Dean and Professor at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science and Director of the Illinois Informatics Institute at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
|Reading at Library-Scale: New Methods,
Attention Prosthetics, Evidence,
Having digitized substantial parts of their collections, either by themselves or in collaboration with commercial partners, libraries have not only opened the way for new research methods – they have also made changes in those methods inevitable. Although different disciplines have arrived at this turning point at different times, we now have many examples of disciplines that have been transformed either by the speed and accuracy of computational modeling (like chemistry or fluid dynamics) or by the availability of large amounts of digital data (like astronomy or social science), or by both (like meteorology, genetics, or biochemistry). For text-centered humanities and social sciences, the digitization of millions of volumes – billions of pages – from the collections of academic research libraries will inevitably have a profound impact on research methods, on what counts as evidence, and eventually, on how we make arguments. As that happens, it will also change the way we teach and learn. My own research career as a faculty member, for the last 20 years, has been devoted first to understanding the impact of technology on the humanities and, more recently, to designing tools that would allow humanists to work at library-scale, using the computer as a kind of attention prosthetic that allows us to perceive patterns made up of very small pieces of information across very large expanses of text. Having perceived those patterns, of course, it is still up to us, as human beings with expertise in a relevant domain, to make sense of them and to persuade others to share that sense.
In 2008, John Unsworth was named Director of the Illinois Informatics Institute at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, a campus-wide organization that serves to coordinate and encourage informatics-related education and research. He also continues to serve as Dean of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science (GSLIS) at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, a post to which he was appointed in 2003. In addition to being a Professor in GSLIS, he also holds appointments in the department of English, and on the Library faculty. During the previous 10 years, from 1993-2003, he served as the first Director of the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, and a faculty member in the English Department, at the University of Virginia. For his work at IATH, he received the 2005 Richard W. Lyman Award from the National Humanities Center. He chaired the national commission that produced Our Cultural Commonwealth, the 2006 report on Cyberinfrastructure for Humanities and Social Science, on behalf of the American Council of Learned Societies, and he has supervised research projects across the disciplines in the humanities. He has also published widely on the topic of electronic scholarship, as well as co-directing one of nine national partnerships in the Library of Congress's National Digital Information Infrastructure Preservation Program, and securing grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Science Foundation, the Getty Grant Program, IBM, Sun, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and others. His first faculty appointment was in English, at North Carolina State University, from 1989 to 1993. He attended Princeton University and Amherst College as an undergraduate, graduating from Amherst in 1981. He received a Master's degree in English from Boston University in 1982 and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Virginia in 1988. In 1990, at NCSU, he co-founded the first peer-reviewed electronic journal in the humanities, Postmodern Culture (now published by Johns Hopkins University Press, as part of Project Muse). He also organized, incorporated, and chaired the Text Encoding Initiative Consortium, co-chaired the Modern Language Association's Committee on Scholarly Editions, and served as President of the Association for Computers and the Humanities and later as chair of the steering committee for the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations, as well as serving on many other editorial and advisory boards. He was born in 1958, in Northampton, Massachusetts; in 1978, he married Margaret English, with whom he has three children: Bill, Thomas, and Eleanor.