What could an Italian Jesuit priest and the chairman of one of the biggest companies in the world have in common?
The answer appears very simple if the first one is called Roberto Busa, pioneer of computational linguistics and digital humanities in Italy and author of the Index Thomisticus, a complete lemmatization of Saint Thomas Aquinas’s works, while the second one is Thomas J. Watson, the founder of IBM. After a meeting in 1949, Watson decided to support Busa’s idea and sponsor the Index Thomisticus, starting off with punched card, then using magnetic tapes, CD-ROM, up to the introduction of the web version of the index appeared in 2005.
It is interesting to introduce today’s case study with this brief story, since the meeting between a priest and the IBM founder could be considered one of the first instances of the successful collaboration between digital humanists, even if they didn’t know it.
It is widely clear that in the future digital technologies will permeate more and more the humanistic sphere; this explains the growing need for specialists in Digital Humanities. This doesn’t mean just a mere, continuous digitization process for its sake, but it must be evaluated in terms of opportunity for everyone to access and share the whole, open source world knowledge. The question is: how could this be done in practice?
It seems intriguing to investigate on what is happening in a country like Italy, one of the biggest cradles of the cultural and historical heritage in the world and which can boast the greatest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
For a deeper analysis of Italian situation, we will focus on the work of Prof. Giovanni Ragone (Department of History of Art, Faculty of Philosophy, Arts and Humanities and Oriental Studies) and Prof. Marco Schaerf (Department of Informatics, Faculty of Information Engineering, Informatics and Statistics) in the DigiLab of “Sapienza” University of Rome. Ragone and Schaerf are the coordinators of a particular project named “Sapienza DigitalLibrary“, the most advanced prototype of a digital library among Italian universities, carried out by La Sapienza and CINECA.
As in every big educational institution, La Sapienza has available several databases and digital collection concerning cultural and scientific heritage, that is books, journals, multimedia, virtual museums, pictures, digital reconstruction of buildings and places, specific collections and every other type of digital information, like students’ and researchers’ works or records of lectures and seminars; everything available freely and via web, but in a very confusing way.
After verifying the absence of suitable systems for the management of digital contents, the Digital Library research group decided to develop a brand new on-line digital infrastructure based on open-source and open-access platforms, simply to use, consistent with advanced classification standards and compatible with the main international repositories and with other similar projects in Italian universities. Indeed, since the beginning of the project, SDL has been shaped in order to be extended, in the future, to other universities or institutions and to accommodate donations of digital resources. SDL portal can not be considered as a traditional Digital Library, but it is actually an on-line digital infrastructure directed to enhance communication methods for promoting the development of cultural, scientific and environmental heritage.
An academic Digital Library could be considered not only a useful tool for completing and improving students’ academic skills, but also a revolution for a wider point of view, introducing the opportunity of sharing information and creating a dense digital network among the universities.
However, there are still several issues which have been raised from some people (let’s call them conservative humanists) who, for example, remark the fragility of digital memories, which require adequate maintenance and conservation processes, and the poor security that sometimes digital contents could present.
Nevertheless, the biggest obstacle that in Italy prevents this digital knowledge network from growing and developing is the entrenched individualism that still marks Italian Universities, drifting away and delaying the digitization and standardization dreams of most of the Digital Humanists.