Digital Humanities in 2007 [Part 3 of 3]

In previous posts summing up digital humanities developments in 2007, I discussed efforts to develop the humanities cyberinfrastructure through new funding programs and organizations and reflected on questions of authority and reliability. In this final post, I’ll look at emerging forms of digital scholarship in the humanities as well as social networking. I’m sure I’ve missed a lot, so please add your own picks in the comments section.

  • e-Science as a model for the humanities? Funding agencies, scholarly societies, research libraries and the like are promoting e-Science, which the UK Research Council defines as “large scale science that will increasingly be carried out through distributed global collaborations enabled by the Internet. Typically, a feature of such collaborative scientific enterprises is that they will require access to very large data collections, very large scale computing resources and high performance visualisation back to the individual user scientists.” The NSF is investing millions in constructing the cyberinfrastructure for science. While the NEH is making admirable and energetic efforts to support digital humanities, its budget is much smaller than the NSF’s. In order to build more support for digital humanities, I think we need to continue to make the case to potential funders, university administrators, and colleagues, explaining what kind of research problems could be tackled if we had better tools and resources. Certainly papers such as the ACLS Report on Cyberinfrastructure for the Humanities & Social Sciences lay out a vision for digital humanities and describe what is needed, as does Cathy Davidson’s “Data Mining, Collaboration, and Institutional Infrastructure for Transforming Research and Teaching in the Human Sciences and Beyond.” Davidson recommends that humanities scholars move toward what she calls Humanities 2.0, which, like Web 2.0, is collaborative and user-driven. Already scholarship is being transformed by access to massive amounts of data, but Davidson proposes that humanities scholars follow the lead of scientists and embark on larger, more collaborative projects. She calls for collaboration across both disciplines and nations, insisting that humanities scholars provide vital perspective for scientific projects and that we must step outside our own cultural frameworks. Of course, as Davidson recognizes, humanities scholars are typically not rewarded for work on collaborative projects or for research that is not published as a book or article, so academic culture needs to change.
  • Emerging forms of digital scholarship: In 2007, a number digital humanities projects demonstrated how advanced computing can enable humanities researchers to tackle complex problems. For example:
    • 3D computer modeling: The release of IATH’s Rome Reborn, a precise digital model of Rome in late antiquity, illustrated the potential of computer modeling as a form of historical and archaeological scholarship. As users “walk” or “fly” through ancient Rome, they can come to a better understanding of how the city worked, such as how the massive size of monuments might have affected citizens’ perceptions of the grandeur of Rome. The demos of Rome Reborn are really cool, but I’m particularly interested in project’s plans to not only make available a detailed model of the city, but also to provide tools for analysis and scholarly communications. When I explore virtual spaces, I wonder how accurate they are and what evidence was used to justify representing a column or a mosaic in a particular way. Of course, you can assume that a research center like IATH will strive towards accuracy, but some decisions must still be based on conjecture, so being able to see the documentation supporting the design decisions would serve scholarship. With Rome Reborn, scholars will be able to add new layers of information using a “moderated wiki.” Rome Reborn may be made available through Second Life, which would make it more widely accessible but might raise other issues…
      After being hyped to death in 2006, Second Life itself is coming under scrutiny. In “Second Thoughts about Second Life,” Michael J. Bugeja outlined the liability risks universities face through their involvement in Second Life, particularly given the harassment (and worse) that regularly occurs in this world. Others have been skeptical about the educational potential of an environment that seems to focus on, er, adult entertainment. Yet I still see potential in SL for teaching and research. I helped to moderate the Second Life version of Rice’s De Lange Conference on Emerging Libraries and was impressed by the lively discussions that occurred during the sessions; being “virtually” present seemed to encourage dialogue. As the Chronicle of Higher Ed reports in Professor Avatar (subscription req), SL has been used successfully in classes on anthropology, as students study behavior in virtual worlds; communications, as students create and comment on virtual spaces; and literature, as students explore literary worlds such as Dante’s Inferno. Although Second Life faces many problems, both technical and cultural, I do think that 3D virtual worlds will play an increasingly important role in education, since they can allow people to explore phenomena that would otherwise be impossible to visualize (past societies, molecules, etc.) and provide immersive, interactive environments.
    • Text mining & visualization: MONK, “a digital environment designed to help humanities scholars discover and analyze patterns in the texts they study,” won a $1 million grant from the Mellon foundation. MONK is already producing great work, such as “‘Something that is interesting is interesting them’: Using Text Mining and Visualizations to Aid Interpreting Repetition in Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americansby Tanya Clement, et al. Clement not only shows how text mining tools can help scholars explore Stein’s use of repetition, but explains the process of designing and developing tools that meet the needs of literary scholars and enable discovery.
    • The database as a scholarly genre: The October PMLA featured a fascinating discussion of the database as genre with a lead-off essay by the Walt Whitman Archive co-editor Ed Folsom and responses by Jonathan Freedman, N. Katherine Hayles, Jerome McGann, Meredith L. McGill, and Peter Stallybrass. Citing Lev Manovich, Folsom argues that the database is “the genre of the twenty-first century,” a genre opposed to narrative because it accrues details rather than imposing a structure. Folsom says that the Walt Whitman Archive is actually (and virtually) a database that brings together distributed materials and enables reordering and random access. As I’ve found in a research project I did with my colleague Jane Segal, the Whitman Archive is itself a work of scholarship that has made invaluable contributions to Whitman studies, opening up new areas of inquiry by providing access to once-inaccessible work. According to Folsom,

      As databases contain ever greater detail, we may begin to wonder if narrative itself is under threat. We’ve always known that any history or theory could be undone if we could access the materials it ignored, but when archives were physical and scattered across the globe and thus often inaccessible, it was easier to accept a history until someone else did the arduous work of researching the archives and altering the history with data that had before been excluded. (1576)

      Humans define the data model and collect the data (or set up instruments to do so). What do databases leave out, and how might those omissions affect scholarship? How would one make an argument based only on data, without a narrative structure? In his reply to his respondents, Folsom revises his original metaphor of narrative and databases being at battle and instead adopts N. Katherine Hayles’ metaphor of them existing in a symbiotic relationship, with databases supplying the details that narratives arrange into a coherent set of claims. Still, I find the notion that databases, with their supposed comprehensiveness and malleability, allow users to challenge master narratives intriguing. But doesn’t the answer that you get when you query a database depend on how you set up the query and how you interpret the data that you get?

  • Social networking in higher-ed. If “Humanities 2.0” entails collaboration, data, and tools, what technologies are required to support collaborative work? The most visible example of social networking is probably Facebook, which took off in 2007 among the post-college crowd, sparking speculations about the potential uses of social networking in academia. By opening up its API to external developers, Facebook expanded its features and its audience, but it angered many users through its Beacon program, which violates privacy by making available purchasing information through a Facebook news feed. Most of the Facebook apps seem to be about entertainment (ranking your friends or turning them into zombies), but I think some apps, such as BooksIRead, could be used in an academic context. Through BooksIRead, you can keep track of your own reading, see what friends are reading, and find recommendations and reviews for other books you might like, participating in an intellectual community.
OCLC’s Sharing, Privacy & Trust in Our Networked World shows that the user population for social networking sites is large and growing. I wonder if social networking technologies can be harnessed to bring scholars together to communicate and tackle common problems. Nature may provide a model with its social networking site for scientists, Nature Network, which includes personal profiles, blogs, job postings, discussion boards, tagging, and groups. But it doesn’t seem like there’s been widespread adoption of this site yet, and to succeed sites focused on user-generated content need, um, users. According to the OCLC report, the top reasons that people join social networking sites is because their friends are there and to have fun. What would entice them to join professional social networking sites? I would assume that connecting with colleagues would also be a top reason, along with being able to raise your own research profile and get tangible rewards, such as new knowledge, or at least pointers to articles you really should read. In Social Factors in the Adoption of New Academic Communication Technologies, Paul Dimaggio makes the astute argument that network effects drive the adoption of new technologies: “Only when some critical mass of colleagues adopt the new technological approach do the rest fall into line.” Perhaps the focus should not be so much on networking as on working collaboratively and sharing information; NINES and HASTAC provide models for such collaborative sites in digital humanities.
  • “Green” digital humanities? In 2007, the threat of global warming seems to have finally entered the public consciousness, with the release of the report by the UN climate panel (IPCC) and the Nobel Prize going to AL Gore and the IPCC. I fear a dire future for my kids and am trying to reduce my carbon footprint, whether by putting all of the computers in our lab on power saving settings or by paying for carbon offsets/indulgences and zealously turning off lights. I wonder what role, if any, digital humanities might have in tackling global warming? On first glance, it seems that the goals of digital humanities have little to do with reducing greenhouse gases– if anything, powering all of our servers contributes to the problem. But perhaps digital humanities can make contributions to the cyberinfrastructure that will enable collaboration and innovation in confronting global warming as well as other challenges. And perhaps the tools and resources developed by the digital humanities community can support research by historians, theologians, philosophers, literary scholars, and others into the humanistic dimensions of the environment.

I wanted to see if my sense of important digital humanities ideas in 2007 jibed with other people’s perceptions, so, geek that I am, I counted the number of delicious bookmarks for each web page as well as blogs linking to it using the Bloglines Citations Bookmarklet. I should note that these statistics do not necessarily measure significance, just frequency of citation. This approach is URL dependent–if people bookmark or cite a different page on a web site, it wouldn’t be included in the count. The numbers come from late December, 2007 and early January, 2008, so they have undoubtedly changed.

Site # of delicious bookmarks # bloglines links
Digital Humanities Quarterly 22 6
“Our Cultural Commonwealth” 20 6
Digital Humanities Centers Summit 7 3
NEH/ IMLS Advancing Knowledge Grants 9 7
ACLS Digital Innovation fellowships 21 1
MacArthur/HASTAC Digital Media and Learning Competition 119 38
Digital Americanists 7 0
TEI@20: 20 Years of Supporting the Digital Humanities 4 16
Keen vs. Weinberger 307 205
Andrew Keen v. Emily Bell 72 49
WikiScanner 2449 1,460
Amazon Kindle 51 275
Grafton, Future Reading 60 254
Caleb Crain, “Twilight of the Books 86 439
Newsweek: The Future of Reading
354 822
NEA: To Read or Not to Read
56 106
Kirschenbaum, How Reading Is Being Reimagined 22 3
Jensen, The New Metrics of Scholarly Authority 111 50
University Publishing In A Digital Age 80 97
Symposium: The Future of Scholarly Communication 8 1
Google Books: Is It Good for History? 16 2
Inheritance and Loss: A Brief Survey of Google Books 27 75
The Google Exchange: Leary & Duguid 28 20
Google Books: Champagne or Sour Grapes? 7 7
Davidson, Data Mining, Collaboration, and Institutional Infrastructure for Transforming Research and Teaching in the Human Sciences and Beyond 3 3
Rome Reborn 1246 302
Second Thoughts about Second Life 50 28
Professor Avatar 10 6
MONK 5 20
Folsom, Database as Genre 0 0
OCLC, Sharing, Privacy & Trust in Our Networked World 267 215
Nature Network 139 2740

These statistics suggest that the community of digital humanities folks who are blogging and bookmarking is relatively small, since papers with a specific relevance to digital humanists typically didn’t get cited that much. Indeed, some of the works that I found most stimulating received few citations, which reflects the specialized nature of the field rather than the value of the work being cited. However, some topics of interest to digital humanities seemed to capture broad attention: virtual reality, the future of reading, the reliability of Wikipedia and other Web 2.0 sites, and social networking. Essays that were only available by subscription (such as articles in PMLA) had few citations, perhaps showing that open access publications have a greater impact.

What did I miss, or misunderstand?

5 responses to “Digital Humanities in 2007 [Part 3 of 3]

  1. Dear Lisa, This is just an incredible blog. I will exit this and blog about your blog to our HASTAC audience right now. Just great. Thank you for such a wonderful resource. Best wishes, Cathy Davidson aka Cat in the Stack (

  2. Pingback: Stephen Ramsay » Dear Readers

  3. This series of wrap-ups is great–I’m still absorbing them.

    Looks like the link to “MONK” is messed up.

  4. Pingback: Digital Humanities en el 2007 [parte 3] - Tapera

  5. Hi, just found this blog. Interesting. You may be interested in my latest Word Face-Off blog post which compares the Google search volume of 5 federal government agencies since 2004; I also look into the geographical differences.

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