Recurring Themes in Digital Humanities

We have seen, repeatedly, that many digital humanities projects work on making texts available online, either in digitized form or as images of the original text. Such projects enable global access to these primary sources, and aid in their preservation. It seems that a major interest is the creation of collections that gather texts of prominent writers, to be “stored” and displayed together; this allows users to have simultaneous access to a writer’s, or a group of writers‘, entire work. In many cases, the original (physical) copies of these texts may be spread across different collections (some of which might be private), scattered around the world; therefore, having them “live“ together in a digital space is very advantageous in terms of research, education, etc. Text collections aid in understanding writers‘ styles, major themes/topics, how their contexts influenced them, and their evolution across time, among others. If the focus is a group of writers, it allows users to compare and contrast them and their work. Digital collections of texts enable literary analysis (of fiction or non-fiction, poetry or prose), in a more accessible, and maybe even extensive, way.

Examples of these literary collections:

Original art by blog author

This type of project is evidence of the great advantage that the digital humanities have over the more traditional study of the humanities; taking my professor’s words, digital tools and the internet as medium have changed notions of availability, publicness, and social interaction in the area. Humanities research is no longer confined to small groups of experts and the selected texts that only they can access; instead, experts from across the globe collaborate (learning from each other in the process) to build online collections of knowledge that anyone, not just experts, can look into and learn from; this interest in making knowledge public confronts the idea that it’s reserved for intellectual elites only.

Another recurring theme in the digital humanities has to do with facilitating the understanding of connections. Digital humanists can display data in such a way that networks and relationships among people, places, and/or events are easy to understand for users, using visualizations. These allow the analysis of connections across space and/or time. Projects that focus on networks and mapping can make asynchronous connections synchronous, and connections established across space (through letters, for instance) can be located within the same visual field.

Examples include:

Original art by blog author

A third common theme in the digital humanities is that of representing the past, so that it can be studied in the present. This is also done in the aforementioned visualizations of networks. But many digital humanities projects attempt to model objects and/or spaces for this purpose. These representations give the possibility of a deeper understanding of  objects and/or places, given they complement records about them with visualizations. New discoveries might even arise from these projects. In the case of digital cartography, for instance, map models might help users consider distances which may have not been obvious before.

I initially thought that modelling attempted to reconstruct the past as accurately as possible; however, a model is a “a representation of something for purposes of study… a simplified and therefore fictional or idealized representation.” So, even though models do resemble reality, there is A) an understanding that models don’t perfectly recreate their subjects, and B) the possibility that the divergence from reality is intentional. For example, ORBIS: The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World is an “interactive model that reconstructs the duration and financial cost of travel in antiquity” and “reveals the true shape of the Roman world”…. however, the description of how the project was built reveals that the model doesn’t represent every route in the Roman world, nor does it takes into consideration every factor that affected transportation; the developers of the project considered some this information to be negligible, or alternatively, that it unecessarily complicated the model.

Another interesting aspect of modelling relates to the previous knowledge that goes into building a model; if this information is incorrect, the errors that arise from the model might teach more about the topic than the model itself. This reasserts an aspect of digital humanities projects that we’ve discussed in class several times: the development and evolution of a project might be more relevant than its results. As Willard McCarty explains it, “There are in general two ways in which a model may violate expectations and so surprise us: either by a success we cannot explain… or by a likewise inexplicable failure… In both cases modeling problematizes. As a tool of research, then, modeling succeeds intellectually when it results in failure, either directly within the model itself or indirectly through ideas it shows to be inadequate. This failure, in the sense of expectations violated, is, as we will see, fundamental to modeling.”

Some examples of representations are the following:

Original art by blog author

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