How medieval is your name, and why should computer science care?

Sara Uckelman speaks about Digital Humanities, Medieval History, and Lexicography

Despite not being a great fan of hermeneutics, Dr Sara Uckelman (Durham University) kindly agreed to visit our department in February 2020 as part of the DHH lecture series to introduce her own digital history project and explain the pitfalls she encountered. She is a medievalist and logician, assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Durham, UK, and has been involved in numerous collaborative digital and historical projects.


Her lecture was two for the price of one, really – the first part, interesting enough in its own right, covered her efforts to build an online Dictionary of Medieval names from European Sources, a largely volunteer-run effort to collate and document personal names found across the continent between 500 and 1600 CE, showing their meanings, variants, evolution over time, and the sources in which they are found. The target audience of such a dictionary is diverse, ranging from historians to re-enactors to parents seeking a name for their child. To fulfil the requirements of this diverse group of potential recipients, the dictionary must be simple and intuitive enough to understand on a first visit. At the same time, the content has to be rigorously checked and documented to ensure its usefulness as a source. Previous versions are kept and all contributors credited, both for version control and to show the evolution of the website itself – thereby documenting the provenance of the data.

However, the talk was not simply an introduction to an interesting project on documenting intangible heritage – it also demonstrated the relevance to the wider field of Digital History, and how the specific challenges to be addressed and overcome in its design and implementation were shared among most, if not all, current digital history projects.

The most central question, which a lot of DH shies away from addressing or even admitting, that she made explicit is “what’s in it for the computer scientists?” Many “interdisciplinary” projects focus on introducing or inventing digital tools for the humanities, which include novel ways to gather, process, evaluate and display their data. For programmers and computer scientists, however, these are often standard user applications rather than innovative research opportunities. This is compounded by the lack of a common vocabulary, including divergent opinions on what constitutes “big data”.

Dr Uckelman offered a few pragmatic ideas for solving this issue, such as fostering a willingness to pay IT consultants for projects rather than expecting it to be research for them.  Finally, she addressed the C²DH audience with the inverse question: what can the humanities contribute to computer science research in return?

Unfortunately, the combined minds of C²DH could not come up with the ultimate solution – but the discussion was fruitful, and demonstrated that the problem of giving computer scientists fruitful avenues of research through the humanities is not unique to our department, but a more general challenge to be addressed by the DH community worldwide.

Dr Uckelman has kindly made her slides available to us:

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