Ways that digital resources can transform teaching and research, grand and small

While trying to determine how many articles in JSTOR and Project Muse cite Making of America (MOA), I stumbled across several articles that describe how databases such as MOA are beginning to transform humanities research. (Funny–when I look for this kind of evidence, I don’t find it, but when I’m not looking, there it is.) Most of the essays focus on how online collections enrich research by making available works that would otherwise be difficult to locate, but in one a social historian imagines large, collaborative projects in which information technology plays a crucial role.

According to Sandra Roff, researchers are discovering sources that they otherwise would not have found because they can run full-text searches on databases such as Making of America and American Periodical Series Online, 1740–1900. Describing her research into the history of the Free Academy, the precursor to the City University of New York, Roff writes:

The standard histories published before the development of the internet now prove to be incomplete since new information is easily retrieved from periodical literature using the new technology. These periodicals can provide a picture of all aspects of life during a particular time period of history, which adds a new dimension to previously static historical facts. Since there are a limited number of indexes available for the greater part of the nineteenth century, research has usually been restricted to periodical sources close to the subject locale or else to periodicals in a particular subject area. Going beyond these parameters often would yield few results and would be considerably time consuming. However, by using these databases, we discovered that news of the Free Academy was not local but had indeed spread around the country. Without the limitations of subject, author and title searching, which were the only way that historical indexes such as Poole’s or any of the indexed New York City newspapers could be searched prior to online databases, articles can now be retrieved using keyword searches. These Boolean searches can reveal mentions of subjects embedded in articles that might earlier had proven elusive even if the periodicals were searched.

Similarly, Charles La Porte argues that databases such as MOA are making it possible to study “obscure” ideas buried in Victorian periodicals:

What is new and exciting is our increasing access to formerly obscure Victorian ideas through online databases. The study of Victorian periodicals is flourishing today in part because Victorian print culture has never been more accessible, given indices like the Nineteenth Century Masterfile, and sites that reproduce Victorian journals like Chadwyck-Healey’s “Periodicals Contents Index” (PCI), the jointly-produced (and free) “Internet Library of Early Journals” (ILEJ) of the Universities of Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester, and Oxford, and the “Making of America” (MOA) database of Cornell and the University of Michigan. The growth of these and similar resources provides us not only more access to obscure poetry, but also to the print environment of known works, and to Victorian discussions of them.

Cynthia Patterson describes online access as a “bane and boon:” she used the web extensively to locate materials for her study of Philadelphia pictorial magazine, but worried that digitization would make her own research less unique and innovative, since everyone would now have access to the same materials she had so diligently pursued:

Like most scholars, I was finding the World Wide Web an unbelievably rich source for access to networking and research. About that time, I discovered the Research Society for American Periodicals, the Making of America collection at Cornell and Michigan, and the few issues of Godey’s available online. I also discovered Periodyssey, the rare book dealer in New York City, and quietly began buying up bound volumes, first of the Union, then of Graham’s, Godey’s and Peterson’s. I also took coursework through George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media. While I was fascinated with the work they were doing, digital access became a source of dread: I lived in fear that someone else would suddenly digitize the magazines in my study before I could finish my project!

To encourage students to conduct original research, teachers are promoting MOA and other databases that provide access to primary source materials. Christopher Hanlon laments the difficulty of getting students to do serious literary scholarship and explains how requiring them to use online databases such as Making of America for their research led them to produce more interesting, original work. For instance, one of his students drew on magazine articles drawn from MOA to show how the Swede in Crane’s “Blue Hotel” reflects late 19th C anxiety about Swedish immigration to the US.

By urging my students to use OCR databases to do historical research on literary texts, I was asking them to view the texts on our syllabus in Hayden White’s (1978: 81) sense of a ‘literary artifact,’ but more than that, I was urging them to take charge of their own experience of literature and hence the experience they were asking their readers to share in. Although students still don’t possess a deep sense of history, using online archives can empower students to do something we always ask of them but hardly ever equip them to accomplish: devise their own way into a text, and a way in about which we are, finally, interested.

As these comments suggest, it seems that researchers currently most value digital collections for providing enhanced access to a broader range of materials; my colleague Jane Segal and I reached a similar conclusion in our survey of humanities scholars last year. Through enhanced access, both the depth and breadth of research can be improved, as researchers uncover sources that would be otherwise difficult to discover and can quickly search a wide range of materials. Perhaps in the next five or ten years, researchers will also be saying that how they fundamentally do research and what kinds of questions they can pose have also changed, as projects such as MONK, NINES, etc. provide sophisticated tools for working with digital information and online environments for collaboration, publication, etc. (Or maybe they’re saying this already and I haven’t stumbled across those sources yet.)

In developing digital tools and methods, we should consider how they can help scholars tackle particular research challenges. Calling for historians to undertake “big,” collaborative social science research projects, Richard Steckel suggests that “large-scale archives” and “systematic information collection” can enable researchers to pursue ambitious projects, such as studying climate history, creating an international catalog of films and photographs, digitizing the notes of prominent historians, and creating a database of crime reports from 1800 to the present. He also proposes that historians digitize large collections of diaries and letters, citing MOA, Valley of the Shadow, and the Evans Early American Imprint Collection as examples of successful digitization projects. Although Steckel doesn’t use the term “digital scholarship,” he makes the case for research that requires collaboration, draws on large databases, uses computer-based tools such as GIS and statistical applications, and engages historians in producing documentaries and databases–which sure sounds like digital scholarship to me.

What qualifies as a “grand challenge” in the humanities? Such a question seems to drive initiatives to develop digital scholarship in the humanities. According to the report of the ACLS Commission on Cyberinfrastructure for the Humanities and Social Sciences, building the cyberinfrastructure is itself the humanities’ grand challenge. The AHRC e-Science Scoping Study acknowledges the difficulty of describing specific grand challenges, but points to a few possibilities: developing tools for researchers that facilitate “annotating, collating, visualising and simulating the digital content created and used within their research,” as well as “new collaborative tools and virtual collaborative environments.” Steckel’s climate history idea particularly resonates with me, freaked out as I am about climate change, but other ambitious collaborative projects spring to mind: initiatives that aim to make the humanities more global and interdisciplinary (such as Mappamundi), major GIS projects (such as Africa Map), open access data archives (such as OpenContext), etc. Given the NEH’s recently-announced high-performance computing initiative, I also wonder about the possibilities of using supercomputers to conduct complex queries across massive collections of texts, construct 3D models of cultural heritage sites, run simulations of both historical and literary events, etc.

While I’m on the subject of grand challenges and big projects, in a compelling article in the most recent Literary & Linguistic Computing, Patrick Juola argues for “Killer Applications in Digital Humanities,” which he defines as “a solution sufficiently interesting to, by itself, retrospectively justify looking [at?] the problem it solves—a Great Problem that can both empower and inspire.” Juola suggests that to make digital humanities more relevant to the broader humanities community, it should develop tools that serve “the needs of mainstream humanities scholars.” As examples of potential “killer apps,” Juola describes tools that would enable humanities scholars to automatically create back-of-the-book indices, annotate works, and discover and explore resources.

Amen. I am excited by the potential of big projects and killer apps to open up new discoveries and methods, build knowledge, serve the social good, etc. However, I hope we don’t lose sight of the contributions that small, focused projects can make as well. As an example of the mismatch between scholars’ needs and the tools developed by digital humanities folks, Juola points to an electronic scholarly edition of Clotel, which allows readers to compare passages and track changes. According to Juola, “it is not clear who among Clotel scholars will be interested in using this capacity or this edition,” and the annotation capabilities cannot be applied to other texts. But I think such a comment may reflect an all-too-common underappreciation of textual scholarship. Since Clotel exists in 4 versions, being able to compare passages is of real benefit to researchers. It’s not as if this project was created without consulting with sholars; indeed, the editor is a distinguished scholar of African-American literature. Although I certainly agree that digital humanities projects should focus on researchers’ needs (hence the significance of projects such as Bamboo, which are trying to discern those needs), I also believe that innovative methods of exploring and representing knowledge can come out experiments such as the Clotel edition. (I should acknowledge that I’m pals with some of the folks involved in developing this electronic edition.) Of course, ideally experimental tools and interfaces would be developed in as open a fashion as possible so that other projects can build on the work. As the examples I cited at the beginning of this post illustrate, big projects–text collections, databases, annotation tools, GIS maps, etc–can facilitate research into more focused topics, which in turn can contribute to our understanding of the big picture or lead us to a small but nonetheless dazzling insight.

Works Cited:

Hanlon, Christopher. “History on the Cheap: Using the Online Archive to Make Historicists out of Undergrads.” Pedagogy 5.1 (2005): 97-101. <http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/pedagogy/v005/5.1hanlon.html&gt;.

Juola, Patrick. “Killer Applications in Digital Humanities.” Lit Linguist Computing 23.1 (2008): 73-83. 15 May 2008 <http://llc.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/23/1/73&gt;.

LaPorte, Charles. “Post-Romantic Ideologies and Victorian Poetic Practice, or, the Future of Criticism at the Present Time.” Victorian Poetry 41.4 (2004): 519-525. 7 May 2008 <http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/victorian_poetry/v041/41.4laporte.html&gt;.

Patterson, Cynthia. “Access: Bane and Boon.” American Periodicals: A Journal of History, Criticism, and Bibliography 17.1 (2007): 117-118. 7 May 2008 <http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/american_periodicals/v017/17.1patterson.html&gt;.

Roff, Sandra Shoiock. “From the Field: A Case Study in Using Historical Periodical Databases to Revise Previous Research.” American Periodicals: A Journal of History, Criticism, and Bibliography 18.1 (2008): 96-100. <http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/american_periodicals/v018/18.1roff.html&gt;.

Steckel, Richard H. (Richard Hall). “Big Social Science History.” Social Science History 31.1 (2007): 1-34. <http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/social_science_history/v031/31.1steckel.html&gt;.

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4 responses to “Ways that digital resources can transform teaching and research, grand and small

  1. I think that the fear of giving away one’s work and not receiving enough credit for it is very clearly exemplified in Cynthia Patterson’s citation. Something very influential – a book widely read? – would have to happen in order to make the scholars confident their early work will also bee gratefully received.

  2. @n. braguinski: Thanks for the comment. Yes, getting proper credit is a key issue for digital scholarship. Still, I can certainly understand the frustration when you’ve put a lot of time into searching for and analyzing the print version of a resource, only to see the digital version make it possible for others to do the same work in a fraction of the time and get the same credit. Of course, it’s all for the good that research can be made much more efficient through access to digital resources–and I think Patterson would certainly agree.

  3. Pingback: Huygens weblog elektronisch publiceren - De editie van Clotel en veranderingen in het onderzoek

  4. Pingback: Huygens weblog elektronisch publiceren » Blog Archive » De editie van Clotel en veranderingen in het onderzoek

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