Blog Post

Digital Humanities Symposium: “Making it Digital: Scholarly Issues and Challenges”

Moderator: Berkely Hudson (University of Missouri, School of Journalism)


William Ferris (University of North Carolina) begins by saying that we're living in exciting times.  He showed a digital version of his book on an iPad, which streamlines the text and multimedia features of his project, as audio and video files and a hyperlinked bibliography of relevant websites are embedded directly in the text.  We can see where books are headed, he says, when you see all this multimedia material and what is possible.


Jeffrey Rydberg-Cox (University of Missouri-Kansas City) presented on “Social Networks and the Language of Greek Tragedy.”  Now that so many items are digitized, the new question is this: What do we do with a million books?  The initial answer is, you don't read it—you can't read it. 

So, how does close reading change when we have an unreadable corpus?  An N-Gram Viewer is one new way of reading.  N-Gram Viewer is a tool that allows you to see frequency of words when they come into a corpus.  You can see trends and emerging patterns to describe change over time. 

However, is this recognizable humanities scholarship?  Or is it statistical analysis?  How do we bridge the gap between distant reading and close reading?  We need to use statistical methods to help readers get oriented to and explore a work, and use computational analysis to support close reading and the construction of arguments about literature.  It allows us to analyze texts in ways that we couldn't before, which is useful if we can use this information to support close readings of texts. 

Rydberg-Cox uses social networking diagrams to visually demonstrate relationships between characters in literary works.  Adding linguistic data on top of these relationships gives us a sense of patterns: different colors, shapes and sizes mark class, gender, and frequency of speech for a character.  Students can use this information to make comparisons between which characters use first versus second person speech, past versus present verb tenses, etc. 

In addition, we can see how these qualities evolve over the course of the narrative or differ between groups of characters.  We can compute and visualize tendencies in order to help students explore and identify themes, so that visually mapping literature becomes a way of interpreting it.  Visual maps of social networks in The Iliad versus The Odyssey show exciting possibilities of connecting the ancient and the digital.


Betty Winfield (University of Missouri School of Journalism) discusses a past generation of accessing primary sources, and how digital tools might have made this research easier.  My second book took twelve years, she says, because it was pre-digital.  It wouldn't be this way today.  Or would it? 

The Franklin D. Roosevelt Library is still largely undigitized; only a portion of the secretarial files are online.  Many of the presidential libraries, Winfield notes, are not yet available online.  There are transcripts of FDR's press conferences, for instance, that are available in print, but the recordings are still largely limited to archives.  In addition, the few available digital recordings are of insufficient quality for researchers. 

Winfield's recent work is on the public communication and reputation of the Lewis & Clark Expedition members.  The journals have been compiled and digitized, searchable by date.  Woodblock plates in the journal, also available online, supplement textual with visual representation.  Reviews of the journals, including the Edinburgh Review, maps of the expedition route, and children's books about Lewis and Clark are also extensively digitized.  While there are gaps in the resources, this project demonstrates that there are extensive improvements to digital collections that make scholarly research more efficient.  Digital tools are an “alert” rather than an end: they point us to primary sources, and it is still necessary to follow the trail to other non-digitized resources.


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