2014 NEH Digital Humanities Project Directors Meeting

The 2014 NEH Digital Humanities Project Directors Meeting occurred September 15th at the new headquarters of the National Endowment for the Humanities in Washington, DC. The morning meeting was open for project directors only while the afternoon session was open to the general public.

The Keynote Speaker was Michael Witmore, Director of the Folger Shakespeare Library. His talk was titled ‘Adjacencies Virtuous and Vicious in the Digital Spaces of Libraries.’  From the NEH web site:

This talk will explore how techniques of discovery — scanning shelves, exploring digital texts and catalogues — may change the nature of research conducted in Libraries. The argument: with the advent of massively searchable digital corpora, the uses and advantages of “nearness” in Libraries will change.

As more and more books become availabe online (e.g. see the recent EEBO announcement), this type of work will increase in value.

Dr. Witmore began by talking about working with books: “Even when we are working with books, we work in a multi-dimensional space accessed in different ways.” The priniciple of adjacency is a virtuous one.  You structure a space by subject for example, a book next to one another.  However, just because it is related to another book doesn’t mean you are interested in it.  The same principle that makes adjacency virtuous in this pursuit will NOT mean that your next question will be well served by adjacency.  Take a look at the example from As You Like it (Act 4, Scene 1):

No, no, Orlando, men are April when they woo, December when they wed. Maids are May when they are maids, but the sky changes when they are wives. I will be more jealous of thee than a Barbary cock- pigeon over his hen, more clamorous than a parrot against rain, more newfangled than an ape, more giddy in my desires than a monkey.

Searching for the word ‘monkey’ will illuminate different meanings and contexts in other works.  Searching by words in the digital realm will ‘arrange’ works on the ‘shelves’ differently, depending on your research question.  Adjacency becomes vicious in that works will appear that are irrelevant to your question.

Another point that Dr. Witmore makes is that we suffer from the scarcity of attention in that we can only pursue one topic at a time.  Every door opened by digital access is a fork in the road; what is often called ‘opportuntity cost.’  This problem does not create access; it creates vertigo.

Near, Similar or Far Away

How can we arrange shelves in order to bump into something you need next?

1.  We begin with spreadsheets (e.g. VARD 2, tagged with Docuscope).

2.  From the corpus Visualizing English Print, 1530-1800, we selected at random 1080 texts, 27 decades, 40 texts per decade, from the Early English Books Online, TCP corpus.

3.  Serendip (created by Eric Alexander) was selected for topic modeling and LDA (Latent Dirichlet Allocation).

Serendip Serendip

You can see a demo on Vimeo, a poster, and a summary.

We want more than keywords; we want to know what the words are doing in the text. We can search texts for beretta (type of violin?) and novels and rearrange the shelf to see what appears, how often, and in what context.   By re-ordering the ‘shelves’ by topic and work, we can look at the word in the context and know immediately why it works; a computer is just the opposite. We can classify the texts by genre. eg. religious verse, philosophy, etc.

Looking in two different works–Euphania (sic) a novel with the Theory of Moral Sentiments by Adam Smith (1759), treatise on ethics.  Here are two different genres that have similar moral-philosophical concepts dealing with the mechanics of sympathy.

Finding Worthwhile Questions

We are not creating reference works: concordances, etc.  with this study. These questions dererive from individuals and the works in the library.  Since we can only entertain one question at a time, THAT is what makes our research important.

What are the Humanities? The humanities raise questions that take a lifetime (or several lifetimes) to answer. Some of the best folks to answer this question will be computer scientists who also have a grounding in the humanities.  They will be able to ask the right questions.

The next part of the program were Lightning rounds by the 2014 award winners of the NEH’s Office of Digital Humanities.  The awards are divided into implementation grants, start-up grants, Institutes for Advanced Topics in the Digital Humanities, and Digital Humanities Special Projects & Cooperative Agreements.

Scaling Up and Out: Moving Beyond the Start-Up Phase of a Digital Project

The last session was a roundtable discussion on possible directions for grant projects who want to move beyond the start-up stage.

Some interesting quotes and links:

Media Commons started small and added new projects. Check out In Media Res.

Three themes recommended by the roundtable: focus, commitment, and communication.

Focus: Have a long term focus on project goals, research goals and deliverables over a 10 year timeline. Short term concentration should focus on the tasks at hand.  Someone quoted Ray Siemens: “large groups get together and problematize to the point of inaction.”

Commitment:  It is important to commit to the project and course of action in place. In other words, to quote Jennifer Guiliano from the Project Development course I took at HILT in August:  don’t chase the shiny new thing.

Finally, communication skills are a good thing. As point person, you need to lead discussions. As a friend of Lisa Schneider said, “Projects tend to reflect the disfunction of their leaders.”  The existence and use of a tool (e.g. Basecamp) does not guarantee communication.

Jennifer Serventi ended the roundtable with a discussion on scaling out.

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One thought on “2014 NEH Digital Humanities Project Directors Meeting

  1. Reblogged this on Project Andvari: Workshop Blog and commented:
    A huge thanks to Kevin Gunn for fantastic blogging of the NEH Project Directors meeting on Monday. The Project Andvari team was on hand to learn about some of the other amazing projects being funded through NEH support. Check out Kevin’s post for a great summary of the day’s events.

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