University of Virginia, College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Debjani Ganguly, Director, IHGC, Professor of English
Jack Chen, Associate Professor of Chinese Literature, EALC
Alison Booth, Academic Director, Scholars Lab, Professor of English

The Humanities Informatics Lab brings together scholars at UVA working on questions arising from the management, control, and flow of information in both historical and contemporary contexts. The Lab addresses the ways in which data structures and the actual computation of data inform the various histories of humanistic cultural production, human scientific endeavors, and studies of the evolution of human life itself. Through active collaboration with traditional humanities research and disciplines such as library science, engineering, mathematics, statistics, computer science, neuroscience, and bioinformatics, the Humanities Informatics Lab leverages UVA strength in humanistic-oriented research and information sciences and takes a leadership role in global academia for the university in innovative research, creative teaching, and public engagement in the field of humanities informatics.

The transformative nature of this initiative lies in the way it brings a contemporary perspective on the impact of information sciences together with an examination of the intellectual and cultural histories of information that have largely gone unacknowledged within information studies, as well as epistemological and ethical questions of how structures of information have shaped knowledge and values within society.  As an interdisciplinary endeavor, informatics may be defined as the practice of information management, which consists of the storage, retrieval, processing, and communication of information, as well as its technological applications. Informatics has taken on renewed significance in recent times, not least because of the rise of the so-called ‘information society’ and increasingly intrusive surveillance technologies. The application of informatics has ranged across myriad domains of human activities such as war, security, environment, finance, health, media, and culture. It has also opened up new frontiers in our understanding of the ‘human’ through its work on genetics and artificial intelligence.

However, what such approaches to information have neglected is the broader historical perspective on information and information technology that the humanities may provide. There is a history of informatics that both precedes and includes that of the personal computer, from the rise of writing as an encoding technology for language to the accumulation of data within anthologies, encyclopedias, and scientific compendiums. Within a spectrum of studies of the history of print culture and the rise of disciplines, scholars have explored information retrieval strategies such as the table of contents, index, and bibliography, as well as the storage capacities of the letter, word, sentence, paragraph, page, chapter, and book. Accompanying verbal forms are spatial and visual orders of archiving and representing information, from libraries to maps and graphs. There are clear connections here to the work done in the digital humanities, including the manipulation and visualization of data, but humanities informatics is less concerned with the actual computation of data than it is with the ways in which data structures have informed the various histories of humanistic cultural production, human scientific endeavors, and studies of the evolution of human life itself.

UVA, through this laboratory, can take a leadership role in global academia by advancing innovative research, creative teaching, and public engagement in the field of humanities informatics, transforming the traditional practices of the humanities through active collaboration with disciplines such as library science, engineering, mathematics, statistics, computer science, neuroscience, and bioinformatics. Such an initiative would also leverage the considerable faculty strengths at UVA, where there is already a critical mass of scholars working on humanistic-oriented questions related to the information sciences, but who lack the resources and institutional mechanisms to collaborate and make meaningful connections across departments and schools. These projects include such studies as: the early history of Internet culture; Buddhist contemplation and neuroscience; medieval Chinese literature and the data sciences; the idea of the modern university as an information hub; the history of the book; contemporary surveillance cultures; the rise of drone warfare; post-humanism in the era of genetic engineering and artificial intelligence; cultural critiques of the history of empiricism and changing standards of evidence; systems and networks of cultural distribution and representation during the rise of both imperialism and human rights, including maps and landscapes or built environments; and cognitive aesthetics and neuroscience. As a transformative and collaborative space, the Humanities Informatics Laboratory will showcase the power of the humanities and interpretative social sciences to ask—and work towards answering—large questions of historical and contemporary significance that rethink the “human” in our digital and information age.

Project goals:

  • Transform the field of information studies by injecting humanistic perspectives into it and examining in depth the shifting contours of human societies and the very meaning of the ‘human’ in our information age.
  • Build a research concentration that cuts across at least seven different disciplines/fields apart from the humanities: library science, engineering, mathematics, statistics, computer science, neuroscience and bioinformatics
  • Train a new generation of scholars to think historically and culturally about the impact of information sciences on human societies and cultures.
  • Develop a program of public outreach and engagement.
  • Situate UVA as a global leader in the field by building collaborative links with five major research universities: MIT (Comparative Media Studies, Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, Hyperstudio) Stanford (Center for Interdisciplinary Digital Research; Program in Biomedical Informatics), Cambridge (Institute for the Mathematics of Information, Digital Humanities Network), Duke (FHI Media Lab Health Humanities Lab, Center for Cognitive Neuroscience), and Tsinghua (Institute for Interdisciplinary Information Sciences). These links will build on UVA’s existing international affiliations with major digital research centers as part of CenterNet. Our Dean of the Library is already at the hub of rethinking access to the print record as a member of the Executive Team of the HathiTrust Research Center.


  • Consolidation of research teams across UVA and the five universities mentioned above in areas such as: Text and Media; Brain and Body; War and Surveillance; Social Informatics
  • Training of postdoctoral researchers and graduate students
  • Four workshops
  • One conference on “Informatic Humanities” hosted on behalf of Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes (CHCI)
  • Faculty and student exchanges across the collaborating institutions
  • Public lecture series (2-3 speakers per year)

Participating UVA Faculty

Rafael Alvarado (Media studies, associate director of SHANTI, digital humanities)
Wei-Min Chen (Medicine, statistical genetics, UVA Data Institute)
Michele Claibourn (Library, director of Research Data Services, electoral campaigns)
Rebecca Coleman (Architecture, Architectural History Urban and Environmental Planning)
Ashley Deeks (Law, national security and intelligence, drone warfare)
Kevin Driscoll (Media studies, early history of the internet)
Max Edelson (History, colonial America, GIS)
Mona El Khafif (Architecture)
Liz Ellcessor (Media Studies)
Eric Field (Architecture, director of Insight Lab, informatics and space-making)
Camilla Fojas (Media Studies, transnational empires, surveillance cultures, drone warfare)
David Germano (Religious Studies, Tibetan studies, director of SHANTI and Contemplative Sciences Center)
Chris Gist (Library, GIS Specialist)
Gustav Heldt (DEALLC, medieval Japanese literature)
Frederick Hitz and (Batten School of Leadership, national security, drone warfare)
Marty Humphrey (Computer science, Cloud computing)
Paul Humphreys (Philosophy, epistemology and philosophy of science)
Mona Kasra (Drama, digital media design, new media artist)
Charles Laughlin (DEALLC, modern Chinese literature)
Worthy Martin (Computer science, co-director of IATH)
Mark Metcalf (DEALLC, early Chinese strategic thought, electrical engineering)
Beth Meyer (Architecture, landscape architecture, director of Center for Cultural Landscapes)
Vicente Ordonez (Computer science, computer vision and artificial intelligence)
Erin Pappas (Linguistics, Women Gender and Sexuality)
Brad Pasanek (English, 18th-cent. British literature, digital humanities)
Ricky Patterson (Astronomy, Environmental Sciences, Mathematics, Engineering)
Jeana Ripple (Architecture)
Will Rourk (Library, information visualization, cultural heritage preservation)
Chris Ruotolo (Library)
Ammon Shepherd (Library, German history, developer, manager of Makerspace at Scholars’ Lab, 3D priting, robotics)
Andrew Stauffer (English, 19th-cent. British literature, director of NINES and Book Traces)
John Unsworth (Library and English, Dean of Libraries, digital humanities)
Siva Vaidyanathan (Media studies, cybersecurity, surveillance)
Chad Wellmon (German, history of the university, digital humanities)
Keith Weimer (History, Religious Studies)