Roy Wisbey 1929-2020

The following was originally posted on the EADH website. ADHO also wishes to extend condolences to Professor Wisbey's family, friends, and colleagues.

It is with great sadness that we inform our community of the death of Roy Wisbey, who has passed away aged 91 (13.6.1929 - 21.10.2020). Prof. Wisbey has been a founder member and first Chair of the Association of Literary and Linguistic Computing (now EADH), as much as founder of our journal "Literary and Linguistic Computing" (now "DSH"). 

Prof. Harold Short wrote a few words to remember his outstanding activity as scholar, and we are honored to publish them hereafter.

Roy Wisbey 1929-2020 

Roy Wisbey, who has passed away aged 91 (13.6.1929 - 21.10.2020), was one of the pioneers of humanities computing in Europe and indeed internationally, although this was only part, albeit an integral part, of a distinguished academic career whose principal focus was medieval German literature.

His engagement with the application of computation in literary scholarship went back to 1960, when he attended a colloquium on the mechanization of literary analysis and lexicography at the University of Tübingen, led by Roberto Busa SJ, another of the pioneers in the field. By this time Roy held a post in German at the University of Cambridge, where he founded the Literary and Linguistic Computing Centre in 1964.

In 1971 he moved to King's College London, where he stayed for the remainder of his professional career.  While he did not seek to establish a similar centre there, he not only continued using computational methods in his own research, but also encouraged and facilitated the work of others. The result was that the Computing Centre at King's developed considerable interest and expertise in supporting such work.  In 1986 an institutional merger gave him the opportunity to propose the formation of a 'Humanities and Information Management' group in the restructured Computing Centre.  This group became increasingly engaged in collaborative research projects with leading academics in humanities disciplines - always a key strength at King's - and this led in 1996 to the establishment of the Centre for Computing in the Humanities. CCH became an academic department in 2002, eventually changing its name to Department of Digital Humanities in 2011. 

Roy was a key supporter in all these developments, providing not only moral support but also a great deal of practical help and advice. He was also active in generating interest in computational methods with colleagues across the University of London, co-organising for many years the intercollegiate Seminar in Humanities Computing.

The primary focus of his pioneering work in the application of computational methods was literary and linguistic research. One of his priorities at Cambridge was the creation of an archive of machine-readable texts of medieval German literature.  The texts were entered on paper tape, among them the Lachmann edition of the works of Wolfram von Eschenbach. Roy’s wife Erni was one of his main collaborators, spending endless hours in data entry.  

His archive of Middle High German texts was used by numerous researchers and accessioned by such institutions as the Oxford Text Archive, established by Lou Burnard. In 1990 Manfred Thaller brought a copy of the complete archive to the Max-Planck-Institut für Geschichte in Göttingen, where the data was converted by Astrid Reinecke into a standardized ASCII-format and made generally available. Subsequently a copy of this archive made its way to Trier, where it was incorporated in the text archive of the new Middle High German dictionary and where its 15 texts can still be accessed (http://www.mhdwb-online.de/quellenverzeichnis.php?).

Roy, along with other pioneers such as Roberto Busa, insisted that correct machine-readable texts, including diacritics, were an indispensable prerequisite for all further work, particularly in lexicography and textual editing. He also believed that the source texts should always be the best and most reliable editions. Based on the texts in his archive, Roy was the first in his discipline to publish a series of computer generated indices and concordances.

From the beginning, however, Roy had a larger conception, working with like-minded European and international colleagues to push boundaries and explore new possibilities. He was interested not only in how the new methods could benefit his own research, but also in how they might transform humanities scholarship more broadly.  As early as 1962 he was articulating his far-sighted vision in a paper published in Modern Language Review 57.2:161-172:

The really exciting vistas however, begin to open up when one considers that once texts have been put on tape they constitute a permanent archive for linguistic research.

At Cambridge in 1970 he organised, with Michael Farringdon, a ‘Symposium on Uses of the Computer in Literary Research’, which attracted over 60 participants from Europe and North America and even Australia.  This was the first of what became a regular series of such colloquia, biennial to begin with and leading in 1989 to annual joint conferences of the ALLC (Association for Literaty and Linguistic Computing) and the ACH (Association for Computers and the Humanities), alternating between Europe and North America.  These in turn were the forerunner of the current annual international Digital Humanities conferences sponsored from 2006 by the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organisations (ADHO – adho.org). 

The 1970 symposium is widely recognised as a seminal event in the development of the field. Roy edited the proceedings as The Computer in Literary and Linguistic Research, Cambridge University Press, 1971. In reference to this, Susan Hockey has observed: 

The proceedings, meticulously edited by Wisbey (1971), set the standard for subsequent publications. A glance through them indicates the emphasis of interest on input, output, and programming as well as lexicography, textual editing, language teaching, and stylistics. Even at this time the need for a methodology for archiving and maintaining electronic texts was fully recognized. (Susan Hockey, 'History of Humanities Computing', in A Companion to Digital Humanities, ed. Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, John Unsworth. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004)

One striking characteristic in this early work in ‘humanities computing’, as it became known, is the very strong sense of collaborative engagement, across disciplines, institutions and countries. This has continued to be a major feature over the decades as humanities computing developed and then morphed into ‘digital humanities’.  In so much of Roy’s institutional as well as scholarly work his commitment to collaboration shines through, setting a standard here as well.

In this context, it was a natural development to see the need for and benefits of a scholarly association for the emerging field.  Roy worked closely with a number of UK and European colleagues, including Joan Smith, Susan Hockey, the late Antonio Zampolli, Wilhelm Ott and others, to establish the Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing (ALLC), now the European Association for Digital Humanities (EADH - eadh.org). He hosted its inaugural meeting in 1973 at King's College.  He was elected as its first Chair, with Joan Smith its first Secretary. He was Chair until 1978, was made an Honorary Member in 1979, and held the position of ALLC President 1980-1983.

The ALLC’s initial publications were the ALLC Bulletin and the ALLC Journal, merged in 1986 into Literary and Linguistic Computing, published by Oxford University Press. With a name change to Digital Scholarship in the Humanities, this journal remains alive and well and is still published by OUP (academic.oup.com/dsh).  In his editorial for the first edition of the ALLC Bulletin, Roy again demonstrated his vision, his prescience and his commitment to scholarly collaboration, writing of the new Association: 

Its activities may be expected to range from the provision of information by way of ephemeral bulletins or more substantial publications, through the compilation of bibliographies, through offering training for those new to computing, and perhaps most important of all, through facilitating personal contacts between researchers by way of seminars, regional meetings and national or international collqouia.  In addition, the Association should attempt to supply something of that stability which is conspicuously lacking in literary computation at present.  This can be done not only through the maintenance of a permanent administrative framework, but also through the creation of archives of machine-readable literary texts in standardized formats and of programs suitable for carrying out generalized operations upon such texts.

Since a colloquium at the University of Tübingen was an important starting point for his humanities computing career, it was highly appropriate that Roy was invited to be a keynote speaker at the international ALLC-ACH Conference held at Tübingen in 2002 (A video of the talk is available at:
https://timms.uni-tuebingen.de/tp/UT_20020724_001_allcach2002wisbey_0001). There was symmetry of a similar kind when he was invited to speak in 2009 at the closure of the Literary and Linguistic Computing Centre in Cambridge. (Digital Humanities continues to thrive at Cambridge, but with different institutional arrangements.)

Before ending I should acknowledge my personal debt to Roy.  It was the creation of the Humanities and Information Management group which in 1988 attracted me to King’s, where I received his constant encouragement and support, even after his retirement, and where I spent 22 rewarding years working in humanities computing/digital humanities.  Moreover, it was through the international association he helped to establish – ALLC/EADH – that I have had over 25 equally rewarding years engaged with colleagues across the globe in our ever-growing and ever-broadening disciplinary arena.

The computational work in the early years was, of course, somewhat laborious, based on main-frame computers, punched cards or paper tape, and magnetic tape.  Even the encoding of diacritics was laborious in those pre-Unicode days.  It is all the more remarkable, therefore, to note Roy’s awareness of the scholarly benefits that would accrue from the creation of digital resources at scale, and the very large collections of texts and other types of material accessible to scholars today are an important part of his and his contemporaries’ legacy.

For a number of years in the early 1990s, CCH offered a one-week intensive ‘humanities computing’ course aimed specifically at academic staff. Its purpose was to introduce basic skills and concepts that were starting to be developed around the ‘new’ phenomenon of personal computers.  Roy was one of the first to sign up, his interest and curiosity as engaged as ever, even in the final years before his retirement.

Everyone who knew and worked with Roy – and this goes well beyond his humanities computing activities, of course – was struck by his unfailing courtesy, kindness and generosity of spirit.  He was always eager to engage with anyone, from fellow medievalists to Kurzweil operators, and always interested in learning how new computational methods were enabling new kinds of research. He will be long remembered not only as a scholar and an innovator but also as a collaborator, an enabler, a facilitator.

It will be clear from the foregoing that Roy Wisbey was one of the pioneers, a man whose vision, energy and enthusiasm helped to lay the foundations for the longer term development of humanities computing/digital humanities as an international field of disciplinary activity.  We owe a great deal to Roy and his contemporaries for their far-sighted scholarly vision and the solid foundations they established. Everyone engaged in the field will mourn Roy’s passing, and salute his memory.

Note: additional details of Roy’s humanities computing achievements can be found in his biography on the EADH website at: https://eadh.org/about/people/honorary-members.

A number of long-standing members of the international digital humanities community who were Roy’s friends and colleagues have contributed information and suggestions for this obituary, whom I acknowledge with much thanks: Lou Burnard, John Dawson, Kurt Gärtner, Susan Hockey, Willard McCarty, Michael Sperberg-McQueen, Wilhelm Ott, and Manfred Thaller.

Harold Short
Edinburgh, November 2020