Tag Archives: humanities

Libraries designed for Humanists

[This is a guest post by Lee Sorensen, the Visual Studies and Dance librarian for Duke.  He selects for the arts and manages the public-interfaces for image collections.]

Recently I was helping a student looking for articles on spolia, recycled pillars, sculpture, etc. incorporated into the art of another era.  It was a particularly common practice in the middle ages.  Though there’s much written on this topic, it’s hard to get at those results.  The reason is because there’s no agreed term for this historic phenomenon.  Searchers using our catalog don’t find those titles, not because modern catalogs are computerized or the holdings aren’t well indexed, but because of a fundamental difference in humanities thinking from science thinking.  Designers of library catalogs conceive of information in scientific-language paradigms.  In the sciences—the social but particularly the natural sciences—things have very specific names.  If you’re looking for microbial genomes, you can type in ‘eukaryotic genome’ or a specific one, such as the microsporidian Encephalitozoan cuniculi and get pretty much all the literature on that topic. But humanists neither name things schematically or coin specialized terms in their research.  Humanities scholars describe their work in a string of common language words. Take for example, the most recent scholarly article in a film journal by a well-known scholar:

Nicola Mann. “Criminalizing ‘The Hood’: The Death of the Projects in the American Visual Imagination.” Afterimage 38 no. 6 (2011).

Every one of those terms is a simple word.  Searchers for blacks represented in urban film culture would never find this important article using adjacency searching (“Google searching”).  Key-word searching was developed post-World War II by the military and government-funded science contracts.  Those people were in no way thinking about looking for eighteenth-century garden theory or early Christian concepts of soteriology.  Though we assign extensive subject headings in our cataloging, the result is always artificial.  Humanities information— humanities knowledge—is idea based, not factoid based.  Perhaps the next time some report concludes that humanities scholars don’t employ technology as much as scientists (an assertion not validated by most statistics), a better question would be to ask why technology isn’t conceived to recognize humanities information as fundamentally different.

Innovators redefining the corporation

On May 11th, Stanford University created a buzz by hosting the Bibliotech Conference that brought together both industry and academic professionals to discuss, among many things, the value of a Humanities PhD.

The conference was live-streamed (available through June 2011) and brought together industry professionals from Google, Deloitte Center for Edge, TED, Overstock.com to name but a few, with academic professionals who have Humanities PhD’s.

Ruth Starkman’s title for the Huffington Post article announcing this conference read in part, “Humanities PhD s Hope to Storm Silicon Valley.”  As an educator who has spent most of her career on the administrative side of education, I tried to imagine what it would look like if traditional academics physically stormed into the Silicon Valley with rumpled tweed blazers and bow ties askew.  Would they have what it takes to help re-imagine and humanize the fast paced technology sectors?

Imagination aside, the streamed session that I saw showed me none of that.  Instead, there were statements about passion not being a solitary pursuit; that long term trust is needed to expose vulnerability; that given their education, Humanities scholars have a deeper understanding of human relationships.

From the corporate side, there was talk of the way one might bridge the divide between technology and humanities.  Folks with Humanities PhD s who now work on the corporate side said that the humanists bring an intellectual curiosity to the table as well as the ability to write with finesse using metaphor and storytelling skills.  This combined with the ability to research creates candidates for the corporate sector who are nimble enough to explain that technology is meant to facilitate our human experience.

One of the most interesting questions came late but drove home an important issue:  “How can the humanities methodology improve  so that we can innovate?”  This issue of innovation in education is a question that the Digital Humanities initiatives are addressing by creating labs where innovation can happen quickly, be brought in and tested.  And even in this new way of educational research, the difference between the academy and the corporate world lies between scale and speed.  What would it be like if, rather than having the Humanities storm Silicon Valley, if Silicon Valley came knocking?  What kinds of innovation would break out?  Perhaps there’s more to come at the upcoming Digital Humanities 2011 hosted by Stanford University Library.

[Photo of painter and etcher, Henry Ernest Schnakenberg by Paul Outerbridge, Archives of American Art]

Reinventing Researcher(es)

[This is a guest post by Lee Sorensen, the Visual Studies and Dance librarian for Duke.  He edits the Image Portal for Duke, as well as the Dictionary of Art Historians.]

The Research Information Network, Britain’s educational think-tank, took a look at how humanities scholars “do things” these days.  They looked at six humanities entities: two resources (the Old Bailey Online and the Digital Image Archive of Medieval Music, DIAMM—which is, I believe, what Chris Rock says when something confounds him); two academic departments (University of Birmingham’s English Department and University College London’s philosophy department); one field, corpus linguistics, and one collaborative project (The Digital Republic of Letters), to figure out how digital digital research in the humanities is.  Undaunted—or almost undaunted—by the eighty-six page document, several observations stood out at me.

A)    For Humanists, digitization creates a surrogate of the object of study, not a replication.  While the social scientists’ primary sources—the data set, the interview—is not altered by making it electronic, digitization to the musicologist, the art historian, or the choreographer, however,  creates a useful copy, but a source that doesn’t function the same way.  Digital humanities scholars find themselves in the same position as the first-year medical student:  the digital anatomy program is fine, but sooner or later you need a real patient.

B)    A second difference is that digital sources in the humanities haven’t replaced traditional scholarship, they’ve only added a new area.  Printed information in the humanities still rages even though many scientists claim they never read anything professional that isn’t on their computer screen.  Copyright restrictions to digital images or international property agreements mean that nearly as much is reported in hard copy, but the emergence of electronic sources is but one more place to go.

C)    Models in the humanities hide what is interpolation and what is research based.  A social scientist sees a graph and knows what’s a point plot and what’s a connecting line between them.  But in a reconstruction of a twelfth-century monastery, it isn’t clear how many adorsed capitals were taken from extent ruins and how many are speculations.

Humanists are often painted as electronically inept, which isn’t true.  While the report Reinventing Research delightfully assesses the even-pace of digital humanities scholarship, it reminds us that “research” as a concept is different across the university disciplines.

A Broad-based Approach to the Digital Humanities

[This is a guest post by Jeff Rogers, an Editor & Content Coordinator for the Townsend Humanities Lab at UC Berkeley.  He is pursuing a PhD at Berkeley in American history and blogs regularly for the Townsend Lab on issues relating to technology, the humanities, and education].

Last year, I was one of several graduate student instructors at Berkeley tasked with teaching John Kenneth Galbraith’s, The Great Crash, to sections of a freshman-level US history survey course. It was the right book at the right time: the recent housing bubble had burst spectacularly; the economy was sputtering; and the media was full of public figures pointing fingers. Some of my fellow student instructors were excited about the teaching opportunity. Others weren’t.

The dividing line ran between a small group of humanities graduate students who felt comfortable with a basic level of economic literacy and another group of grad students who didn’t. Sitting in our teaching meeting that week, I remembered that one of my colleagues had had an excellent idea in our first year in the graduate program: an “economics for historians” course that would both ensure a certain level of economic literacy within the department and give new graduate students a degree of exposure to economic history case studies (which constitute a large methodological branch) that few were likely to have had as undergraduates. Like many great ideas, that one didn’t take root, but what I take to be the lesson of that story—i.e., that our work as academics, teachers, and humanists sometimes necessitates a basic fluency outside of traditional disciplinary boundaries—has stayed with me.

So what does this have to do with the digital humanities? Everything. We’re at a point in this still young field where many of the most exciting and spirited conversations turn on questions of what’s next, who’s in, where are we going, and how can we build the vehicles we need to get there. These are all great questions, but they’re by no means the only questions. I’d also venture to say that they’re not even the most important questions to most humanists.

Where are we going? That’s the question of the vanguard (the early adopters and key innovators in the field) —setting the agenda, the course for future research. If the digital humanities were a ship, setting the course would be a concern of the captain and crew. But before that ship sails, it’s also important to have everyone else on board.

For the work of this vanguard to be interpreted and, arguably, even appreciated by a wider following, it will be necessary for a wider group to have at least a basic understanding of that vanguard’s methodologies and assumptions. This brings us back to my initial example. Just as not every historian needs to be an economic historian, not every humanist needs to be a full-on “digital humanist,” but it’s important to realize that in the course of one’s research and teaching career, a fluency in the basic concepts and tools of related methodologies can be tremendously useful. And if this has been true of historians with regard to economics, it will be much, much more so of humanists with regard to digital technology.

I can make that assertion with complete confidence because while economics may only occasionally fall within the purview of the cultural historian in her research or teaching, the growing spectrum of digital tools already represent something more totalizing than a methodological branch. They are increasingly constitutive of all of our work processes. You may never use GIS mapping to make your argument about urban political history or employ large-scale data mining text searches to prove a point about the influence of an idea, but you will be involved in electronic publishing. You will read and write blog posts. You will make use of virtual maps and collaborative authoring and editing. Just as you’ve come to accept the necessity and utter normalcy of responding to email, these newer digital tools will become essential and natural to doing the business of academic work.

At UC Berkeley’s Townsend Humanities Lab, we see access to and a basic familiarity with these tools as the greatest need of the greatest number, and we want to be sure that the need of this group is met and supported. In addition to providing web services (project space, a suite of web 2.0 resources, and live support) to the Berkeley humanities community, this means that we’re pushing ourselves in a sustained outreach effort aimed at bringing traditional humanists into the fold and forging ties with other DH initiatives to promote collaboration and to ensure that all constituencies are having their needs met.

As exciting as it is to see the trailblazers forging ahead, it is also crucial to realize opportunities throughout the broader community as web-based technologies are remaking every essential process of academic work. In a very real sense, we’re all digital humanists now.

Google Art Project

[This is a guest post by Lee Sorensen, the Visual Studies and Dance librarian for Duke.  He selects for the arts and manages the public-interfaces for image collections.  He currently edits the Image Portal for Duke, http://guides.library.duke.edu/images, as well as the Dictionary of Art Historians, www.dictionaryofarthistorians.org]

One afternoon in early February Google quietly launched its next adventure, the Google Art Project.  Based upon a ‘comprehensive information’ approach to art–and an odd assumption that users think of looking for art where it is located today—the internet giant launched a self-guided site of the major art museums of the world.  Within 24 hours there was a Wikipedia entry on it, the ultimate vetting for any initiative.

The Google Art Project is half Google Earth, half YouTube.  The browser company approached the biggest public art museums, allowing each institution to choose which or how many galleries and paintings to include. Because of rights issues, all works selected are in the public domain, a fact that will disappoint those hoping to see Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon at the MoMA site.  Users move from gallery to gallery with the familiar Google directional arrows and, if a painting highlights itself, you can go in close—very close.  Curatorial departments have, since the age of digital photography, made highly detailed photos of their art to examine such things as deterioration or document damage.  There was, up to now, little public value in making such images available until Google created and mounted them.

That’s the curious thing about the Google Art Project.  While it’s fascinating to look closer at a picture than any guard would ever let you, the practical value of this is limited.  Modern art history departments no longer teach a “masterworks” approach to art history; art objects act as documentation of a time or intent.  So a 5 cm view of a painting isn’t really driven by scholarship.  Like most technological developments, that’s not really the point.  You develop a product and then see what people do with it.  If the Google Art Project is a parlor toy today, it won’t necessarily be one tomorrow.

As a humanities resource collector, the most exciting thing is to watch how this Google pro-bono product will affect the commercial world.  Electronic image collections have been hugely expensive for libraries to acquire despite many of the images being drawn from public domain.  Will vendors now focus on delivering the images Google never can, will they lower their costs—or be driven out of business?

What’s hot in Medieval Studies?

The wonderful thing about the world of blogs and tweets is that the reader gets to decide when to stop and explore. The following list of the top 10 Medieval Stories of 2010 caught my eye, not just because it brought me face to face with the digitally-reconstructed image of a Medieval Knight from a fourteenth-century Scottish castle.

As a student of literature, I was particularly interested in the ninth entry: an analysis of the life cycle of historical novels with medieval settings by Shaun Tyas: “Historical Novels and Medieval Lives,” in Recording Medieval lives: Proceedings of the 2005 Harlaxton Symposium, 2005, 273-299.

Shaun Tyas started out collecting historical novels as a private hobby and soon realize that this body of 5,092 novels with medieval settings begs exploration. The standard bibliographies for this genre list fewer  than 20% of items identified by Tyas, though Tyas does cast a wider net by including all extended prose fiction, multi-period historical novels and children’s books, written in or translated into English. Although most literary historians considered this particular genre “finished” by the mid nineteenth century, Tyas shows via graphs and timelines that medieval settings thrived in the emerging children’s literature after 1850 and became a staple for adult fiction after 1968 with a dip in popularity for both children and adults between roughly 1920 and 1960. Shaun Tyas provides numerous examples of novels with medieval settings in a variety of genres from around 1700 to the present: modern rewrites of medieval stories (Thomas Peacock: Maid Marion. 1822), science fiction (Poul Anderson: The High Crusade. 1960), fantasy fiction (Freda Warrington: The Court of the Midnight King. 2003), Gothic novels (Horace Walpole: The castle of Otranto.1764) , detective fiction (Edward Frankland: The Murders at Crossby. 1955), and women’s romantic fiction (Belinda Grey: The Proxy Wedding. 1982), to cite just a few examples.  The article is well worth reading for its detail on three hundred years of engagement with medieval settings by writers and readers.

Scholars are often uncomfortable dealing with historical novels because (popular) fiction takes liberties with historical truths. However, since the best examples of a genre can lead to unexpected reading pleasures, here are several recommendations by Tyas for historical novels that are well researched and  lend themselves to prosopographic studies: Alfred Duggan: The Conscience of the King; Brian Bates: The Way of Wyrd; Josephine Tey: The Daughter of Time ; Anya Seton: Katherine; Hilda Prescott: The Man on a Donkey; Irving Stone: The Agony and the Ecstasy.

For additional suggestions, check out the subscription database NoveListPlus; enter a fiction title you have enjoyed and the database will suggests future reads based on your past preferences.

If you are wondering about what kind of anatomical information might be needed to design the face of a virtual knight, this upcoming exhibit curated by CMRS faculty member Professor Valeria Finucci promises an interesting perspective on the history of medicine: Animated Anatomies: The Human Body in Anatomical Texts from the 16th through 21st Centuries . This exhibit will open on April 15 will be divided between the Perkins Gallery and the Medical Center Library.