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History of CESTA

Stanford has been at the forefront of digital humanities research from the field’s very beginning. This history, considered within the centuries-long quest for humanistic knowledge, is strikingly brief. Its origins are most often located in the mid twenty-century computing linguistics, but today’s digital humanities have come a long way from those beginnings, having grown alongside of the expanding ubiquity of computing in scholars’ lives since the 1990s. At Stanford, the growth of the field in the early 2000s included unprecedented conversations between academic technologists and humanists. In 2007 the Spatial History Project was founded, dedicated to asking new questions of the past by adopting innovative visualization and mapping techniques; in 2009 Mapping Republic of Letters set out to make use of visualizations and network analysis to investigate early-modern knowledge making communities; and in 2010 the Literary Lab was established, focused on text mining of literary corpora. In 2011 the Stanford Library organized and hosted the meeting of the world-wide Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations—an event at which Stanford professors and researchers made a splash, disseminating the term ‘big tent’ to describe the variety of digital projects underway on campus.

Out of this blossoming excitement, CESTA was founded in 2012, bringing together three established distinct initiatives in the open spaces of Wallenberg Hall’s fourth floor: the Spatial History Project, the Literary Lab and Humanities+Design (which, emerging from Mapping Republic of Letters, extended that project's experimenting with data science to other fields of study). Since 2012, under the vision and leadership of  Zephyr Frank (founding director 2012-2016) and Elaine Treharne (director 2016-2019), CESTA has grown into a much larger community with diverse operations, including regular seminars, workshops, talks and conferences.

In his talk "Digital Humanities and Spatial History: Atlantic World Stories" (2/23/2021, via Zoom), Zephyr Frank discusses the process of selecting a name for the center which subsequently became CESTA. This slide shows an initial list of ideas proposed by Ryan Heuser, an affiliate of the Literary Lab.

The composition of our participants has also evolved in animating ways, with faculty participation from departments ranging from History to English, Classics to DLCL, and Religious Studies to Art History and Environmental Studies. Undergraduate participation is thriving: our internship program, which places Stanford students in ongoing faculty-led projects, counts over 475 alumni. Many of these undergraduates work with CESTA for multiple years; some have gone on to create their own digital projects as part of their senior theses, as in the case of the Voltaire library project. Graduate students always have been central to CESTA’s life, working on collaborative projects, as well as developing their own in the Graduate Fellowship that since 2012 has enrolled fifty-five students. Post-doctoral fellows, many from overseas, are a vital part of the CESTA community--for three consecutive years, for example, we have hosted a fully-funded highly prestigious European Commission Marie Curie fellow. The term 'big tent' has never been a more apt descriptor of CESTA’s work than it is today, with projects running the gamut from analytical to curatorial DH, from data science to media studies, from solo faculty projects to large international collaborations. 

As of 2019 CESTA joined in partnership with the Stanford Humanities Center, and this alliance strengthens  CESTA's promise to contribute to an expansion of the humanities at a time when they are most needed, and to help bridge the divide separating technology and the humanities both at Stanford and beyond.