Tag Archives: digital humanities

Digital Project Profiles: Project Vox

The Digital Project Profiles series features projects that have partnered or worked closely with Duke Libraries’ Digital Scholarship Services (DSS) department. These projects illustrate the kinds of research, pedagogical, and publishing questions that DSS addresses. For assistance with your own project, contact askdigital@duke.edu.

The Project

Project Vox, http://projectvox.library.duke.edu
2014 – ongoing
An open educational resource, created and run primarily by students and volunteers, that provides resources for incorporating early modern women philosophers into research and instruction.

In late spring 2014, a project team formed at Duke University to build a website that could support research and teaching about non-canonical women philosophers, and they launched the Project Vox website in March 2015. From the start, the team has included undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, librarians, and technical staff. The Project Vox website serves as the virtual hub for an international network of scholars to work together in expanding research and teaching beyond the traditional philosophical “canon” and beyond traditional narratives of modern philosophy’s history.

What motivated Project Vox?

Philosophy is a surprisingly static and homogenous discipline. For the past fifty years, the humanities have been dominated by women; yet in philosophy, women make up only one-third of advanced degree recipients. In terms of gender diversity, it aligns more closely with (and in some cases falls below) the historically male-dominated sciences. What could be the reason for this gender gap? Recent studies suggest that undergraduate philosophy courses set the stage for this divide, particularly when the majority of figures studied are male. While the latter half of the 20th century saw many humanities disciplines expand and reform their canons to include marginalized voices, the discipline of philosophy saw little change. The figures and texts that dominated philosophy in the early 20th century persisted into the 21st, despite research demonstrating that a number of early modern women actively engaged with and influenced philosophical discussions with their more famous peers. Ultimately, Project Vox seeks to change the field and the face of philosophy by providing information and materials necessary to incorporate women philosophers into undergraduate instruction.

What makes Project Vox an important case study for digital scholarship?

In addition to its intellectual aims, Project Vox is an important case study because of its successful open-access publication model and the workflows that support it.

Project Vox is an open-access publishing project, run by a predominantly student team, that provides participants with hands-on experience and education in digital publishing while also presenting users worldwide with resources for changing their philosophy research and instruction. As a project with long-term and lofty objectives, Project Vox pursues incremental impact toward its goals while minimizing the costs for sustaining that effort. To do that, the project has placed particular emphasis on outreach and assessment, systematically engaging with the project’s audiences to solicit feedback and encourage participation in the project. To increase the pace of publication and distribute work, the team has developed a collaborative approach to research; Project Vox is now in the process of codifying this workflow for sharing with international partners.

What has working on Project Vox taught us?  

For staff in the Digital Scholarship Services department, Project Vox has provided a wealth of insights into digital publishing and increased our own capacity for advising others wishing to pursue their own publishing projects (a short list of topics is provided below, along with places where you can find more information):

  • Making an open educational resource (OER) discoverable and citable (e.g., using WordPress plugins to display Dublin Core metadata for use in citation management software such as Zotero and Open Graph metadata for sharing on social media; creating a MARC record for the website, making it discoverable in the library catalog)
  • Low-cost, low-maintenance website hosting for academics (using Reclaim Hosting to run the WordPress platform for Project Vox)
  • Gathering alternative metrics for an open-access website (using, for example, the Altmetric Explorer for Institutions tool that’s licensed by Duke University Libraries, or Google Analytics data to monitor site traffic)
  • Research management for teams over time (using Duke-licensed tools like Box for sharing and organizing content)
  • Project management tools and approaches (e.g., use of MeisterTask for project management; Toolkits for provisioning resources to team members; sponsored accounts for providing outside reviewers with access to pre-publication entries)
  • Collaborative workflows for research and publishing (in particular, how to take what has been a predominantly solitary enterprise—humanistic research and writing—and make it a collective effort)

Following are a few lessons learned from the Project Vox team members:

Roy Auh, T’19

“I’ve learned new research techniques by working on a team and it’s been awesome to grow from a research assistant to a lead researcher. […] Now I know the trusted sources and my way around the library and the available databases.”

Jen Semler, T’19

“I now have a better understanding of the many factors (finding sources, translating texts, acquiring images, applying for funding, etc.) that go into a large-scale research project like this. I am often impressed with all the work this team has been able to do and how well the team has communicated.”

Mattia Begali, Romance Studies Lecturing Fellow

“I really had the chance to explore how a community of practice like the Project Vox team interacts and collaborates. Behind the scenes of Project Vox there is a complex digital habitat meant to sustain the workflow of the group. Before joining the team of this project, I was only partially aware of how complex and stratified this digital habitat is. Also, it was fascinating for me to see how the role of each member gets defined by highly specialized practices.”

Liz Crisenbery, PhD Candidate in Musicology

“Being involved with Project Vox and DSS has also pushed me to think about how my research intersects with the digital humanities. As a musicologist who studies opera, I’m keen to incorporate recorded performances into my dissertation; providing open access to the music I write about is very important to facilitate a better understanding of my work.”

Abigail Flanigan, 2016 MLS from the UNC-CH School of Information & Library Science

“In my time as an intern on Project Vox, I learned about these very specific topics—editorial processes for digital publications and altmetrics—but I also learned more broadly about what is takes to create and manage a digital project on this scale. From the legal (researching copyright owners for images) to the technical (building the site’s infrastructure) to the creative (designing the logo), it takes many people with many different skills to build a project like Project Vox.”

More information

If you’d like to be a part of the Project Vox team, there are a number of ways you can get involved:

  • Volunteer
  • Participate in a Field Experience through Digital Scholarship Services
  • Earn course credit (spring 2019)
    • Bass Connections project, EHD 396 for undergraduates and EHD 796 for graduate students
    • Digital Publishing course, ISS 550S

To keep up with Project Vox on social media, please follow them on Facebook and Twitter. For questions about this and other digital scholarship projects or to get advice for your own, contact askdigital@duke.edu.

Introducing the Digital Humanities to Graduate Students

At a recent lunch discussion organized by the Versatile Humanists program, I had the opportunity to talk with Duke graduate students about getting started in the digital humanities.  The proposition sounds straightforward in some ways: if you want to get started, well, jump right in. But our conversation underscored the difficulties of approaching the digital humanities as a novice.  Where do you go for training or mentoring, for example? What does training entail? Do you need to code? Should you plan a digital humanities project of your own or join an established one? How do you know whether a project “counts” as digital humanities at all?  

Those are all good questions, and they’re sometimes difficult to answer directly because DH seems so diverse and amorphous.  To help address some of these issues, I thought it would be useful to recap some of the big questions from our lunch conversation–to reflect on the digital humanities with an eye toward helping graduate students understand their nature and, ultimately, how to jump right in.  (Those wanting to pose their own questions are invited to join an encore conversation Thursday, October 18, 12:00-1:00 PM, as Liz Milewicz and I launch the Digital Brown Bag series on topics, projects, and questions in digital scholarship.)    

What are the digital humanities?
The digital humanities involve using computational technology to explore, understand, preserve, and communicate about our cultural heritage.  Anybody can do it, and you don’t need to code, but coding can offer you a fast track to understanding some of the technical dimensions of our craft.  

At least, that’s my view.  The term “digital humanities” is a site of open debate, and the debate ranges from serious critique (“is this a field with a general research agenda?”) to quibbles (“can you really call yourself a digital humanist if you can’t code?”). If you’re at all interested in the digital humanities, you’ll eventually encounter this kind of writing, which seeks to define our label and work out its implications.  For example, Routledge has published a book, edited by some DH luminaries, called Defining Digital Humanities: A Reader.  At 330 pages, it encompasses a lot of defining, and it’s not even comprehensive.  

Your enthusiasm for this genre of rhetoric may wax and wane as you do DH.  It’s easy to feel jaded after a while, but we all know and feel the scholarly urge to define, in unambiguous terms, what we’re talking about when we talk about something.  One of the hallmarks of the digital humanities themselves, though, is a comfort with variable outcomes, with uncertainty, with unexpected detours and discoveries, with transdisciplinary experimentation.  With the novel and weird — with things that are difficult to define.

Maybe defining DH is less important than we reflexively think. As Lisa Spiro has pointed out, community and shared values are a lot more useful than abstract definitions.  I think it’s enough to say that you’ll find out what the term “digital humanities” means for you if you start working in the field.  You may even find the term inadequate and prefer, as one of my colleagues does, phrases like “Big Humanities” — a banner of both venturesome scholarship and inclusivity, one that may entail fewer shibboleths and more varieties of hacking.  

But how do I get started? Do I need to code?  Do I need training in specific technologies?
The digital humanities are many things to many people, but for me, their animating spirit isn’t technology per se; instead, it’s a mode of imaginative attention that engenders certain approaches to understanding objects of humanistic study. That mode of attention is technologically inflected, but it arises primarily from the instincts of the humanist. In other words: you generally want to lead with your research interests, not with an interest in technology that may or may not meet your needs.

At the same time, it’s not difficult to imagine how exploring technology–a digital exhibit platform, a topic modeling tool, GIS software–can influence your research agenda.  A basic condition of the digital humanities is that we often use tools of precision and formal expression to learn about cultural artifacts whose enduring value is rooted in ambiguity.  But I think the use of those tools and approaches has a sharpening effect on one’s scholarly vision. When you create or work with digitized materials, when you create models, when you try to be precise and unambiguous even though you know that ambiguity is a soil where meaning grows, you have to interrogate assumptions and first impressions.  It doesn’t do to trust vague notions when you are preparing a digital edition, mapping a novel, or understanding the results of your automated text analysis. What do we really mean by this location or that name? Are we sure that we know what we think we know about this place? What does it mean for a text analysis program to discern “topics” in a corpus?  And, at a more general level, what possibilities open up when we grapple with these questions in the context of digital scholarship?

This kind of reflection seems worthwhile for scholars, and it’s also a reason that digital scholarship often serves a pedagogical function analogous to that of old-school, kinda-formalist close reading. The act of naming or identifying things precisely also reveals imprecision and uncertainty or ambiguity in a text.  Realizing cultural artifacts — literature, architecture, paintings, music — as data isn’t just anatomizing them for convenience. It’s also helping us understand those artifacts in other ways.

Put another way: to make our cultural record computationally tractable in ways that illuminate and retain what’s distinctive and untranslatable about that record, we need the experience and the perspective of the humanist scholar. And because doing DH so often means interrogating and revising our assumptions about a cultural artifact, we also sharpen that humanistic experience and perspective in doing it.  

This is a roundabout way of addressing the questions above, and I don’t mean to sell short the perspective of technologists or the value of learning to code.  In fact, I think humanists should learn to code, for many of the reasons I express above, and I think that the best digital humanities projects are broadly collaborative ventures that draw inspiration from many people with diverse competencies and interests.

Learning from doing–and failing
For that reason (and others), it probably doesn’t make sense to undertake a large digital humanities project on your own in graduate school.  But there are two good ways to immerse yourselves in the digital humanities: joining a project and aimlessly playing around.

If you can join an existing project in some capacity, you will learn a lot about the diverse and complex elements of digital humanities work.  You’ll also learn more simply by absorbing what goes on around you than you will in a year of reading about the digital humanities.

The other way of learning — aimless playing around — should become habit, too.  The DH community is supportive and experimentally inclined; you’ll be right at home asking how things work, experimenting, and emulating what you like.  And more locally, consultants, training, and support services at Duke are available to catalyze your exploration.

Of course, much of what you try isn’t going to work.  Failure happens a lot in DH, so it’s a good environment to shed any phobias of failure (and to mitigate impostor syndrome; everybody in DH is learning on the fly).  The digital humanities invite you to think about failure differently: as a ticket back to the planning stage, only you’re much wiser this time, or as an open door to a new course of project development or dissemination.  There’s always something generative about failure and failed ideas in DH, and generally speaking, the DH community is open to talking about misfires and sharing lessons from work gone wrong.

Exploring further
For more on the digital humanities, including resources and organizations here at Duke, you may want to check out the following.  For convenience, this list includes inline links from the text above.

Local events, resources, and organizations

Introductory texts and learning resources

 

Launching Digital Projects from Scratch – Some Advice

Guest post by Adrian Linden-High, PhD student in Classical Studies, Humanities Writ Large research assistant with Digital Scholarship Services at Duke University Libraries in the spring of 2017.

Image tiles of Polygonal Wall: Zach Heater (CC-BY).

Getting a digital project off the ground by yourself can be challenging. With rare exceptions, digital projects rely on collaboration – for the simple reason that it is impossible to unite in one person all the skills needed to deliver a digital product of which fellow scholars will take any note. Still, if you come up with an idea for a digital project, you will almost certainly first have to build prototypes and mock-ups on your own to communicate your vision to potential collaborators. Even this preliminary work in the digital arena represents a challenge for most of us. In this post, I summarize what I have learned from going through the process of starting a digital project from scratch and offer some general advice that will take you to the next, more collaborative, stage of your digital project.

Set realistic goals

Especially if you are new to digital humanities (DH), your project will most likely take much longer to complete than you expect. There are always unforeseen hurdles along the way. Even simple tasks, such as transferring data from one hard drive to another, can be plagued by snags: the data volume in digital projects is often much larger than you encounter in day-to-day computing tasks; if you are working across operating systems (in my case, Mac and PC), you have to make sure you are using a compatible file system for your external hard drives. You get the point. For your project to be a success later, it is shrewd to set realistic goals at the outset. Be ready to scale back your expectations for the initial phase of your project. Just get something up and running. To be sure, this won’t be your final product!

An image stitching project I am working on easily fills 75% of a 1TB external hard drive. I formatted it using the exFAT file system, which is read/write compatible between Windows and OS X and also supports unlimited file size. Click on image for more info on file systems.

Seek out help

Tenaciously seeking out help is vital in the early stages of a digital project. Don’t be satisfied with one answer; get multiple opinions and choose the one that seems the best fit for your abilities, your project goals, and the current phase of your project. It’s worth exploring several tool kits and workflows. There are at least three pools you can dip into for opinions:

  • At your own institution you will most easily have access to students and faculty at your department who are working on digital projects. There may also be a DH unit embedded in your institution’s library (for example, the Digital Scholarship Services department at Duke University Libraries). Beyond this, most colleges and universities have IT professionals who can be extraordinarily helpful, though they may have less time for individual consulting or training (for example, Trinity Technology Services at Duke University).
  • Digital humanities training institutes and conferences are a phenomenal way to connect with people who can help you think critically about your project and connect you with other projects that have a similar vision. Don’t expect to be proficient at any digital technology after only a week or two of training. Most of these skills are acquired and honed over the course of years, not weeks. Premiere digital humanities summer institutes include the Digital Humanities Summer Institute at the University of Victoria, Canada, and Humanities Intensive Learning and Teaching (US). The best outcome you can expect from attending one of these institutes is to have your eyes opened to what is possible and to return home with a welter of new contacts in your address book.
  • Industry is another sphere worth exploring for solutions to your problems. When I was looking for a way to publish and annotate ultra-high resolution visualizations online, I reached out to a company called GIGAmacro that has created such a platform as part of an imaging solution it markets to entomologists, geologists, and manufacturing. I described my project to them and they agreed to let me use their platform free of charge (see GIF demo at the end of this post).

Generate prototypes

It is hard to overstate the value of generating prototypes, especially if you are starting your project as a one-person show and need to drum up interest and funding. Prototyping helps you get a more realistic sense of what is possible and on what time scale. In addition, you will quickly discover how much help you need for a full-scale product and in which areas collaborators are indispensable. Perhaps most importantly, a prototype gives you something to show and share. There is no better way to communicate your idea.

In an initial phase of my digital project focusing on a wall of inscriptions in Delphi, I built an admittedly somewhat clunky mock-up using Lucidchart. Despite many shortcomings, it allowed me to demonstrate what I had in mind and get key advice on how to move forward.

Keep a log

Yes, I know, this one sounds like drudgery, especially for folks from the humanities who aren’t familiar with lab notebooks. But keeping a log for a digital project will save you much time and frustration, believe me. Here are a few reasons why:

  • Tool comparison: When testing tooling options for your project, you will benefit from recording the positives and negatives of each potential digital tool, perhaps even in a table or spreadsheet. It is easy to get confused as to which tool offers which feature. A log also helps you keep track of which ones you have already tried.
  • Reproducibility: Once you have made tooling decisions and are working with the software solution of your choice, you might want to record all the settings you are adjusting in the program. This is especially advisable for things like image processing or stitching where it might take many iterations of fine-tuning settings and rendering to get the desired result. You need an exact record of what you did not only for the sake of convenience and reproducibility, but also methodological transparency. Some programs can generate logs. Take advantage of them!

    If specialized software does not allow you to save a log, consider making screenshots of your tweaked settings for later reference. In this case, I was experimenting with the sliders at the bottom and needed a record of which combinations I had already tried.
  • Project management: A more prosaic reason for keeping a log is that for many of us digital projects are not the main thing we do. They are often side projects and not our bread and butter, at least not yet. And when you haven’t worked on something in a long time, you naturally forget where you left off. A log entry can serve as a great springboard to get back into a slumbering project.
An excerpt from a log I kept while working a visualization of Delphic inscriptions. This entry reflects my struggles with file systems (I had to reformat to exFAT because I was working cross-platform) and preserves some code (a terminal command) I later referred to multiple times.

Start with a small sample of your data

As with any research project, digital or analog, test your idea with a small sample of your data. This is particularly relevant in the digital sphere where you most likely will not have all the necessary skills to tackle all the components of your projects. In the early stages, you can often bridge these gaps temporarily with mock-ups made with less than suitable tools. With a small sample, processing times will be shorter, and data will be more manageable. You are less likely, overall, to get overwhelmed right at the outset. Remember as well that you are testing whether a process will work or not. If you try to be as comprehensive as possible with the first iteration, you run the risk of wasting time and resources on a flawed approach. You can always scale up your project once something small works well. Starting with a small sample, finally, is a great reality check in terms of your hardware capabilities. If your current hardware configuration struggles to process a small sample, you know you will need to find more powerful computers to tackle the next stage.

The animated gif above illustrates how I progressively added more tiles to an image stitching task, going from three to ca. fifty. My laptop crashed when I attempted to stitch 100 tiles, whereupon I had to migrate to a lab with beefier machines. There I finally succeeded in stitching my entire batch of 600 image tiles.

Prioritize project components

Once you have determined the building blocks your project falls into, it is time to decide what to tackle first. Many variables enter this equation and they will be weighted differently from project to project, so it is hard to give general advice. One thing worth thinking about is what potential collaborators and funders are interested in. More likely than not, they will not be looking for a flashy demo, but solid ground in terms of planning and project feasibility. Some Digital Humanities grant programs focus on social infrastructure, planning, and collaboration as much as (or more than) technology per se. Having said that, a prototype of your project can be a phenomenally effective way to communicate your idea. If it is visually appealing, all the better. Above all, as I stated at the outset, remember to be realistic: you have time and resource constraints, and everything will take longer than you expect. Projects can get derailed by focusing too much on creating something flashy to the exclusion of more essential project components, like content creation, target audience assessment, data structuring, or rights/fair use assessment, to name a few.

A more advanced prototype of the visualization of the wall of inscriptions in Delphi using the GIGAmacro Viewer which includes features such as support for extreme resolution images, polygon annotations, and many more. Click on the image to have a look yourself!

 

Good luck!

 


Adrian Linden-High is a fifth-year Classical Studies PhD student at Duke University whose research centers on inscriptions and papyri that capture what everyday life was like in the ancient world. Currently, he is working on a rich archive of inscriptions from Delphi recording more than 1,000 slave manumissions (see digital visualization prototype). In the spring of 2017, he served as a Humanities Writ Large research assistant with Digital Scholarship Services at Duke University Libraries.