Tools and Content for the Digital Humanities

The following was posted as a comment to the Project Bamboo Tools and Working Group’s main wiki page.

Let me begin by saying how sorry I was not to be able to make it to W2. Having participated in the conference call – thank you Tim for setting that up – I feel like there is some common knowledge within the group that I am missing to enable to glimpse the commonality in the potential demonstrators that have so far been discussed.

And so I am going to try to sketch out a framework here and, I hope, in the process back my way into understanding what it is we are up to.

I should begin by noting that I’m a humanities scholar, a folklorist to be exact. Those of you who saw my 4/6 presentation at the Chicago W1 know that my current research focuses on the rise and development of a boat peculiar to south Louisiana, the crawfish boat. But I’ve also done work on a variety of verbal traditions, literature, and done some work in history.

With that as preface, I offer up a sweeping generalization about humanities studies: it is the study of complex artifacts (understood broadly) in service of understanding human nature. (Historians will be somewhat disgruntled by such a definition, but if a census document isn’t a complex artifact, then I don’t know what one is.)

What humanists need, want access to are these artifacts as well as the variety of information clouds that surround them. Now, too often we assume that this stuff that humanists work with is limited to scribed texts of one form or another. What I like about all the proposed demonstrators is that they are clearly not bounded by such precepts: Tim wants to find a way to cite images and their derivatives – I’m assuming the digital form of both. Mark Williams is trying to find a way to make the steady stream of news reporting available for study. And both Ray Larson and Sorin Matei have as one of their proposed demonstrators some form of geographic-aware tool / methodology.

Ray and Sorin’s proposals are particularly appealing to me because as an ethnographic researcher, I have long been interested in some way of “tagging” objects I find in the field and beginning to build a data / metadata cloud around them in their original context – and both objects and contexts being available to other researchers (either in situ or virtually). Objects in this context are stretchy – or “fuzzy” if you prefer. An object could be a town, a building, a boat, a field, et cetera.

So all this is great news. It’s what we’ve long wanted as a complement, not a replacement, for our extant (call them traditional if you like) data structures which were built around centralizing information in places like libraries and museums. One of the promises of the digital revolution is that information focuses on the object itself, which need not be removed from the variety of contexts which give it its multiple meanings.

I stumble upon “promise” here, because I remember working for a short time with a team at Indiana University back in the early nineties which had been commissioned by AT&T to work on what it was calling a “WorldBoard.” (I think the term was supposed to stand in contrast with the electronic bulletin boards of the time, for those who are old enough to remember, in being “location-aware” information.)

Fifteen years later and it doesn’t really seem like we’ve made all that much progress. There is KML and there is the Dublin Core. But there is nothing like a Zotero that allows one either to write data to some sort of common database or to “browse” it.

I bring up Zotero here because I find myself using it and liking it. It’s not the world’s greatest UI, but it offers a fair amount of flexibility for me as a particular researcher and it seems on its way to offering a way to share information with me as part of a greater collective of individuals studying humans as they move through the world. I can even imagine Zotero becoming a kind of front-end for prior Mellon Foundation funded projects like JSTOR and Project Muse.

What I would like to see, and maybe it would be something like what Tim is proposing, is a parallel project to ARTstor which might be something like DATAstor. ARTstor is a great resource for getting access to quality images of physical artifacts that are either drawn from the fine arts or that have been of the kind of nature that they would be acquired by museums. The chief problem is, first, that museums have their own biases (and they tend towards the fine or visual arts) and, second, that the promise of the IT revolution is that we would not be so dependent upon museums for providing metadata about objects.

Interacting with such an infrastructure could mean either making 3D scans or building 3D models of objects and then locating them in time and space. Google has done a great deal towards this, but it does not seem to have caught on. The reasons are probably multiple: First, 3D work is hard. (I know. I have ten thousand images for my current project and only a few primitive models done in SketchUp.) Second, the Google landscape is a bit of a wild west: you’re just not really sure about the quality of the work done there. (Could one peer review within Google Earth?) Third, it is an impoverished infrastructure, at least in my experience, because it principally focuses on geographic concerns with little room, or at least structure, for other dimensions.

Okay, I’m approaching 1000 words, which is probably some sort of limit. I will think some more and write more when I get a chance. I hope this is useful to someone.