nGrams, Craters, and 19th Century Sectarianism

Late last year Science published an article, “Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books,” which introduced the term “culturomics” to the digital humanities community. The Google nGrams viewer, which the team behind culturnomics developed and released, allows users to track the frequency of words across time within the Google Books corpus. The resulting graphs can allow users to spot linguistic trends, perhaps noting larger cultural shifts that the use of particular words might signal. Though the term “culturomics” was new, the ideas of text-mining, analysis, and “distant reading” were not. The application of text mining to such a large corpus—according to the Science paper, 4 percent of all books ever printed—did spark much conversation in the digital humanities community. In “Counting on Google Books,” Geoffrey Nunberg looked at the potential implications of culturomics to humanities research. He notes the skepticism of some scholars who worry that “second-rate scholars will use the Google Books corpus to churn out gigabytes of uninformative graphs and insignificant conclusions.” While conceding that point, Nunberg dismisses more apocalyptic predictions about the influence of these ideas on the field. Instead, he suspects that “the data will probably figure in the literature the way observations about origins and etymology do now.” In other words, Nunberg doesn’t see the Google nGrams viewer as the dawn of a new science or destroyer of humanities worlds, but as a useful interpretive tool among others.

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Mapping Hawthorne: Do I Need GIS?

In my last post, I veered away from my discussion of the University of Victoria’s Digital Humanities Summer Institute and into a rumination on Thoreau’s place in the digital humanities. I noted that Thoreau seems to me a useful role model for digital humanists because he encourages us to take a critical stance toward the technology that we use. Thoreau worries that we’ll become “the tools of our tools,” and that’s an outcome (or even a perception) that DHers should seek to avoid.

Keeping with this spirit, I attended the Geographical Information Systems (GIS) class at DHSI with a genuine question in mind: “do I actually need GIS for my research?” My Celestial Railroad project does include a geographic component. I’m tracing the spread of one Hawthorne story through the United States in the 1840s and 50s, tracking editorial changes made to various witnesses, as well as the larger cultural response to the story found in introductions, editorials, and references to the text. I’ve already mapped the story’s spread using David Rumsey’s historical maps in Google Earth. When I described my project to a friend in a geography department, he wondered why I needed to spend a week learning GIS at all. He pointed out that Google Earth was sufficient for creating most visualizations. If I wasn’t planning to use ArcGIS’s more advanced analytical tools—if my research question didn’t include issues such as topography, population density, or other census data, for instance—then learning GIS might be a waste of time. Why bring a jack hammer to a project when a hammer will do the job? Continue reading

Hacking Walden Pond

thoreau_photoThis past week I had the great fortune to attend the Digital Humanities Summer Institute at the University of Victoria. DHSI offers a series week-long courses that teach a range of digital humanities skills, from text markup to project management to the course I took, GIS (Global Information Systems) for Humanists. Essentially, I spent a week learning to use ArcGIS and thinking about how its geospatial analysis tools might be brought to bear on my research into nineteenth-century American periodicals./p>

Before I talk about what I learned this week, however—more on that in a later post—I want to reflect on a t-shirt. DHSI is an institute. Participants spend most of the week in a classroom, and so the dress code is less formal than, say, the dress code for an academic conference (this may be true of digital humanities gatherings more broadly, but that’s not my point here). Jeans and t-shirts are okay, and so on Tuesday I wore one of my favorite t-shirts to class: this Walden t-shirt from Out of Print. During the day, several folks remarked, good-naturedly enough, that it was ironic for me to wear a Thoreauvian t-shirt to a digital humanities gathering. It’s probably not worth explaining this irony here. We get it—Thoreau the great Luddite would disapprove of our discussion of tech and tools. Thoreau wouldn’t hack. Continue reading