Archive for April, 2012

  • Producing Digital Ethnographies “On the Spot”


    A short and sweet session proposal based on discourse and creation:

    I’d like to propose a session where we choose a place of current global significance outside of the United States. Using Google Maps as a window, I’d like for a group to then gather information and produce, in the limited time frame of the session, a google doc ethnography that tries to combine global statistics with real local knowledge and insight (restaurant reviews, local newspapers, local blogs can all be combined into an ethnographic matrix of ideas). With so much emphasis on the global and on the transnational in both literary studies and the digital humanities, this session would be a real test for how these tools can help scholars gather local knowledge and form a starting point for ethnographic engagement with a location.

  • DH Beyond Plain Text


    I’d like to propose a session to discuss what the digital humanities can (and cannot) do with binary image and sound files.

    Part of my frequent dissatisfaction with recent experiments in data mining, computational distant reading, etc., I think, comes from a tension that’s been in place in DH for a long time. The same set of McGann-Druckerites (a group among which I count myself) who were raised up on a critical methodology that emphasizes the centrality to literary interpretation of material texts, bibliographic codes, etc.—those aspects of texts that are extremely difficult to capture in digital surrogate form—now finds itself in the midst of a digital scene in which plain text, whether marked up or not, is king. As often as not, scanned or photographed images more accurately capture the material situation of a book than marked text does—and text files, though they can operate as “phonotext” with the potential to make sound, as Garrett Stewart points out, cannot embody the sounded performance of poetry in the way audio recordings can. “Multimedia” was once the buzzword that best captured the promise of computers in culture, but those messy image, sound, and video files strewn all about the Internet have proven beyond the purview of most text-heavy DH research.

    Some recent attempts to deal more readily with image and sound in DH suggest to me that there might be more we can do on this front:

    • Alex Gil‘s work as a Scholars’ Lab fellow on an edition of Aimé Césaire, which aimed to meticulously recreate the original placement and appearance of text in Césaire’s work;
    • Lev Manovich‘s work on large sets of images, memorably presented at a Scholars’ Lab talk in fall 2011;
    • and Tanya Clement‘s work on using digital tools to illuminate the meaning of sound patterns in the work of Gertrude Stein.

    I’m surely unaware of lots of great work being done on this front, and one of the purposes of the session would be to have a bit of a show-and-tell of that existing work. I’d also like to have a conversation about the possibilities for and limitations of multimedia data in relation to the digital humanities. How can we conceive of image and sound files not just as black boxes to be surrounded by metadata, but as data (or capta, as the case may be) in their own right? Do such files offer enhanced versions of the texts we work on, or are they in many respects impoverished? And of course, what knowledge can we actually produce by playing around with the multimedia treasure trove of the Internet?

  • A simple intertextual machine


    For some time, I’ve been interested in the similarities between two given texts. That similarity could be understood as textual (approximate string matching, longest common subsequence, etc), language-based (translations), semantic (paraphrases, allusions, etc), and ludic (think Derrida’s Glas). In an effort to resist my tendency to think up Digital Humanities chalupas (e.g. Neatline + Omeka + Juxta + Zotero + VoyantTools all rolled up into one), I’m trying to imagine the most simple block matcher possible.

    Focusing on the textual for a bit. Here’s what I want my tool to do for me:

    • Parse the text for suggestions using an approximate string matching algorithm fine tuned for different versions of a literary work.
    • Allow me to tweak the results by selecting the appropriate boundaries for the blocks.
    • Allow me to name the individual blocks using unique IDs.
    • Store my choices in a database.
    • Take me to  bird’s eye view of the two documents, to see where things have moved around to.
    • After I have done enough matching with several documents, show me the network of connections.

    We already have a tool, Juxta, that could provide this functionality if we expand it’s capability to abstract matches and divorce it from the DIFF algorithm. The one addition we would need would be the ability to give unique ID’s to blocks and visualize from a distance. Anyone up for tweaking Juxta?


  • Discussion Session Proposal: A Worldcat for Manuscripts?


    I am a medieval historian by training, and also a THATCamp newbie. I currently work as a manuscript specialist on a grant-funded DH project called “The Virtual Libraries of Reichenau and St. Gall” (, now based at the UCLA Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, but which in an earlier phase of the project (before I came on board) was based at UVA’s IATH.  In a nutshell, this phase of the project reconstructs the intellectual landscape of two of the most important intellectual communities of Carolingian Europe.  We have digitized or purchased the rights to use images of about 170 Latin manuscripts that are or were owned in the Middle Ages by the Benedictine monasteries of St. Gall and Reichenau in what is today southwestern Germany / north-central Switzerland.  My work on the project mostly entails describing these manuscripts and creating TEI XML metadata for our page-images of them.

    Outside of my work on the St. Gall project, I also have used DH applications in my own scholarship, which focuses on the Venerable Bede (672/3-735) and the manuscript transmission of his works.  My work in this area has mostly focussed on database development, and so in that connection I would be very interested in a discussion of some aspects of linked data and what it means for the future.  Specifically, I’m interested in whether linked data will be the answer to what for me has become an old conundrum: namely, whereas to do serious research on medieval textual transmission you used to need to access, say, 1,000 pretty specialized books; since the digital revolution took hold you now need to access 700 pretty specialized books (half of which you might be able to find online if you look hard) and 300 different websites, one by one.  In short, access has definitely been increased dramatically, but I think there’s still a lot of room to improve in terms of leveraging technology to reduce the amount of labor expended in accessing this type of information (I’m talking essentially about eliminating busy work; obviously the hard thinking bits will always be done by scholars).  Or, to put it another way, will the growth of linked data technologies make it feasible to build a equivalent of Worldcat for medieval manuscript collections (or for that matter other types of archival/special collections)?  Can others point me in the direction of projects that have done or are attempting to do this sort of thing for other fields of study?  What would need to be done to make this happen?

    Joshua Westgard

    UCLA / Silver Spring, MD

  • Online discussion/annotation apps


    Topics might include: which discussion tools you like and use most (and why), what features you find most valuable and what features are still needed, what variables seem most important in engaging readers, tips and tricks you’ve found useful, etc.

    A possible point of departure: A team at UVA’s Curry School has been looking at what a next-generation online discussion tool might look like and can share its preliminary design for comments, criticisms, and suggestions.

    Submitted by:
    Dan Doernberg,
    Bill Ferster, UVA Curry School

  • Digital Versions of Life Narrative


    My first THATCamp, right in my backyard.  I’ve hopped around every digital branch of the UVA tree (think the bewigged cardinal): Scholars’ Lab (including the GIS specialists), NINES, SHANTI, and IATH, where lately we’re working on the BESS schema (Biographical Elements and Structure Schema), a database, and some prototypes for visualization, all taking the bibliography of 1200+ books in the Collective Biographies of Women project further into studies of biography.  Lots of DH work is biographical (a lot of projects have a person’s name in the title), and personal data and life narratives are all over the Internet, but even in literary digital studies there is relatively little work on genres of nonfiction.   I just got back from a conference on Life Writing at the Huntington Library.  My talk was called Social Networking in Old and New Media, the “old” being books, the “new” being digital, both social media and digital humanities.  The talk was like a sandwich with “all about my DH project” pressed thin in the middle, and thick slices of observation and speculation about the social construction of persons online.   What are the elements of a unique “person,” identity, or life narrative?  How do the forms (in all senses) of life narrative vary with repetition across different media?  Name, date and place of birth and death, portraits, signature or password, resume-style events (think Linked-In)–and, as on Facebook, relationships and consumer choices/opinions–these elements seem to give us a handle on the unique individual linked to others.  But as anyone who has worked in a library, written a biography or a history, or developed a database involving any social records knows, every component in this list of identifiers can be shared by others or it changes over time or can be falsified or lost.  There’s lots to pursue in the ways that computers affect life narrative, writing or encoding or studying it.  I’m interested in all the angles people might bring to this, but the Huntington crowd was very much about scholarship in paper archives and writing full-length literary biography.  I think print and digital media present similar issues about reconciling the big and little picture, what’s shared, what’s interesting, and what kind of elements or controlled values our schema allows.

  • A Digital Video Segmentation and Annotation Plugin for Omeka


    As part of an NEH ODH grant, I am developing a video segmentation and annotation plugin for Omeka that will enable academic and cultural institutions and individuals to incorporate annotated video into online collections and exhibitions. Using either the client- or Web-based version of the Annotator’s Workbench, scholars and cultural professionals will be able to segment and annotate video and upload it to an Omeka-based Web site using the plugin created by this project. The annotated video plugin for Omeka will greatly enhance the pedagogical and research potential of video for online collections and exhibitions by providing humanities scholars and cultural institutions with a tool for incorporating video segments that contain integrated descriptive data linked specifically to the video content.

    I see an opportunity to extend the capabilities of Omeka’s robust yet flexible development environment by building the annotated video plugin. Currently, users can incorporate a video file into an Omeka-based Web site and play it back. To include metadata is more difficult and the exisiting plugins are generally designed for one file with a single, associated set of metadata. None of the current Omeka plugins can deal with a video file that has been virtually segmented and for which corresponding annotation metadata is associated with each segment.

    I plan on showing the plugin in action and would like to discuss how digital video, especially segmented and annotated video can be used in research and pedagogy.

  • Dubious digital dissertating?


    Hi all!

    My name is Kathleen Thompson and I’m a PhD student in Russian language and literature here at UVA. I’m writing about 21st-century Russian-American authors who were born in Russia and emigrated to the U.S. (usually with their parents) in childhood, so my work focuses a lot on transcending borders and movement and fluidity of medium.

    I took Intro to the Digital Liberal Arts with Rafael Alvarado here two years ago and loved it; I have only a very basic grounding in DH, but I’m fascinated with the very idea of it, and I really want to be able to apply it to my work somehow. For that class, we each had to build our own WordPress site on a particular topic – mine was a digital repository for one of the authors I’m studying – and that gave me an idea: why not nudge my dissertation towards the digital? Why not start a conversation that’s immediately accessible to more than just my small committee and anyone wandering around our library stacks checking spine titles for something interesting?

    Slavic studies is sort of a dinosaur in that it’s slow to embrace change, and most of the people in it who are doing online work (blogs, mostly) are politics and history scholars. Literature has a very small presence on the web; the UVA library does have a new and fantastic online collection of contemporary Russian literature, but I want to add to that. Pursuant to that, I want to explore the idea of the digital dissertation itself: what does it entail? What format is acceptable? How can we best make older work digitally consumable? Is a digital dissertation even viable/cromulent/workable in academia today? If you’re on a dissertation committee, would you be willing to work with one, or would you strike it outright? How do we vet them?

    I’ll probably add more questions as I think of them, but this is already over 300 words for a start!

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