Imagining new tools for humanities scholars

In my last post, I noted that most humanities scholars seem to want pretty basic tools that are rooted in immediate needs, tools that would, for example, allow them to convert files from one format to another, easily compose and exchange documents that use Unicode fonts, and find information quickly. Such tools would save scholars time and spare them from frustration.Even as the digital humanities community acknowledges (and serves) the need for basic tools, I believe that it should also continue innovating by developing applications for analyzing, mining and visualizing texts; annotating and searching images and video; collecting and sharing digital objects; etc. As more and more scholarly resources become available in digital formats, I think that humanities scholars will recognize a pressing need for tools that help them manage, analyze and share huge masses of information. It’s just difficult for people to imagine exactly what these tools would do. As the DLF found in its 2004 Scholars’ Panel, “so unfamiliar is this area that we heard from several individuals that they had a hard time articulating precisely what they required from such tools, or what level of software creation skills or consultancy is available to them, and where. We are still in a stage where it is easier to react to an example of an existing tool than to dream them up ex nihilo.”

But dang, it sure is fun–and useful–to dream up new tools. At the 2005 Summit on Digital Tools for the Humanities, participants were deeply and playfully engaged as they sketched out tools to support interpretation, exploration of resources, collaboration, and (my favorite) Visualization of Space, Time and Uncertainty. I love seeing what kind of imaginative tools and hacks Bill Turkel will come up with in his blog Digital History Hacks, such as history appliances.

Here’s my own wish list for scholarly tools. Most of these ideas come out of my practical need for tools to help me find and manage digital information, as well as my curiosity about how a tool from one domain (say, music) might work when applied to the scholarly domain. I’m beginning to regard Zotero as my scholarly workbench, so I’m imagining a lot of these tools as add-ons to Zotero (without the expectation that they would necessarily be developed by the Zotero team or included as part of the standard release).

  • Bibliography Ripper: I’m trying to determine how many of the works I cited in my dissertation are now available electronically, which is incredibly labor intensive, despite my crude attempts to use search tools such as Rollyo to speed up the process. Ideally I could feed my bibliography into a bibliography ripper (OK, perhaps it would need a softer name) that would allow me to select which entries I’d like to dump into a Zotero collection. Then it would automatically go out and search Google Scholar, Open Worldcat, etc. for each resource. If full-text is available, it would be automatically downloaded into my Zotero collection; otherwise, the call number would be captured. Of course, such a tool would be useful not only in allowing me to assemble a collection of research materials that I used before “going digital,” but in pulling citations from the works of other scholars, a common research practice.
  • Recommender: I’m tantalized by the recommendation engine planned for the next release of Zotero. I’d love a tool that would recommend resources based on what I already have in my research collections, saving me from having to go out and find them myself.
  • Auto-summarizer: Matt Kirschenbaum recently gave a wonderful talk on The Remaking of Reading: Data Mining and the Digital Humanities where he described scholarly practices of “not reading” (skimming, looking at bibliographies, reading summaries by others, etc) and distant reading (“using statistical, quantitative methods to ‘read’ large volumes of text at a distance”). Given the volume of information I’m trying to deal with, I could really use a tool that would offer reliable summaries of works (particularly if an abstract isn’t available) and would let me judge quickly whether I need to read more deeply.
  • Shuffle scholarly playlists: When I listen to my iPod on shuffle, I often notice connections among songs and details I had previously overlooked; randomness seems to foster attention. I wonder if a similar effect could be achieved by putting my research collections on shuffle, if my critical attention would be stimulated if I asked Zotero to give me a random article?
  • Authoring tools: I think one thing holding back digital scholarship is the lack of powerful, intuitive authoring tools. Sure, blogging and wiki software offers a number of advantages–ease of use, collaboration capabilities, etc. In particular, I see a lot of potential in WordPress. A student at Georgetown developed a well-designed, thoughtful “online research portfolio” about bachelorhood in nineteenth century American lit using WordPress. Developers are building WordPress plug-ins and themes geared towards scholarship, such as Courseware (which “enables you to manage a class with a WordPress blog”) and CommentPress (which “allows readers to comment paragraph by paragraph in the margins of a text”). I’m also a fan of the authoring tools provided by the open educational repository Connexions, which offers converters from Word to XML and a pretty simple edit-in-place interface. What I’m looking for, though, is a way to put together a layered, hypermedia scholarly work, kind of like a DVD with bonus materials. At this early stage, I envision having a track for my main argument, one for supporting materials (texts, images, audio, etc), one for a “making of” feature exploring the process of producing the project, and one for extras such as a Google Map showing where bachelor authors lived, a digital story using images and audio to explore literary bachelorhood, etc.

Maybe my dream tools are already out there (or really out there) or are being developed–I’d love to find out!


4 responses to “Imagining new tools for humanities scholars

  1. Glad you are finding Zotero useful for your work.

    We at CHNM are also developing an open-source publishing platform, Omeka (, for individuals and institutions looking to share their resources or collections online in an archive or through exhibit-style presentations. All of your archived items and exhibits are editable through the Omeka admin pages that, once installed, are available to you through any web interface.

    It is scalable so it works nicely for an individual looking to share their research in an online format or for a museum seeking to place portions of their collection on the web.

    We are still in private Beta testing now, but should have a stable release by March 2009. If you are interested in becoming one of our testers, email us:

  2. I’m not sure that this qualifies as a research tool, nor is it needed exclusively by humanists, but wouldn’t it be great to have a software application that allowed us to import, organize, tag, and sort PowerPoint and/or Keynote slides? Basically, I’m imagining a virtual slide library, that would allow you to keep track of the most up-to-date version of every slide. When you assembled a new presentation, you could then search, organize, edit, and export a presentation, without all of the usual, painstaking and inefficient copying and pasting from umpteen presentations. I’m pretty sure that no such thing exists–yet–but it could really streamline presentation making.

  3. Amen! You might check out MDID (, an open source image management and presentation tool developed by James Madison U. It has many of the features that you’re yearning for, such as the ability to establish image collections, tag objects, put together presentations (using a pretty nifty light table interface), archive slide shows, etc… Although it has some limitations (i.e, the presentation tool isn’t as flexible as PowerPoint), art historians here at Rice have been quite happy with it.

  4. You might take a look at a program called Storyspace at The software is commercial and expensive (at $295), but the product is in web-ready hypertext with no proprietary restrictions on its use (and no special reader required). I believe they have a trial version. I tried it a few years ago and was very impressed with it, but couldn’t afford it.

    I believe you could also accomplish your vision using Adobe Acrobat and pdf files. There are several programs that will produce pdf files from your word processing files, but with Adobe’s own (expensive) software you can edit them, create bookmarks, links, etc. I once turned a large (400-page) report into a set of smaller linked files using Adobe Acrobat, but it wasn’t easy or intuitive.

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