for tools. He created STATS and compiled, for OCCH, T-Crunchers, four volumes of free software: PC-Write and utilities such as kwic, spell-checker, file-comparison, and fgrep. These young people, thirty years ago, gave OCCH some lifting wings.

By December 1987, the database of OCCH members compiled by Samuel Cioran and Elaine Nardocchio listed 280 computer-using individuals from sixteen institutions in Ontario. When she had to pass the torch to me in the early 1990s, OCCH expanded across Canada, acquired a new name (COCH/COSH) and eventually slipped the cords of its institutions to become today’s learned society of individuals. We owe a debt of gratitude to IBM Canada Inc., McMaster University, and the University of Toronto for lighting this torch. To speak personally, I could not have kept my promises to English poetry (achieved through Representative Poetry Online in 1994) and to the English language (through the Early Modern English Dictionaries Database in 1996) without their patronage. And we still rely on our home universities for much, from conference and journal hosting to office workstations, teaching laboratories, IT centres, free proprietary software, and travel grants. Industrial support of institutional teaching and research is omnipresent in educational pricing, if not in special cooperatives tied to explicit deliverables.

Most challenging to OCCH was simply to become aware of the interdisciplinary spread of its new field. The membership directory illustrates the rich teaching and research applications we discovered in our midst: tool-making, concording, database and textbase development, computer-assisted editing, bibliography, lexicography, and literary and linguistic studies, statistical analysis, and many more. Tool-makers include Henry Rogers (Phthong), Glyn Holmes (CLEF), Teresa Snelgrove (STRAP), Stephen Reimer (STATST-Crunchers), John Bradley (TACT), Paul Rapoport (International Fonts), Frederic Portoraro (SymLog), Robert Jay Glickman (PRORA), Joanna Johnson (McDrillMaster later mcBOOKmaster), Samuel Cioran (mcBOOKmaster and other CAI courseware for French, Russian, and Japanese), Grace Logan (poetry analysis), Carl Bereiter and Marlene Scardamalia (learning programs), and Lidio Presutti and myself (MTASTACT). We had computational statisticians Barron Brainerd (mathematics), David Nowlan (economics) and computational linguists Graeme Hirst (semantic analysis) and Stephen Regoczei. Paul Beam, Greg Lessard, Morgan Tamplin, and Edward Heinemann developed courses, and computer gaming already had a leader in Neil Randall. Many grew textbases and concordances for literary analysis: John Hurd (Aramaic and the Pseudo-Jonathan), Paul Fortier (French novels), Gordon Coggins (Edmund Spenser), Pierre Kunstmann (medieval French), Daniel Geagan (Athenian dedicatory monuments), W. Donald Wilson (Gide), and Hoyt Greeson (Julian of Norwich). James Benson and William Cummings were synonymous with linguistic data retrieval and analysis, linguist Keren Rice with computer-assisted lexical studies of Slave and Mende, and Ashley Crandell Amos and Toni Healey with the Dictionary of Old English. Michael Gervers (DEEDS), Andrew Hughes (medieval chant), John Traill (Athenians), Norman Zacour (medieval cardinals), and Brad Inwood (Thesaurus Linguae Graecae) were devising databases. For computer-assisted editors OCCH looked to Kirk Grayson (Royal Inscriptions of Mesopotamia), Frank Davey (Swift Current), M. G. Wiebe (Disraeli project), J. A. Dainard (Graffigny project), Michael Groden (James Joyce), Abigail Young and others at Records of Early English Drama (REED), William P. Stoneman, and Richard Shroyer (Canadian Poetry Centre). Dictionary folk included Jack Gray (New OED project), Russon Wooldridge (Renaissance French dictionaries, Nicot) and his followers Brian Merrilees (for medieval French), and myself (for Early Modern English). Computer-assisted bibliographers included John North (newspapers), John Ball (Canadian theatre history), and Alan Somerset (Stratford Festival Archives). For theory, French studies led with Bill Winder (DÉREDEC) and Elaine Nardocchio (a semiotic model of drama). Strikingly, George Logan and David T. Barnard were developing text-encoding standards at this time. Some early adopters — John Bradley, Graeme Hirst, Keren Rice, Robert Jay Glickman, Neil Randall, and David Barnard — are still active leaders in research, teaching, and administration today.

OCCH, COCH/COSH, and today’s CSDH / SCHN (Canadian Society for Digital Humanities / Société canadienne des humanités numériques) have helped grow the rapidly changing IT environment for academic researchers over the past three decades and contributed to the worldwide success of the digital humanities. Our hosts today continue to be institutions, but our Society’s members and funders are now individual researchers across Canada. Research agencies rather than industry support their research. SSHRC created Image Text Sound Technology (ITST) as a mechanism to fund the likes of Ray’s seminal summer institute, which led to his MCRI, INKE. Yesterday’s research became today’s teaching, thanks in good part to Ray’s hard work. CFI funded Geoffrey’s TAPoR and Susan Brown’s Collaboratory CWRC. Chad Gaffield, another of our angels to whom we owe so much, set up Digging into Data. What our patrons hope for is more computing humanists, operating in teams, if possible, not unlike the old CCH, but engaged less in its tool-making than in use of open-source tools created by others. For we have learned in the past three decades that text and images can be archived, but tools only with difficulty because no one has yet discovered how to counteract the obsolescence into which new operating systems and programming languages drive them, tools on the development of which so many have worked so devotedly. While no piece of shareware made with CCH sponsorship, including TACT, is usable today, Voyantimpressively carries on the text-analysis traditions that Geoffrey Rockwell found in John Bradley, and Stéfan Sinclair in Paul Fortier and the early Montreal centres. None of the applications alive in 1987 is without a more advanced technology today, and the good ship CSDH/SCHN has no lack of important worlds to explore.

October 25, 2016
(A shorter, more informal version of his paper was first delivered during a reception sponsored by CSDH/SCHN at the University of Calgary annual general meeting in May 2016.) Made available under a Creative Commons CC-BY-NC license.