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Center forDigital Humanities

The Early History of Digital Humanities at USC

The Center for Digital Humanities at USC was founded in 2010, but the need for an interdisciplinary approach to the humanities and computing has existed for over 40 years. At USC almost 30 years ago, two visionary scholars—David Chesnutt and Robert Oakman—sought to apply new technology to the study of literature and history, and to bridge the gap between scientists and humanists.


Dr. David R. Chesnutt (1940 - 2014)

David Rogers Chesnutt was born in 1940 in Athens, Alabama to Thomas Brice Chesnutt and Lena (Moss) Chesnutt. After graduating from high school, he went to Auburn University, but transferred after his first semester to the University of Alabama. He received a degree in journalism in 1962 and became the Assistant City Editor of the Alabama Journal, where he reported about the integration of two African American students into his own University of Alabama. He went on to receive a graduate degree in history from Auburn University (1967) and a doctoral from the University of Georgia (1973).

Chesnutt was still writing his dissertation when he was offered a job working on the Papers of Henry Laurens. In a letter to his father he described the position as “a one-year appointment,” but after arriving in Columbia, he continued to work on the project for the next thirty years. A pioneer in the field of digital humanities at the USC, Chesnutt designed and oversaw the development of a digital back-of-the book indexing system, now known as CIndex, which he used for the Laurens Papers. He founded the Association for Documentary Editing (ADE), which he then represented on a team of European and American scholars who, in the 1980s, developed the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI). He subsequently formed the Model Editions Partnership at USC to apply TEI protocols to scholarly documentary editing. In partnership with Dr. Elizabeth Dow, a professor at the LSU School of Library and Information Science, Chesnutt developed an innovative live multi-campus video-conferencing graduate program, known initially as the Southeastern Archival Education Collaborative; USC was a partner from 2002 to 2007.

David Chesnutt was described as “erudite, witty, charming, thoughtful, industrious, and kind” (Barton K. Smith). He was “blessed with a wonderful, dry wit” (Chris Coover), and was “always the voice of reason” (John D. Haskell). Chesnutt died on December 15, 2014 in his home in Hardwick, Vermont at age 74.

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