Digital Humanities institute, NHC

Digital Humanities institute, NHC

I’m at the Digital Humanities summer institute, run by and at the National Humanities Center, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and facilitated by Willard McCarty and Matthew Jockers. The institute is organised as part inquiry/theoretical and part technical/methodological, reflecting the respective expertises of the two facilitators. I guess I’m here mostly to learn more ideas and skills/knowledge concerning the latter, and feel relatively comfortable with the former although hoping to learn more. And the relevance for WWW?

What is a collection? The existence of electronic and digital ‘complete editions’ – such as the Olive Schreiner Letters Online – trouble ideas about what ‘a collection’ is and where its boundaries lie, including because the latter may shift because new materials can be added and others subtracted considerably more readily than with print. In the case of the OSLO, it is in its own right and overall a collection of all the extent letters Schreiner wrote – although we (its makers) prefer the term ‘assemblage’. It also publishes transcriptions of letters which are complete collections, as well as many letters which are smaller components of other collections (Schreiner’s letters in the large Jan Smuts and CJ Rhodes collections, for instance). So, where is ‘the collection’ here? The answer is that this is everywhere and nowhere in the OSLO, for what this ‘is’ in an ontological sense has been fundamentally changed by the system of repesentation involved – it is the digital aspect which enables, but it is the organisational possibilities that follow which are in a basic sense responsible, and together these constitute ‘the system of representation’.

Clearly, discussions about such matters are at the heart and bowels of what WWW is about, and this is the sort of topic that has been explored at the start and end of each day’s activities in the institute. There will be more such conversations as the week progresses and I will blog about other relevant discussions in due course. What lies between them each day has been the rather different activity of learning how to code text data (of whatever kind one’s preference is for), using the programming language R. This other aspect of the NHC digital humanities institute may seem on the surface more disconnected, but it is actually closely related.

The R programming component has been conducted as a master class, and a crash version thereof. This is enabling the more adept among us to become self-sustaining producers of outputs using R, and others of us (in my case as a very plodding example) to consume such things with a more discriminating eye and also to manage producers thereof with a more critically discerning one. So what does R do, and how does it connect with WWW? Put simply (so simply I can imagine present colleagues wincing), it enables large quantities of text data to be analysed quickly and efficiently, according to parameters decided by the researcher. It is akin (again, imagine wincing) to writing one’s own ‘software’, in the sense of writing researcher-designed functions. Some of the things engaged with to date: loading and preparing text; making counts of frequencies, both overall and regarding particular components of a text or group of them, of words and phrases; examining correlations; and exploring lexical variety. And there is more, on KWIC, clustering and classification, to come.

So how is this connected with WWW? Behind the eventual launch of a WWW data-filled website will be a VRE or Virtual Research Environment, which will contain tools to help analyse project data. Presently, thoughts on the VRE are modelled on the Olive Schreiner letters predecessor. However, R potentially can add a whole suite of new high-powered tools to this, for the researchers involved, and also for the users of the published website. The result is that the R training aspect of the NHC’s digital humanities institute is as directly relevant to WWW as its more discursive aspect.

In the meantime, jet-lag in a minus 5 hours different time-zone context is proving very hard to manage for the three of us here from the UK, so sleep overwhelms in strange ways at odd times. From me, it’s bon nuit, at 6.30pm local time!


Last updated: 9 June 2015


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