Illuminating historical networks

Following the great session proposals by Lincoln, Aaron (in both what researchers want and is it really you?), and Colin, I would also be interested in exploring the uses of networks and databases in the practice of digital humanities. In particular, I would like to discuss how we can rethink the way that archival records are organized and displayed online, to more effectively present the networks of ideas, goods, and people that are often at the center of historical work.

I work on Atlantic abolition movements, and most of my research concerns tracing very geographically broad networks of people and ideas as they moved throughout the Atlantic basin. As I work to illuminate these networks, I can’t help but think that in many cases, I am re-doing work that has been previously done by others. Could historians, like scientists, get into the habit of putting their data online for the benefit of others? What barriers, technological and otherwise, currently prevent historians from doing this? What sort of infrastructure would we need to create in order to enable this sort of information sharing in an organized and coherent manner? How might we reconceptualize the archive to incorporate data sharing?

Related to these issues, I am intrigued by the way that most online archives are still organized around discrete collections of documents, even though most documents, such as letters, books, broadsides, and land records, were created as part of much larger networks of exchange that go far beyond the boundaries of collections. How might we use digital technology to better display the connections between documents and collections? Would it be possible to foreground these networks by making them an access point to archival material? This is obviously largely a problem of limited resources – archivists don’t often have the time to undertake these sorts of massive projects. With that in mind, could we make the creation of these networks into a participatory endeavor that leverages the expertise and work of both archivists and historians?

I think that many of the more technical questions that Aaron and Lincoln brought up in their session proposals are central to thinking about this, and I’d love to have a session made up of archivists and historians to talk about the issues around displaying historical networks.


Is it really you?

A somewhat less amorphous proposal…

I’ve been thinking a lot about how we can define who someone really is on the Web. With bibliographic material, we have the Library of Congress Name Authority File, which, though Orwellian sounding, does a fairly good job helping us differentiate the John Smith who romanced Pocahontas from the John Smith who wrote the definitive biography of Benny Hill. This business becomes a little more complicated, however, with archival material on the Web. Archival collections are filled with obscure people, whose roles in history, while not individually significant enough to make it into a high school text book, or the Name Authority File for that matter, are important because of their associations with significant movements, historical events, or other like minded and sometimes more famous people.

Mining archival material for these associations can be complicated. How do we know that the John Smith who has letters in the Big Famous Guy Papers is the same John Smith that is recorded in notes that are part of the Import Student Revolutionary Movement collection as having attended some significant meeting. As anyone can imagine, this problem becomes even more significant when archiving contemporary collections of individuals who are represented on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and in chat rooms…

Tools like FOAF, EAC, and FRAD are emerging for disambiguating individuals and defining their identities throughout their distributed representations on the Web and in archival collections in widespread repositories. How might these tools work in systems that publish archival material on the Web and what impact on research in the humanities might these different approaches have?


What researchers want

This is a rather amorphous session proposal but it gets at a discussion that I would love to have at THATCamp this weekend.

At the University of Massachusetts, we’ve started large-scale digitization projects that in the next two years will put more than a hundred thousand digital objects online, with thousands more in the near future.  As we weave together descriptions of individual documents in MODS, TEI transcriptions, RDF encoded relationships for collection structure, and EAD encoded finding aids, it’s become clear that there is a lot of potential in this rich and varied metadata to deliver researchers customized access to our digitized primary source material.

I would love to hear from humanities researchers how you envision using these resources.  At first, ignoring the specific technologies involved, fantasize about ideal research environments for digitized primary sources.  What kinds of data mining/manipulation, visualization, or integration would help your research?  Do you want APIs directly into XML-encoded metadata; do you want linked data that allows you to use the tools of the Semantic Web to interrogate data from primary sources; or do you want shiny, end-user applications that make use of these magical tools to bring you polished presentations of primary source data and information.

As a digital archivist, I see huge potential in the digital content that archives are publishing.  It would be exciting to meet minds about how this potential might shape humanities research and what we can do make access to our digital content better.


Dork Shorts: Get Ready Now

One of the plenary sessions this weekend will be dedicated to what we call “dork shorts.” The idea is simple: anyone who wants gets two minutes to introduce a project that he or she is working on. That’s two (2) minutes as in 120 seconds, not two minutes as in ten minutes. You’ll have the use of a web browser projected on screen, and that’s it. It’s a great way to get a quick look at a lot of projects.

If you’re interested, leave a comment below, or sign up on Saturday morning. We’ll have as many presentations as we have time, first come, first served.


From Punch Cards to BootCamp

This isn’t a session proposal; that can be found here. Rather, this is a reflection that I recently posted to my much neglected blog and was invited  to post here as well.  

My experience at THATCAMP New England promises to be quite different than my first un-conference encounter back in May at the Center for History and New Media. That first exposure felt like a dizzying plunge off the deep end into a freewheeling yet purposeful culture of conversation, creative energy and camaraderie.

Yes, “more hack, less yack” emerged as the unofficial theme for that spring weekend but, for a relative newcomer like me, who has plenty of yack but very little hack, talking about ideas, projects and the issues confronting digital humanities seemed within reach whereas hacking did not. (This said, I still sat in on a few of the programming-oriented sessions, if only to absorb the spirit of things while the content soared over my head.)  Overall, I observed much, contributed a little and came away inspired by the different models of digital scholarship that I’d encountered—in both human and project form.

My lack of technical know-how continued to nag at me, however. For this reason, I kept thinking back to a session on BootCamp organizing that I sat in on briefly. How great would it be, I thought, if I could attend a series of workshops designed to help folks like me build some of the basic technical skills needed not only to do the work of digital humanities but also to collaborate more effectively with the technical experts who support and partner with us?  Well, I’ll soon find out exactly what it is like to attend such workshops.  The chief reason my THATCamp New England experience promises to be different than my first un-conference is that I will be participating in all the BootCamp sessions being offered.

I plan report on my experiences as part of my contributions as a HASTAC scholar this year. Since I first stumbled upon this enterprise that (some of us) call digital humanities or digital scholarship, I’ve been interested in how it is (beyond DIY) that one acquires useful skills and becomes a part of this dynamic, diffuse, diverse community. So, I hope by chronicling my journey that I’ll help demystify the process for anyone else out there who is drawn by the buzz of excitement but uncertain about how to find their footing on unfamiliar terrain. Heck, the last time I made a foray into the hack side of things it involved an undergraduate class “CIS 197: Introduction to Computer Programming: Pascal” in the punch-card era!

Now, if I can only decide on the appropriate footwear. Boots at Bootcamp too last season?


Making DH Multilingual

Brief version

I’d like to have a practical session for (1) identifying DH tools (or sites, though that’s a little trickier) that need multilingual user interfaces and (2) taking the first steps toward making a MUI for one or more of them.

Long version

Most technology for learning languages, in my brief experience, is not even chocolate-covered broccoli — it’s carob-covered broccoli at best (or maybe broccoli ice cream). However, engaging students with an institution’s library and museum holdings through DH work provides them a way to strengthen their language abilities and DH abilities in tandem, and to see how language learning can open up new perspectives on their studies and new options for their academic (or other) life paths.

While I am always excited to see the wonderful tools coming out of the DH hacker community, it strikes me often that they are missing multilinguality. While localizing/internationalizing an application is not simple, the success of WordPress in getting translations for the core components is encouraging. (And yet: Even WordPress does not expose the multilinguality level of a plugin, leaving users hanging when they just want to find, say, a plugin to send messages in correctly formatted Hebrew to subscribers.) In keeping with the “more hack, less yak” motto, I’d like to get together THATCampers interested in doing DH in languages other than English to identify some important tools/sites that would benefit from crowdsourced translation, and then to start taking steps toward getting this translation done. My thought is that I’m talking about tools that can be used in or hacked for use in pedagogy, but there’s no reason we can’t look at research tools or library tools or museum tools or anything else. I’m certainly not talking about tools that were designed for language learning or SLA research, such as corpora.

The big kick in the pants is that I’m green enough that I don’t really know how best to start with such a project. (What are the most widely used? What tools are targeted at multilingual users?) This session would need people either who know more about the tool landscape than I or participants willing to do a bit of discovery/exploration first.


Database Design for the Humanities

I’d like to discuss best practices in designing databases for humanities research. I don’t mean software that creates or depends on databases, like Omeka or WordPress for public presentation. I mean more designing databases for research in the history. I’d like to compile a group of databases used for historical analysis, and dissect them to see how they work. How do they structure and normalize data? How is the data coded? What formats are best? How can databases be made publicly available? How was the data compiled and entered? What uses can be found for databases beyond their original purpose?

To that end, here are a few examples of historical databases that I know of off-hand. I’d be glad for more examples, before or during this session.


The Paperless Professor

Thus far this semester, I have exchanged precisely 0 pieces of paper with my students. Additionally, I have exchanged exactly 0 MSWord documents. (Oddly, the latter has been far more difficult than the former to maintain!) This session will discuss a variety of tools for classroom planning, class prep, “handouts,” readings, discussions, and all of the work of teaching in a paper-free way. I’m not imagining a hardware intensive discussion (e.g. if we all have ipads we can do…). Some specifics I can talk about include: WordPress in the classroom, Scrivener as a class planning and archiving tool, and using Wordle for really a wacky number of things. As a mac user on a PC campus, I can also speak to some of the cross-platform pitfalls. I’m also excited to hear discussion of others’ classroom, class planning, and teaching techniques.

Interestingly, not long after I posted this, I saw this article. Perhaps we can discuss the ethical and class issues around assuming access to the technology required to be paperless as well!


Network analysis… and distant reading (topic-modeling)?

I’d like to propose a session on network analysis. My own project is a historical social network analysis of the German intelligentsia during the Enlightenment period. It relates people by ties such as family, patronage, or citing one another’s work. I would like to talk with people at THATCamp about the project and see other people’s network projects. I’d really like to find a collaborator or two, perhaps especially someone who is more tech-savvy than I am with databases and visualization/analysis software. A later phase of my project will involve OCR’ing texts I have scanned in by the intellectuals being studied, and then running topic-modeling (text-mining) software on the texts to come up with keywords. These keywords would then form other nodes in the growing network, which would then include people, institutions, books and ideas. Possible topics to discuss during a THATCamp session:

–designing the architecture of a database, in e.g. MS Access or FileMaker

–what kind of projects are good for network analysis?

–good database software to use

–visualization software, e.g. NetworkWorkbench

–topic-modeling (a subject I know only the tiniest bit about)


Collaborative DIY digitization and virtual research environments

First of all, I think Clarissa, Carrie, Lincoln, and to some extent Cathleen have raised issues that I’m very interested in– all related to how researchers might build and use collections of digital sources, either individually or collaboratively. As a history researcher who’s worked in lots of different archives, I can do a brief show-and-tell of the materials I use for digitizing and organizing sources and talk about what’s worked well and not-so-well for me. (I’ve spoken about this before, but I figure there are always people who want to learn this stuff.) I’ve relied on command-line tools and basic automation with OS X tools rather than on Omeka, mostly because working with raw images is much faster for handling the number of sources I use.

More relevant to my own work, I’d like to discuss the specific case of government-held archival collections, like those at National Archives repositories, and the possibility that researchers can work together to collaboratively digitize the materials we use. I’ve been thinking about this specifically in relation to an important women’s history collection, and I’d love to brainstorm with people about what the next steps should be for such a project.

I’d also be very interested in talking with library/IT professionals who’ve installed Fedora Commons and/or Islandora for use as a research-data infrastructure. My sense is that both of those are designed for larger-scale applications than Omeka usually handles, but that they also require a correspondingly large investment of time and funding– which means that even if they’re better tools for what I need, they’re impractical to use at the dissertation level. Can we envision cross-institutional collaborations to solve this problem of virtual research environments for humanities scholars, and if so, what forms might those collaborations take?

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