News from ACRL 2019: Dr. Timothy Beal Talks about Humanities, Librarianship and Coding

Library Resources | May 13, 2019

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Dr. Timothy Beal spoke about deep learning, experimental humanities and the role of the academic library at an ACRL talk sponsored by Atla and EBSCO. Here’s what we learned.

On April 11, 2019, during the early morning buzz of the ACRL 2019 Conference, the freshly rebranded Atla, Collectors & Connectors in Religion & Theology, and EBSCO Information Services came together to host an expert talk delivered by Dr. Timothy Beal, who engaged the audience on the topic of experimental humanities in the era of deep learning and artificial intelligence (AI).

Dr. Beal is the Interim Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Florence Harkness Professor of Religion and chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Case Western Reserve University. He has published 14 books, and written essays on religion, media, and culture for The Chronicle of Higher Education, The New York Times, and CNN.com, among others. In recent years, he has been working in Python (the programming language) to carry out research in natural language processing, machine learning, and neural machine translation as they relate to religious studies and the humanities more broadly.

Today, new technologies are radically transforming education and scholarship. Much of the technological change — the coding — is driven by commercial interests. Yet, there is an important role for academia to play — specifically those in the humanities and in librarianship. People in those professions are used to thinking deeply about meaning and can approach coding from a different perspective. Libraries can and should embrace the digital revolution that is underway. It can be daunting, but it can be done.

Dr. Beal posed some interesting questions for libraries, and offered his insights:

Why should humanists learn to code?

A key to fostering technological innovation in the humanities, as well as encouraging deeper critical reflection on technology, technological evolution, and what it means to be human, is to provide hands-on access to back-end coding and emerging computational methods. This will empower humanists to experiment with them, and encourage critical reflection on the experience.

How do we begin?

The most effective way to foster innovation in the humanities is to empower experimentation and play with coding tools themselves. The only way scholars in the humanities will be able to contribute meaningfully to public discourse concerning the ethical and existential implications of these new technologies (e.g., the current debates concerning “AI”) is to gain experiential knowledge of how they work.

The importance of play and experimentation — of learning by doing — can run counter to what many of us are used to. We are goal-oriented people. So, when we hear about new technologies, we think, how will they enable us to achieve our current research objectives more quickly and effectively? How to apply the new tools to our old research problems but in ‘bigger and faster’ ways? But learning to experiment with coding demands a mindshift toward iterative steps and open-ended, experimental play with the tools.

Libraries are uniquely positioned as hosts of experimental play and of conversations with others, including machines.

What are the challenges humanities scholars will face as they explore coding?

Engaging with these new technologies is not necessarily easy. Most are highly specialized, math- and programming-intensive, and oriented toward commercial markets.

How do we overcome these challenges?

We need to find ways to provide both access to these tools and opportunities to experiment with them. Research libraries in colleges, universities, and other institutions of higher education are central in addressing this need.

What types of projects can libraries engage in?

I think this needs to be a library- and collection-specific question. Every library is a rich resource of different kinds of data — texts, images of texts, circulation information, and so on. So, what unique kinds of data does your library have? How is it organized and accessed? Then, as we continue to learn and experiment with new computational methods, we should keep asking how these methods might afford new ways of working with our particular data.

What are some useful (free) resources?

1. Google Colaboratory
2. Python for Everybody
3. The Programming Historian

Could LIBRARIES be at the center of this movement, creating spaces for hospitality for this kind of play and experimentation?

The answer is a resounding YES. Libraries are uniquely positioned as hosts of experimental play and of conversations with others, including machines.

You can find articles by Dr. Beal in Atla Religion Database with AtlasPLUS on EBSCOhost or EBSCO Discovery Service. You can also search subjects such as Artificial intelligence, Computer software, Computer network resources. Free trials of Atla Religion Database® with Atlas PLUS®, Atla Historical Monographs Collections and other databases from Atla are available.

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