Baylor Arts & Sciences magazine: Digital Dividends

By Randy Fiedler

Today, the image you’d probably bring to mind when asked to picture a professor doing research in fields such as history, English or museum studies would be of someone camped out in a library or archive, surrounded by stacks of books and documents as they methodically type notes into a laptop computer or scribble on legal pads.

While the reality of that scene is still widespread today, it’s slowly giving way to an alternate mode of research –– where seekers of knowledge access vast stores of information from around the world via the internet, then collaborate with others in their field to produce scholarly works available online to anyone through the click of a mouse.

This new mode of scholarship, called digital humanities, has been described as “where humanities meet computing,” and it’s allowing faculty members in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences the chance to do research in exciting new ways and work with scholastic partners from a wide variety of fields and locations.

Creating digital archives

Dr. Julie Holcomb, associate professor of museum studies and director of the department’s graduate program, is busy writing the first full-length biography of George W. Taylor, a 19th century Quaker reformer who was a leader in the antislavery movement and took part in crusades for women’s rights, temperance and other causes. Much of the original source materials relating to Taylor are in archives in Pennsylvania and other eastern states, so Holcomb used digital humanities methods to help her collect and manage her research materials.

“I was on a fellowship at Haverford College in 2015, and that’s when I really started the research on Taylor,” she said. “Haverford has hundreds of letters from Taylor and his family. Because there is no way in a month-long fellowship that I could read all of those letters, I went through and photographed them all. All in all, I photographed around 2,000 documents –– about 70 gigabytes of data. If I had not been able to do that, I would have had to take multiple trips to Pennsylvania over a long period of time.”

The concept of digital humanities involves not just making digital copies of documents (or accessing scanned documents through digital databases online), but also using new tools to organize and analyze all that digital material.

Holcomb uses a data analysis program for digital humanities called Palladio that was developed at Stanford University. Its tools allow a researcher to take information from digitally archived sources such as letters, photographs, documents and notes, and then analyze that information in a number of ways. For example, Holcomb can take the letters written by Taylor and use Palladio to display graphically such things as who the letters were written to, what spots on the globe each letter was written from or to, and what words and names were mentioned most frequently throughout the correspondence.

“I can display information from the letters and see, for example, that there is a spike in the number of letters Taylor wrote in mid-1827. It helps me visualize how the subjects he wrote about and the people he shared letters with changed over time,” Holcomb said. “Palladio allows me to see the relationship between Taylor and other Quakers and non-Quakers, and also the relationships between those individuals, even if they didn’t know Taylor personally. Were they talking about the same people and issues around the same time? I can see those connections quickly and easily. Palladio allows me to see the relationship between any two dimensions of my data.”

Critical collaborations

Two characteristics of digital humanities that account for much of its popularity are that it allows researchers from different universities, cities and even countries to work together on projects without the cost of travel –– and that it easily fosters interdisciplinary projects, inspiring researchers with a wide variety of interests and skill sets to collaborate. These factors are evidenced in recent projects taken on by Dr. Josh King, associate professor of English in the College of Arts & Sciences and The Margarett Root Brown Chair in Robert Browning and Victorian Studies at Baylor’s Armstrong Browning Library.

“I’m not someone trained in the digital humanities who does a lot of computing,” King said. “I’m more like a scholar who does work on literature and religion using traditional publishing, but who also has become interested in trying to use computing technologies to advance teaching, research and scholarly networking.”

King said one successful use of digital humanities technology is to take literary works, post them online and then invite scholars from around the world to contribute annotations, comments, critiques and even links to relevant documents and visual works –– all archived and accessible online to other scholars.

“One such online edition I helped to build was done for COVE, the Central Online Victorian Educator. This edition concerns a poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning which talks about the painting done by a famous artist of the time, Benjamin Robert Haydon, of the poet William Wordsworth,” King said. “It’s cooperatively edited, and includes things that a print edition cannot, such as certain images, web links, an interactive timeline and a geospatial map that displays locations connected with the poem. At the same time, it is also a peer-reviewed publication –– not just anyone can write in and say I’d like to add something. And, unlike Wikipedia, once these online editions are published they are sort of static –– no more edits are allowed.”

King said the hope of those involved in producing such online editions is that they will not only match the quality of those being produced by traditional print publishers, but will provide open access at a fraction of the cost of print versions.

“You still get the high quality scholarship [in online editions], but you don’t have all the interference of the regular presses who are, it’s fair to say right now, standing in the way of doing a lot of scholarly editions if they don’t think they’re going to be bought by lots of people,” he said.

Shared learning experiences

King is also using digital humanities technology to enable Baylor to co-host digital academic conferences that combine events held at physical locations with online presentations.

In October 2018, Baylor’s Armstrong Browning Library joined with Canada’s University of Victoria and the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, as hosts for a digital conference titled “Rhyme and Reform.” The conference was centered around a single poem –– The Cry of the Children by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, which protests the abuses suffered by children forced to work in 19th century factories.

Scholars attended paper presentations, panel discussions, live dramatic and musical performances and other events at each of the three physical locations –– and many of these events were transmitted online so that attendees in all locations could share the experiences in real time. In addition, videos and other digital presentations pre-produced by faculty and students at the three universities were shared online and viewed at each conference site.

“Our students at Baylor produced an exhibition for the conference that included artifact displays, a digital timeline and map and two videos. The first video, White Slaves of England, provides an overall view of what life was like for children working in the mines during the 1840s. The students did a great job of finding images of what some of the actual jobs were that children did, and images of children who were maimed on the job,” King said. “The second video showed the day in the life of a child working in the factories.”

The materials from the conference, both pre-produced and recorded live, will be available online for use by scholars in the future.

King said that the group effort required to produce digital humanities projects such as these will hopefully open the door for better quality work.

“Before, you might have one or two scholars collaborating on a project, but usually it’s just one person, and they somehow pull all the relevant information together,” he said. “How much better it is if you’ve got a team of people, each who can contribute very profoundly in their particular area. In my mind, it’s obviously going to be a better product.”


This article was published in the Fall 2018 issue of Baylor Arts & Sciences magazine, which is available in full here


Leave a Reply