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“Libraries of Babel: An Expansive Future for the Humanities,” a Digiseeds Webinar Open to All

February 23, 2021

You are invited to attend a virtual talk featuring Ted Underwood, PhD, on Thursday, March 11 from 4:00-5:00 p.m. Dr. Underwood, Professor, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, will present “Libraries of Babel: An Expansive Future for the Humanities” as part of the Digital Seeds Speakers Series.   

The last twelve months have not been kind to optimists. It may sound especially implausible to predict a bright future for the humanities right now, since enrollment and hiring are down in many disciplines. But, as paradoxical as it sounds, we are living in an age of unprecedented opportunity for the study of culture and history. Some of the opportunities are well publicized: for instance, digital libraries have opened up fundamental new research questions for literary scholars. I’ll give examples of that work, but the broader point of this talk is to propose that we’re living through a digital transformation that will matter for everyone, not just for academic researchers. In making it possible to explore culture as a latent space—a space of possibility—machine learning facilitates a kind of creative play that is akin to rigorous self-understanding. This is good news for the humanities, although our disciplinary institutions are admittedly struggling to seize the opportunity. 

Ted Underwood is a professor in the School of Information Sciences and also holds an appointment with the Department of English in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. After writing two books that describe eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature using familiar critical methods, he turned to new research opportunities created by large digital libraries. Since that time, his research has explored literary patterns that become visible across long timelines, when we consider hundreds or thousands of books at once. He recently used machine learning, for instance, to trace the consolidation of detective fiction and science fiction as distinct genres, and to describe the shifting assumptions about gender revealed in literary characterization from 1780 to the present. He has authored three books about literary history, Distant Horizons (The University of Chicago Press Books, 2019), Why Literary Periods Mattered: Historical Contrast and the Prestige of English Studies(Stanford University Press, 2013), and The Work of the Sun: Literature, Science and Political Economy 1760-1860 (New York: Palgrave, 2005). Website:

Please REGISTER at the following link:

Once registered, you will be sent a Zoom link to the event.

This event is sponsored by Villanova University’s Falvey Memorial Library.

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