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.

Marie’s Post

It’s only my second day as a Digital Scholarship Summer Intern and already I’m wishing that I could go back to college. Or rather, I feel that I somehow haven’t quite graduated yet—after all, I am still here, surrounded by Amherst’s verdant June beauty that so quickly makes one forget the pain and stress of semesters past—and that this summer of exploration in digital humanities scholarship is just the natural continuation of the education I pursued during my past four years at this college.

Because although it’s only my second day as a Digital Scholarship Summer Intern, from what little two-day introductory exploration I’ve done in the field of digital humanities (DH), studying and working in this field already feels so important and so relevant to the liberal arts education I spent four years working towards that I can’t believe I wasn’t more exposed to it during that time. At this point, it’s still difficult for me to pin down exactly what it is about DH that excites me so much intellectually.

Part of this difficulty stems from my struggle to define what exactly DH is—a question that the DH community itself still wrestles with. Answers from those who work within the community (http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/40) range from exhaustively descriptive—”Digital Humanities is the integration of sophisticated, empirical techniques utilizing tools and technologies typically associated with practical sciences into the study of traditional humanities questions,” via Elijah Meeks of Stanford University—to pithy—”A term of tactical convenience,” says Matthew Kirschenbaum of the University of Maryland.

For me, Ed Finn (Stanford University) has produced the most helpful and intriguing definition for me so far:

For now, digital humanities defines the overlap between humanities research and digital tools. But the humanities are the study of cultural life, and our cultural life will soon be inextricably bound up with digital media.

DH both excites me and intimidates me a little bit: it feels like a challenge. As an avid childhood reader turned English major, I can get 100% behind the “h” of DH, but am a bit unsure of the “d.” My love for the traditional analogue liberal arts entirely took over my education, and I have no experience with coding, web design, or many of the other digital skills that seem to be so ubiquitous in the DH community.

But I’m only a semi-Luddite in practice, not in theory, and while it’s an unfamiliar and uncomfortable feeling to admit that I’m nearly illiterate in a certain field, I also want to use this summer as a continuing education experience—not because I’m afraid of falling “behind with the times” or as a way of preparing for the supplanting of the analogue humanities by digital technologies, but because I truly see so much potential that these digital tools offer in examining texts (and a variety of other resources) from new perspectives. In a concrete, practical sense, I would like to walk away from this summer with some applicable new skills. I’d like to be less intimidated and unsure of myself when working with digital tools in general, and I’d like to have not just the vocabulary to build further on these skills but the confidence and drive to do so. I’m not sold that DH is the savior of the humanities, or that the humanities need saving, but I am open to the possibility that my study of the humanities (and the way I communicate it to others) can be enriched by the tools that DH has to offer.

If I can say one thing for certain about DH, it is that it is constantly moving, evolving, in flux. It began as a set of methodologies but became a community, one that is using innovative digital technology not only to address questions within the humanities but also turning the tradition of humanistic inquiry around to examine the technology that suffuses our lives.

Oddly, I believe that this hits close to the mark of what compels and fascinates me about DH: it allows me a framework to both utilize and critique the increasingly digitized world, and it assures me that despite what cynics and “doomsday”-ers may cry, this burgeoning world is not antithetical to or excluded from the range of humanistic inquiry that I’ve learned of (and learned to love) through the liberal arts.

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.

Put a Bow on It! A Summer’s Worth of Digital Scholarship Comes to an End

It’s been a while since we’ve last posted, but not for lack of activity. Like a trio of academic bees, we’ve been buzzing around the library for the last several weeks, working hard on our digital projects and the larger website that houses them. With the projects completed and the internship coming to a close, we encourage you to visit our site, DH Blueprints: Teaching Digital  Humanities by Example. Like the tagline suggests, we’ve created and presented our digital projects as the focal point of this educational sight with the intent of providing models for students and teachers to learn more about what goes into a digital project. We’ve also included a wide range of information that we hope gives a broad overview of digital humanities, from its origins to contemporary interests within the field to its terminology.  Continue reading Put a Bow on It! A Summer’s Worth of Digital Scholarship Comes to an End

DH Blueprints is Live and Ready to Teach by Example

DH Blueprints is live and ready to teach by example. Visit our final project website, DH Blueprints. There you can see what came of our projects as well as the various resources we compiled for people interested in learning more about the exciting field of digital humanities. A more in depth recap is forthcoming.

(Image Credit: Libby Dowdall)

From Exploration to Development

Since June, my work for the Digital Scholarship Summer Internship at Amherst has been dominated by exploration. Throughout my time working as an intern this summer at Frost Library, I’ve had the opportunity to digitize nineteenth-century Emily Dickinson poems, attend data visualization conference workshops, consult with Native American scholars about digital scholarship possibilities for Amherst’s own Native American book collection, and contribute to this blog. The list goes on and on.

But this week ends on a different note as the supervising staff helped us mark deadlines for our final projects and its components. In late August, our DH initiative must transform from an abstract idea to an actual digital experience for others to explore.  What we’re trying to do is develop an educational webspace featuring a few model projects in digital scholarship that could serve as examples for fellow undergraduate students, especially those unfamiliar with digital scholarship.

Continue reading From Exploration to Development

Where Am I and How Did I Get Here?

My individual digital scholarship project, which is now part of our collaborative ‘meta-project’ around digital scholarship, has changed a great deal in the last few weeks. And it’s changed even more since I first began to envision what our collective digital project would be. Initially, I wanted to explore a project that would map the publication data of the Native American books collection. Then, I wanted to plot geographic locations within various books to see what Native American authors were writing about a given region in the U.S.  over time. And now, I’ve shifted to using text analysis programs and methodologies to compare two different Iroquois creation stories written by Tuscarora authors. How’d this happen? Continue reading Where Am I and How Did I Get Here?

June and July – Process Dissected

Part of the goal of our internship is to provide adequate documentation of our process. Whereas some websites leave you hanging as how something was created or how to use it as a source, one of our aims aside from exploring the Kim-Wait Eisenberg Native American books has always been to provide transparency. To start off this process, it will be helpful to begin recounting the process thus far. Rather than boring everyone to sleep with a timeline of what happened, I’ll just cover a few salient topics.

Continue reading June and July – Process Dissected

Reviewing Jing and Animoto by Using Jing and Animoto

We’ve been looking at different programs that might help us, either as a form of digital storytelling related to the books or as a way to introduce our project. Two programs on the table today are Jing and Animoto. Jing is a screen capture program and Animoto makes video slideshows. To switch things up, I decided to use the programs to give a demo of each. You can click here to check out my short demo for making a slideshow in Animoto. And here is my slide show on Jing. Continue reading Reviewing Jing and Animoto by Using Jing and Animoto

Bringing the “Human” into the Digital Humanities

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Not too long ago, my fellow interns and I met with visiting scholars from The American Antiquarian Society to discuss how digital scholarship can enhance the field of Native American Studies. (Victoria Turner wrote an excellent post about that dialogue with those AAS Fellows). One of the most enlightening moments of that discussion was when the AAS Fellows revealed the slight discomfort that humanities scholars have with the digital humanities. Despite all of the possibilities of DH to expand access to literary and historical knowledge, they suggested that at times, digitization can actually distance scholars from the original works. I definitely agree: reading through a digitized text of an original work can be quite different than actually holding the physical edition with your hands (it’s part of why I still prefer checking out books from the library over e-books). The book covers in the Kim-Wait Eisenberg Collection of Native American literature provide a unique, distinct historical field of study in their own right. Viewing digitized book covers, author portraits, and illustrations could help to humanize and enhance the experience of interacting with an otherwise unexicting electronic text.

Continue reading Bringing the “Human” into the Digital Humanities