From Data to Wisdom: Humanities Research and Online Content

by Michael Lesk, Rutgers University

Originally Posted December 16th, 2007

1. Introduction
President Clinton’s 1998 State of the Union Address called for “an America where every child can stretch a hand across a keyboard and reach every book ever written, every painting ever painted, every symphony ever composed.”[1] If that dream is realized, we would have the resources for all humanistic research online. What difference would that make for the humanities?

The widespread availability of online data has already changed scholarship in many fields, and in scientific research the entire paradigm is changing, with experiments now being conducted before rather than after hypotheses are proposed, simply because of the massive amounts of available data. But what is likely to happen in the humanities? So far, much of the work on “cyberinfrastructure” in the humanities has been about accumulating data. This is an essential part of the process, to be sure, but one would like to see more research on the resulting files. At the moment, we have a library that accumulates more books than are read. T. S. Eliot wrote “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”[2] Modern computer scientists have tended to turn this into a four-stage process, from data to information to knowledge to wisdom. We are mostly still at the stage of having only data.

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