A Method to (DH) Madness

I must admit: after the first week of my Digital Scholars internship, I thought the task of researching the early college history in the span of two months was insurmountable. Among many linear feet of manuscripts, countless volumes of publications, articles, and journals, apparently, lies new insights into the early college history that I must dig out. This task beats finding a needle in a haystack for difficulty, I thought. I equated it to finding a silver one hidden among a needle-stack in fifty shades of gray, all within a limited time frame – nearly impossible. After an additional week of methodology workshops, however, I found my concerns abated.

This week focused our attention as interns on text analysis techniques: Google Ngrams, Voyant, Lexos, and topic modeling. In addition to learning how to distill large volumes of text, I picked up a few new words that allow for better understanding of the hermeneutics of my corpus (I may need practise at using these new words though). I have come to understand the methodologies applied to Digital Humanities in a practical way (as is natural for my architecture background). Like a fulcrum, text analysis tools do not change the load of information to be lifted from the Archives and Special Collections (pun always intended). Rather, the tools allow for more output for the effort placed into analyzing large volumes of text in a limited span of time.

I will not go into the details of the features of each of the tools we learned mostly because I am yet to fully grasp each of them, and partly because they each achieve similar outcomes: to translate texts into graphic information. Text analysis is a neat art! As a visual learner I appreciate how, for example, a phrase or argument can be traced in a body of text, or across different texts that may or may not be explicitly related. This is valuable in our quest as interns to acquire new insights into the old material available in the Archives and Special Collections.

The text analysis workshops have reshaped my approach to my project for the internship. Rather than exclusively focus on using visual material such as photographs and architectural drawings to understand early Amherst College architecture, I will be analyzing college publications and journals from between 1821 – 1861 to compliment my findings thus far. Previously, I was overwhelemed by the quantity of the material available for the scope of our research. Now, given additional time-saving tools, I am ready to begin analysis of texts that point to the rich early college architecture.

I cannot say that I have mastered many of the new research tools we have been taught. Nonetheless, I feel more confident that the task before us is possible given our awareness of more efficient ways to climb the mountain of material before us. It seems, afterall, there is a method to this madness.

Making knowledge of data: from the analog to the digital in humanities research

What constitutes digital humanities?

It is a question that eludes even the professionals and scholars of the field—let alone me, a humble student intern. There are many answers to the question, most of which can be categorized into three basic camps of thought: the crusaders, the conservatives, and the cynics. The first camp consists of those who believe that DH has the potential to disrupt and transform the world of information and knowledge. They are optimistic if not utopian. It is the realists who comprise the second camp. They recognize DH as a set of new digital tools that can augment more traditional humanities scholarship. If the crusaders explicate the reaches of DH, then the conservatives delineate its limits. Finally, there are the cynics. This censorious bunch believes DH to be the swan song of humanities itself, a last ditch effort made by increasingly defunded (read: irrelevant in today’s market society) humanities departments across the United States and the world at large.

Whichever camp one agrees and aligns herself with, it is relatively noninflammatory and perhaps agreeable to say that the trend towards the digital in the humanities bespeaks a wider trend toward the digital in our culture. In fact, the insight is..well, unremarkable.

We live in the era of big data, of amassing Brobdingnagian inventories of information so that they may be mined for specific purposes of either a commercial or educational nature, mostly. Statistical analysis and summarization is a useful skill to have nowadays, and the salaries for entry-level jobs in the tech world help support such a claim. What then is digital humanities without data? Documents such as articles, books, certificates, citations, film, illustrations, letters, photographs, receipts, and many more objects crowding archives everywhere all contain data within them. Traditional scholars make use of that data, or information; they examine it, unpack it, and assemble it so as to produce new knowledge—at least, that is the ideal of the métier.

It is that process of scholarship, or rather, data analytics I hope to replicate this summer with my fellow digital scholarship interns as we work with the digital collection of the Edward and Orra Hitchcock Papers. Some of the questions such an approach raises includes: What data lies dormant in the collection? How can it be surfaced and organized? What can we say about the data? What does the data reveal? How does it enrich our understanding of the lives of Edward and Orra Hitchcock? How do we impart our findings to others in an accessible and engaging way?

My aim is to have stimulating, thoughtful  answers to these and other questions that may surface along the way—answers that may help begin to illuminate the future direction of our interaction with the past through new means of technology. This is the start of that endeavor. Where we end up remains to be seen.

Introduction to All

What questions do you have after the first couple of days?

I arrived a bit late, but even after half a day of discussion and a couple of hardcore reading hours I’m filled with thoughts. We have not answered the question of “what is digital humanities” – and, for now, agreed not to have one, or to at least allow it to have its vagueness for now.

In addition, while I am all completely for the use of digital tools to look at primary sources and data, Daniel’s constant question, “What does the digital add to the project?” Many of the projects we looked at could have been done in a physical form rather than a digital one. Victoria’s second map from last year’s project, while incredibly appealing, could be made with some ingenious sliding mechanisms in a book. The linguistic analysis piece could have also been done by hand, albeit painstakingly.

As I’m thinking about the proper usage of digital humanities that helps the viewer better understand the material, I remembered about the Book of Kells, an Irish calligraphic version of the Bible made circa 800. I took a 3-day calligraphy class in high school; we watched the animated movie, “The Secret of Kells” (fantastic, unique, imaginative, 9/10, would recommend), gained a newfound appreciation for the book, and then proceeded to observe the book itself, in all its intricacy and beauty, through a digital collection of Trinity College in Dublin. What followed then was a practical demonstration of Irish calligraphy and then our own student trials of pen and ink. The movement from digital media to practical hands-on experience really solidified the small course and brought the students the most benefit in the most constrained time – a quality of efficiency that I hope to emulate in the less-pedagogical-more-research-oriented project.

This is the most famous page of the Book of Kells, the  Chi-Rho Page, named for the large character. 

Compare this image with Trinity College’s digitized version, which allows a fantastic amount of zoom (you need to scroll to folio 34 r to see it).

I’m not yet sure what  to do with this example yet except keep it as a model for a context where the use of DH helped more than hindered.

 

What are you particularly interested in exploring/learning this   summer?

 

I would like to know more about the concrete tools available for digital scholarship, which I suppose we as a team will be introduced to through workshop-like elements. Perhaps I can learn to tweak them to my advantage! After looking through the Edward and Orra White Hitchcock Finding Aid, I’m curious about seeing where their two strengths aid each other – his curiosity about dinosaur footprints, geology, and natural theology, and her accurate depiction of all things in the natural world. In addition, it would be interesting to compare the lecture notes that he used for teaching alongside her drawings, perhaps see the accuracy of their paired project as compared to current scientific drawings of the same objects.

What are you hoping to get out of this experience?

Most of all, a new range of skills that I could then carry on and use in other areas. My work with the Archives & Special Collections in the fall showed me alternative uses of traditional media – I’d like to see what else is possible with it. In all else, I know that everything I will learn will not come from me declaring it but rather living through the experience. I look forward to learning about these tools, researching the interesting people who are Edward and Orra White (who I have to explain and re-explain to all who ask me what exactly I am doing with my summer internship), and producing an insightful project with equally awesome people that can help others understand the interesting lives of our subjects.

Digitizing the Kim Wait Eisenberg

I’m a digitizer. I’ve been digitizing since I was ten years old and my mother told me to throw out some of the papers I had boxed (one file box for each grade, 1 – 4). I was instructed to snap photos with our bulky point-and-shoot and clear out the boxes. I’ve been doing that ever since, digitizing my own past once in a while (though I can’t say I’ve ever looked back at any of those photos). The key to any digitization that might happen through the KWE Collection, whether it be the covers of novels for images or texts of pre-1923 works for text mining (no, copyright does not and at this rate will not allow anything post-1923 to sink gracefully into public domain).

Some topics that have drifted across my radar in the KWE: