Experimenting with Books

In their article “Evolving in Common: Creating Mutually Supportive Relationships between Libraries and the Digital Humanities,” which appeared in January 2013’s issue of Journal of Library AdministrationMicah Vandegrift and Stewart Varner write that “the library can no longer be simply a place to get the right answers or to be directed to the correct resource; it must facilitate [Steven] Ramsay’s ’Screwmeneutical imperative’ in browsability and playfulness” (72).  “One role for the library in [digital humanities],” the authors explain,” is to support the journey of research as a means in itself, and encourage imaginative, new, transformative uses of the products of research” (73).

By mentioning Ramsay, Vandegrift and Varner invoke one such “imaginative” use of books that Ramsay and a growing group of scholars have championed in the last several years: “distant reading,” or the technology-aided discovery of patterns and occurrences of language in and across large bodies and numbers of texts.  When distant readers and digital humanists talk about text mining, they are often talking about locating words, phrases, and parts of speech using complex algorithms and software that have been developed in collaboration with computer scientists. Although, there are at least a few existing tools such as Google’s N-Gram Viewer and Harvard’s Bookworm that allow anyone to experiment with a few of these techniques.  Audrey Watters offers a great comparison of N-Gram Viewer and Bookworm here. After they’ve culled their data, scholars then read and analyze the data, and propose theses based upon their analyses.

Ngram

A screen shot of Google’s Ngram Viewer homepage.

Debates about distant reading abound.  In “Text Analysis, Data Mining, and Visualizations in Literary Scholarship,” Tanya Clement writes: “One main thrust of the argument that literary study and digital methodologies [like distant reading] are incompatible is that digital methodologies function outside the contexts that are meaningful to literary study” (para. 2). Clement goes on to state, however, that

[u]ltimately, these analytics and visualizations help us generate new knowledge by facilitating new readings of the text and by affording a self-reflective stance for comparisons, a perspective from which we can begin to ask why we as close readers have found some patterns and yet left others undiscovered. (para. 23)

Furthermore, according to Clement,

[s]ometimes the view facilitated by digital tools generates the same data human beings (or humanists) could generate by hand, but more quickly—an important advantage when so many literary texts go unread and, essentially, undervalued. At other times, these vantage points are remarkably different from that which has been afforded within print culture and provide us with a new perspective on texts that continue to compel and surprise us by being so provocative and complex—so human. (para. 42)

Are large, complex distant reading and data visualization projects, then, descendants of  those that scholars and students have been doing for years?   For example, I remember the day I discovered this concordance.  For a seminar paper, I had decided to discuss the poet’s use of a particular word across her 1700+ poems. The concordance helped me find the instances of the word I chose.  Then, I read the poems in which the word appeared. Next, using a variorum, I mapped these poems to the dates when they had been written.  Finally, I formulated a thesis that compared and contrasted the poet’s use of the word over time.  What if I had not only presented textual analysis and close readings of poems in my paper, but visually represented my findings in a graph or diagram, too?

A page from A Concordance to the Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by S. P. Rosenbaum

A page from A Concordance to the Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by S. P. Rosenbaum

Experimenting with text mining, distant reading, and data visualization – indeed, the playing around in both physical and digital libraries that Ramsay suggests – by no means requires and probably discourages a fixed perspective. Rather,  in my mind, these techniques encourage readers to “dwell in possibility.”

Here in SF, the fog days of summer offer a change of pace on campus, and perhaps a chance to experiment and play with new ideas.  Distant reading is a digital humanities-related idea that I’ve been interested in for a while, and one that I hope to learn and think even more critically about in the next few months.  What will you be experimenting with this summer?

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