Jean Bauer (Associate Director of the Center for Digital Humanities at Princeton University) gave an excellent presentation titled This Just Got Meta: Bibliographic Description, Data Visualization + Digital Humanities in Libraries at American University, Bender Library on April 21st. The talk was part of their Colloquium on Scholarly Communication series. Bauer talked about the relationship between library catalog data, archival data and digital humanities projects. How do DH scholars use library metadata for their research and DH projects? How can these projects be used to showcase library material? How can librarians help DH scholars using Linked Open Data methods?
Bauer’s background is in American History with hands on experience building databases. Early on in her career–pursuing her Ph.D.–as Bauer worked on projects such as Project Quincy, Documents Compass, and the Dolley Madison Social Events Database, she came to realize that there are many ways a person interacts with the world and the bibliographical information documenting this could be shared through open linked data. She has created several annotated diagrams reflecting these complexities.
Here we have the realization that this data has been here for a long time but we just didn’t notice. Library catalog records predate relational databases, XML, and other formats.
Bauer echoed the point made by Deb Verhoeven in her paper Doing the Sheep Good: Facilitating Engagement in Digital Humanities and Creative Arts Research: “…we don’t just learn from the data itself but also from the way that data is used and reused.”
Bauer talked about DPLA and the many has many apps created to use and manipulate the metadata.
Yet all data and metadata are theory-laden. Borg and Sadler in their article Feminism and the Future of Library Discovery write about the myriad of ways “the practices of libraries and librarians influence the diversity (or lack thereof) of scholarship and information access.” (worth the read!).
Bauer used the example of the Mapping Colonial Americas Publishing Project (created by Jim Egan and Jean Bauer) that uses the American Antiquarian Society database (downloaded in a CSV file, 40,000 records) and the Brown University Library catalog.
Once this open data is linked, research questions were posed from the project asked about this project: What can subjects tell us about genres? How do library catalog shape literary fields? How do collections reframe book history? What should be the [eye]space of colonial publishing? Can literary history be told visually? Can we investigate zones of printing? Can we build visual portals for students and scholars?
Bauer views DH projects to be specialized libraries–designed to answer specific humanities research questions and library catalogs can be used to answer research questions by humanities scholars. Book history requires specialized catalog records whereas the move to simplify library catalogs for public consumption (and you don’t want to anyway—too time consuming and expensive and not needed anyway) may impact humanities scholarship in the future. Data can be publicly shared in repositories like Opencontext.org.
Bauer’s talk was especially insightful in that she showed how her ideas evolved over the years and how they took form in the various web sites she created. It is rare to create something and have it retain its original form over the years. The manifestation of a project evolves over time with the acquisition of new skills, new people are brought on board, and the ad hoc method of trial and error ceases to become a heuristic as the process matures.
UPDATE: The entire talk is available on YouTube: