In the recent years, bioinformatics has crept into the arts and humanities. Software tools initially developed for the life sciences are being adapted to interpret ancient manuscripts, for instance, or to design novel editorial platforms and dynamic peer-reviewed webbooks – and SIB was fast to lend a virtual hand. “I believe code is as important as written language” says Claire Clivaz, head of SIB’s Digital Humanities Plus (DH+) Internal Group. SIB’s last Virtual Seminar (watch below) depicts this unusual topic, highlighting several projects and the researchers involved.

From codex to code...

“The humanities are becoming more and more digital as the need to store, visualize and analyse literary information increases,” says Martial Sankar, bioinformatician at SIB’s Vital-IT and DH+ Groups. Not so long ago, the same need was felt for the life sciences: data had begun to pour in, and tools were being developed to deal with them. There is a fundamental difference in the nature of the two types of data, however: life science data is the fruit of high sequence technologies, while DH data consists mainly in manuscripts.

Sankar explains the concept of Digital Humanities (DH) by way of a delightful parable: The blind monks and the elephant. This is an ancient Indian tale of five blind men who are asked to run their hands along an animal they are told is an elephant, and to describe what they feel. Taken individually, no account is really satisfactory but when considered as a whole, the five blind monks’ description of an elephant becomes not only realistic but plural and fine-tuned. In the same vein, bioinformatics offers the humanities a range of tools initially developed for the life sciences that can be used – as the blind men’s hands – to grasp various aspects of the human experience.

When asked how bioinformatics has changed her views and research, Clivaz says she now considers code as important as written language – a notion new in the Arts and Humanities. “Code is a means of communication and the heartbeat of digital humanities.”

...and multimedia editorial platforms to dynamic webbooks

Among the various projects presented is the digital editing platform eTalks, This platform hosts talks given by specialists on various fields of research; a viewer can listen to the talk, while following the script on one side of the screen – or indeed jumping to another part of the script – and seeing related images on the other. Cross-links and references are also made to other resources, and a simple click will take you there. “Students are now using the system,” says Sankar, “and we are currently developing a new editorial model.”

With MARK16, a SNSF Prima grant, Clivaz uses text parsing and interpretation tools in an intriguing project with an end to clarify what Mark the Evangelist did indeed write at the end of the 16th chapter of his gospel – an ending that has varied with time. “I would like to illustrate the diversity of opinions – including my own! – that exist on this matter and make comparisons,” explains Clivaz. “MARK16 will welcome multimodal scholarly production to integrate every single way – written or rhetorical – this part of the gospel has been discussed.”

In another engaging project – HumaReC – Sara Schultess, also at DH+ group, describes the publication of research matter such as ancient manuscripts, for instance, which become both a dynamic process and a place for continuous exchange. Their test document is the Bible – written in Greek, Latin and Arabic. The manuscript can be visualized in the three different languages. Accounts of research carried out in the field are described and regularly updated; changes are also made to the document following interactions during meetings or via social networks for instance. “No information is lost,” says Schultess. “All past versions are kept, naturally, and viewers can go back to consult them.” The team is currently working on a webbook version of HumaReC, which is also updated constantly. “This is exciting,” says Schultess, “because our results are open-ended until the completion of the webbook. Afterwards, it will be peer-reviewed, and hopefully become a publisher’s product as all the other books – a novelty in the publishing world.”

Joining European Digital Humanities efforts 

“Swiss Digital Humanities has to be an integral part of DH research at the European level,” say Clivaz and Schultess. This is well on track. SIB is already member of the Digital Research Infrastructure for Arts and Humanities (DARIAH), a pan-European network and research infrastructure. The DH+ Group is currently involved in two DARIAH projects – DESIR and DIMPO, a DESIR offshoot. DESIR has been devised to strengthen the sustainability of DARIAH, while DIMPO is to provide a comprehensive account of the DH information practices currently in use.

Claire Clivaz is Head of the Digital Humanities + Group at SIB. Coming from the Humanities, her appointment to SIB in 2015 gave a decisive shift to her career. She explores the interactions that exist between the humanities and bioinformatics in projects such as the SNSF project MARK16, the eTalks or H2020 DESIR. Her research is at the crossroads of The New Testament and Digital Humanities. Clivaz is a member of several scientific committees (EASSH governing board, EADH steering committee, Humanistica steering committee...) and editorial boards (IGNTP, IDHR, de Gruyter) besides co-leading a Brill series, «Digital Biblical Studies».