Talking to humanists about GIS

Mapping is forming a large part of our digital humanities initiative. Through an excellent in-house tool that layers over the Google Maps API we have students engaged in building thematically content rich maps. A course in Classics maps aspects of the ancient world. An English class pinpoints locations in London from contemporary novels that the students are reading. An art history class examines Rome during the high renaissance and realizes through overlays of historic maps that the Rome of that period was a desolate shell of the imperial Rome that existed hundreds of years prior.

We know maps as visual representations that identify locations in a geographic space. Mapping is easy to grasp. GIS is not. While an annotated Google Map that pulls data via an API from a Google Docs spreadsheet or another source is a rudimentary Geographic Information System, the automated task of enabling pin placement on a map merely scratches the surface of geospatial visualization in the huamnities.

Is GIS even the right term within the humanities? With its basis in the sciences and social sciences and the need for exact precision of data, GIS presents an intimidating learning curve before a potential user even realizes the possibilities of the software. And that’s the key: understanding the possibilities of thinking in terms of place, the spaces that comprise a location, the attributes distinguishing each spot, and the relationship among those elements as they consist in a neighborhood, a city, or a broader area.

 

A non-academic approach to writing

A wonderful essay in A List Apart titled Writing Is Thinking highlights the importance of understanding what you read.

Because writing—that first leap into taking your idea and making it a Thing People Read—isn’t really about wording. It’s about thinking. And if you can tell the difference between an article that knows what it’s about and one that exists purely to sell ad space, then you’re pretty good at that already.

Understanding what you read…That’s the core of information literacy. Pleasant surprise to reach the end of this article published in a Web design journal to see that it was written by someone with a background in librarianship.

 

 

On the Path to a Framework for Examining Digital Humanities Initiatives

Some thoughts in progress spurred by Don Waters, a program officer at the Mellon Foundation, who has written an overview of the digital humanities.  Waters has had a distinguished career as Associate University Librarian at Yale, then as the first director of the Digital Library Federation, and has served Mellon for nearly fifteen years as a key decision-maker in what the foundation funds in the area of scholarly communication and digital content. Considering his stature in the profession it’s worth reading closely what he has to say about digital humanities (DH).

He dismisses the notion of digital humanities as a distinct discipline based on his own experience of funding many humanistic projects that centered around technology. Instead, he focuses on the tools and methodology approach in referencing DH. And that’s fine even though I don’t entirely agree. The key, however, is not to get bogged down into the “cloud chamber” attempting to define digital humanities.  Waters clearly points out that a significant problem in the debate over DH is that “[p]art of the definitional problem is that more needs to be said about the nature of the tools and methods for interrogating evidence in the digital humanities.”

As librarians and technologists with expertise in those tools and methods our obligation is to ensure that we advise faculty and students appropriately as to which approaches to use when addressing research problems. This is an extension of our traditional mastery of research tools (e.g., databases, specialized resources) and how to use that material as part of the research process. Advising which approach to take in a DH project is similar to our advisory function at the research desk. Just as some questions at the research desk may best be answered from a set of ready reference materials while others require more in-depth consultation and research, some DH inquiries are relatively simple projects handled by a small set of available tools while other DH-based research questions are best served by more complex approaches.

In reflecting on the ways that critical intelligence is applied in humanistic research Waters identifies that the tools and methods of DH fall into three strands: textual analysis, spatial analysis, and visual studies. (Waters correctly pinpoints visual analysis as emerging from the field of media studies.) “As a rule of thumb, those who refer to the digital humanities, or to the use of digital tools and processes in humanistic study, are almost always pointing to activities and the types of tools needed in one of these three areas.”

Waters provides a brief, though admittedly simplified, intellectual history of each area, starting with how language and literary studies in DH emerged from the work of Jerry McGann at UVA. Spatial analysis emerged from GIS with one of the key humanists adopting mapping strategies being Ed Ayers in the Civil War history project at UVA. (Ayers is now President of the University of Richmond.)

While Waters doesn’t mention a specific person catapulting a change in media studies, a key figure in that  area is Lev Manovich, author of The Language of New Media. Waters stresses that “the scholarly toolkit must include a suite of specialized digital tools including various kinds of visual representations, both because the visual objects of study are digitized or born digital, and because words alone may not be sufficient to understand visual evidence and communicate an argument about that evidence.”

If you don’t read any other part of Waters’ essay, then read the last two pages (8-9) that start under the heading Future Prospects in which he outlines “several areas that colleges and universities, particularly their libraries, might consider for possible additional investment.” In fact, these aspects have essential relevance to our own initiatives:

  • Be alert that each strand of research (literary, visual, and spatial analysis) has distinct requirements.
  • Preservation of digital media is critical across those three broad areas.
  • Increasing need for tools and infrastructure that span the three areas.
  • Investment in textual analysis tools are “now well advanced.” More concentration is needed on tools that support visual and spatial analysis as well as audio.
  • Build capacity to support publishing and curating scholarly products that arise from DH-based research.
  • Develop the creative impulse within scholars and students for engaging in the ways that tools open new modes of inquiry.

Waters ends this essay with “But we must also think broadly about curricular interventions, for it is only when the tools and processes for answering ‘why possible?’ questions are reliable enough to be introduced to and used productively by scores of students at once that the digital humanities could be said to have reached maturity.” Clearly, a challenge is figuring out how to adapt DH tools and methodologies for use in an undergraduate curriculum.

Out of the blatantly commercial

Now that I’m back in the non-profit world of libraries and academia my efforts are no longer slanted towards that simple question of survival, “How do I make money?” A salary is a remarkable thing (as is a job with benefits). And that frees up my thinking and efforts.

For eight years I lived in Argentina and for the first several years of that period I kept a blog about Buenos Aires, which mostly delved into the cultural heritage of that city. The aims of that blog were never commercial. However, I did repurpose the content for a couple of very money-making purposes because, quite frankly, I needed to pursue every form of income I could manage. Around 2006 – 2008 the blog was quite popular and received a large number of incoming link and corresponding traffic.

A few of the ways I repurposed selected content:

  • A free 57-page PDF book of selected postings
  • A highly visual ebook 4 Perfect Days in Buenos Aires. (I actually did make a fairly significant amount from this ebook but decided to make it freely available when I no longer had time to revise the contents.)
  • An iPhone app Buenos Aires in 4 Days. I charged for this app, initially. First, $2.99, then I dropped it to $1.99. Then to $0.99. Then, also, I no longer had time to update the app I made it free. The app remains surprisingly popular for such a niche product with total downloads over 8,000.

Of course, in the end, I never did make much from these efforts and ended up opening these initiatives and making the products free to all.

With almost 500 blog postings about Buenos Aires I have quite a set of content, only parts of which have found their way into other products. In fact, my Buenos Aires blog has over 125,000 words. That’s the equivalent of a lengthy, though unedited book. In book form the blog would be over 400 pages (not counting images)!

I’ve often thought of closing out the blog but I’m not quite done with what I have to say about Buenos Aires. Besides, though I may no longer live there, I will go back for a visit every year. With my renewed focus on the ways that digital content is represented on the Web and in apps I will be using my Buenos Aires blog as a testbed for exploring topics in the digital humanities.