Digital Humanities, Digital Scholarship, and Digital Libraries: Fuzzy Boundaries of a False Trichotomy

If there is one thing that unites digital humanities practitioners, it is our aversion to defining ‘Digital Humanities.’ I get it. I really do. But defining and redefining DH on a regular and ongoing basis comes with the territory. Especially in today’s academic and GLAM sector 1 climate where digital tools and methods are being recognized as crucial components of workflow, access, and analysis.

Like politics, all DH is local. And depending on your local politics, you may find yourself needing to distinguish between the trifecta of Digital Humanities, Digital Scholarship, and Digital Libraries. These three terms usually live in happy, overlapping harmony with each other – until you have to tease them apart for administrative or funding purposes. Then things can get surprisingly complicated, surprisingly fast.

So, in an effort to ease this process, I propose the following interlinking definitions.

Digital Libraries consist of the human and cyber infrastructure required to build and maintain structured repositories of metadata and digital objects designed for access and reuse by researchers with an undelimited set of research questions. Digital libraries vary widely in size, content, and audience. But some examples include:

Digital Scholarship is the set of skills, methods, and tools required for researchers to work with digital materials, as well as the people who teach these skills. Skills that fall under Digital Scholarship include, but are hardly limited to:

  • Geographic Information Systems (GIS)
  • Proper use and application of statistical analysis (on textual, numerical, or image data)
  • Citation management (Zotero started as a DH project)
  • Data Curation and Data Management
  • Data visualization, physicalization, or sonification

Digital Humanities is a field of research and a labor structure. As a field of research, Digital Humanities is characterized by “using information technology to illuminate the human record, and bringing an understanding of the human record to bear on the development and use of information technology.” 2 As a labor structure, Digital Humanities is designed to maximize collaboration and, in the words of Ed Ayers, “scramble hierarchies” to the betterment of scholarship and the human experience. Digital Humanities practitioners use the skills and tools of digital scholarship and rely on (or create) the metadata and objects in digital libraries to answer their research questions.

Digital Humanities as a field is primarily characterized by Digital Humanities Projects.3

Digital Humanities Projects often have features in common with digital libraries, but DH projects are designed to answer a delimited set of research questions.

So, those are my suggested fuzzy boundaries for the false trichotomy of Digital Humanities, Digital Libraries, and Digital Scholarship. In the wild many organizations use one of these terms to stand for a host of activities that stretch across the taxonomy I have laid out above – The Digital Library Federation being the obvious example.

But sometimes you need just need a short, and not entirely misleading, definition. I hope these help.


Has anyone seen a sheep?: Ada Lovelace Day Tribute to Deb Verhoeven

This Ada Lovelace Day I want to stop and thank a woman who is making the Digital Humanities Community a more just and scholarly place: Deb Verhoeven.

I have had the extraordinary privilege of working with and for many amazing women in DH.  In fact, I would consider my intellectual DH heritage to be distinctly (if not unusually) matrilineal.  These amazing women gave me the gift of their experience [Elli Mylonas], their wisdom [Julia Flanders], their diplomacy [Kay Walter], their technical skill [Bess Sadler], and their example [Bethany Nowviskie].

Deb gave me something else.  Deb gave me her anger.

When Deb stood on the stage at DH2015 and asked the crowd “Has Anyone Seen a Woman?” Something in me uncorked.

The first days of that conference had been stultifying for me.  It was my first real experience with the sexism so many others have felt in DH for so long.  I was sick of the double takes from colleagues (senior and junior) when they heard my title: Associate Director of the Center for Digital Humanities at Princeton (really? You?).  I was sick of being ignored by men while they talked over me and mansplained my areas of expertise (technical and administrative, even feminism).  I was sick of everything, including the community that had always felt like my intellectual home.

Then Deb took the stage and called for a reckoning.  She called out the “Parade of Patriarchs” that we had all witnessed the day before as white men, one after another, took the stage to start the conference.  She called out the systems we participate in that somehow always manage to privilege men over women.  And then she proposed a series of concrete solutions that male colleagues could and should take to ensure equity in the field.

And the crowd went wild.  As I jumped to my feet to applaud, so did so many of my fellow DHers – women AND men.  It was a big room, but I could clearly see Glen Worthey near the front on his feet cheering.  And I thought: Yes.  We can fix this.  The system is rigged, but WE CAN HACK IT.

I managed to introduce myself to Deb before I left Australia; we had a beer in a converted church.  I followed her on Twitter.  I friended her on Facebook.  I read her amazing theoretical work on databases [“Doing the Sheep Good“], which I cannot believe no one suggested to me while I was working on my dissertation.  And through Twitter, Facebook, and her scholarship I met a lot of sheep.

By the time I saw her a year later in London, it felt like we had known each other for much longer than a year.  We took a break and vented over coffee when things got too insane.  We attended the Diversity Track at DH2016 in Krakow (why a separate track, seriously?). She and my husband had great conversations over pierogi.  Basically, we had a blast.

And over the past year I have been finding my own voice as an activist as well as a diplomat.  It sounds different than Deb’s, but I hope it harmonizes.  And I am so pleased to be among a digitally connected diaspora of more amazing DH women: Roopika Risam, Amy Earhart, Padmini Ray Murray, Élika Ortega, Melissa Terras, and so many more.

So thank you, Deb.  Before I met you I was mad as hell.  But now, I won’t take it anymore.

Baking Gingerbread, as a DH project

Earlier today I was trying to put together slides for a workshop called “Getting Started in DH.” And I just couldn’t get started.

For the record, I have given versions of this workshop more times than I can remember.  I have slides from those workshops, and looking them over, I despaired.  DH is so big, DH has so many communities, and, like any other community of theory and practice, participating in DH can become a serious commitment.  Getting a group of people “started” in DH over a lunch talk just seemed impossible.  At least given my rotten mood on this particular Saturday afternoon.

I gave up on the slides and decided to make some gingerbread.  Technically, I decided I needed to bake something, and when my husband saw me look over the recipe for from-scratch gingerbread, his eyes went soft.

So I forged ahead even though we were missing a crucial ingredient — buttermilk.

We were also out of milk, which is how I usually make buttermilk (just add a dash of lemon juice).  But, we did have some creme fraiche hidden at the back of the fridge, and a quick google search confirmed that a blend of creme fraiche and water would work just fine as a buttermilk substitute.  Onward.

I pulled out all the ingredients and lined them up on the counter.  I got really interested in cooking the same summer I took Intro to Molecular Biology, so I cook like I’m in a lab. Although baking has always felt more like alchemy than chemistry.

As I measured and poured and stirred the batter into existence, I found myself thinking about the historical and contemporary imperial structures present in a recipe for gingerbread.

I had blackstrap molasses swirling with creme fraiche: need I say more?

My molasses and brown sugar are organic and fair trade (because seriously, if you are a scholar of early America and you don’t buy fair trade sugar products, I strongly recommend that you reconsider that decision), but I had bought them at Whole Foods, that great appropriator of other food cultures.  And fair trade isn’t cheap, so the fact that I can afford to buy it should be an important modifier on that last statement.  The recipe comes from Williams Sonoma, where the appropriation continues.   My last-minute buttermilk substitution was confirmed by a blog post written in 2009 that had been crawled by the Google bot. The list goes on and on.

Systems and structures, past and present.  Not much here that is natively “digital,” except the readout on my oven and the Google search — both of which elide vast systems of industry and manufacturing.  A great deal here that is “humanities,” because what is closer to us than the food we eat and how we make sense of the world?

And so, I decided that my gingerbread was a Digital Humanities project.  I didn’t design a database for this one, or write a single line of code, but that has never defined DH for me anyway.  I did make “a thing.”  I made it using the resources I had available to me, lab procedure, tacit knowledge, and pre-built digital tools.  I decided on the project in consultation with those it would most impact.  But none of that makes it “DH”either  — at least not for me.

What, IMHO, makes my gingerbread Digital Humanities, is that I made it thinking about the systems and structures that I participated in.  This time I didn’t have a research question, I just had a goal.  But I didn’t leave my training in history or information architecture at the door.  I brought them with me.  That doesn’t change the gingerbread.  It should taste the same.  But for me, DH is in the process, not the outcome.

And I am sick and tired of people with strong technical skills sitting on their mountains and declaring that non-programmers can’t “do DH” or that a certain project “isn’t real DH” because it doesn’t meet some imaginary standard of DIY grit and sophistication, or that somehow becoming a more diverse community will mean lowering our standards.

Digital Humanities needs both sides.  It needs all sides.  DH should be a conversation, a process, and a community.  It should not be a checklist, a test, or yet another way to exclude the people that major structural forces already exclude.

I am hardly the first person to say this.  Among the many people I have learned from, I cannot commend enough the works of Roopika Risam, Bethany Nowviskie, Miriam Posner, Deb Verhoeven, Alex Gil, and Bruce Janz.  And that is just for starters.

But I want DH, especially my new DH home, the Center for Digital Humanities at Princeton, to be balm as well as a trumpet call.  I want CDH to be a place where people feel safe enough to be brave.  And I want them to feel (and be) protected, because the academy is scary enough all on its own.

So I had better write those slides.

But first, gingerbread.

For the Love of it?: Alt-Ac Reflections on finishing the PhD

When I was a bright-eyed and enthusiastic undergrad, I applied to PhD programs in history.

I have a very strong memory of sitting in my future advisor’s office and asking him the  most important question I could think of:  “What, in your opinion, makes a good dissertation?”

He responded immediately: “Passion.  Passion is what separates so-so research from the real stuff.  Being passionate about your work is what will make you a great scholar and will drive you to produce a truly great dissertation.”

11 years later, I have finally finished my dissertation.  Go ahead and read it if you like.  It’s called Republicans of Letters: the Early American Foreign Service as Information Network, 1775 – 1825.  It’s freely available.  I don’t believe in embargoes.  And, in the final analysis, I’m pleased with what I wrote.

But where was I?  Ah yes.  Passion.

I have no doubt that my adviser completely believed (and clearly lived by) his words.  They just didn’t work for me.  I would offer a different list:

Dedication. Persistence. Scheduling. Selfishness. Ambition.

These are what finally drove me to finish my PhD.  Ok.  That’s a little overwrought.  The real reason I finished was that Bethany Nowviskie told me: “Jean, everything you want to do will be easier if you finish your degree.”

Whether we like it or not, the academy is a very hierarchical place.  And getting a PhD puts you much closer to the top of that pyramid than almost any combination of skill-set, personality, and experience probably ever will.

Getting a PhD doesn’t mean that you are smarter, more insightful, or even more disciplined than other people.  And it certainly doesn’t mean you are more qualified to teach.  But it does mean you have done something most sane individuals do not attempt.  It’s like running a marathon.  You don’t have to do it.  But if you do, you want to tell people about it and get credit for all those long hours of running when no one was chasing you.  And other marathoners welcome you into their club, because, to paraphrase Captain Mal Reynolds, “Lady, you are my kind of crazy.”

This doesn’t mean that everyone looking to have an alt-ac career needs a PhD.  Or that everyone who has started a PhD program has to finish it.  Leaving grad school can be the best choice for your life and your career.  If I hadn’t been so close to finishing, I would never have bothered.  But I was, and my personality is what it is, so I finished.

And there are lots of good reasons to go to grad school.  Ironically, all the training I received to pursue my alt-ac career came *because* I was a graduate student, accepted into a program whose sole stated goal was to train me to become a tenure-track professor.  I could get hired on The Dolley Madison Digital Edition because I was a graduate student. My cherished fellowships at Scholars’ Lab and NINES were reserved for graduate students.

And I learned a great deal about early American history along the way.  I cannot speak to other graduate programs, but the great benefit of a PhD in American history is that it makes you put your events in context.  There is some fantastic popular history out there, and some of my favorite scholarly treatments of early America were written by people without PhDs.  But so often the journalist or professional non-fiction writer will miss a crucial part of the larger stage their actors stand on.  As someone who works on the oft-misused “Founding Era” of American history, I can’t count the number of times I have wanted to pull a talented writer of popular history aside and make him read for comps before publishing another word.

So what is the “value” of a PhD?  IMHO: it doesn’t matter if in the end you go alt-ac, trad-ac, or non-ac.  The value of the PhD is what you make of it.  If getting a PhD gets you closer to your goals, then go for it.  If sticking out a program that is making you miserable has no discernible benefit, than take the gems you have wrested from the earth and build a better life for yourself.  And don’t let anyone look down on you for doing what is best for you.

And if you lose the passion, well, then you lose it.  Somedays it just goes away.  Other days it comes back. But that doesn’t mean you’ve failed and it doesn’t mean you can’t finish, and finish strong.  It just means that you are running an intellectual marathon, and your second, or third, or fourth wind is coming a little late.

Back in those days of brighter eyes and naive (but not entirely misplaced) enthusiasm, I attended a seminar on Applying to Graduate School in History, held by the History Department of my alma mater, the University of Chicago.  During the panel, one of the faculty members said something that, at the time, made no sense to me:

And for pity’s sake, don’t write in your personal statement that you “love history.”  We [faculty] don’t “love” history.  We love our wives, our girlfriends.  We love fishing.  History is our job.  Take history seriously as your job and you will do well.  But don’t love it.  Love something better.

Now that I am finished with my dissertation I am embarking on a “personality reclamation project,” which consists of going back to all the hobbies I abandoned in graduate school: hiking, jazz piano, Spanish literature.

I do love history.  But I need to see other disciplines, and I think she respects that.  I also need to spend time with my husband, and with mountains, and playing Oscar Peterson, and reading Odas Elementales, and oh yeah, being the Associate Director of the Center for Digital Humanities at Princeton.

As I start to advise graduate students, particularly those intrigued by alt-ac careers, I hope I can give them a sense of safety and stability.  That their worth as human beings is completely distinct from anything their advisers can say about them (be it good or bad).  I would never talk someone into leaving their program, but I want them to know that staying the course is their choice.  And if they choose to leave (for whatever reason), it does not reflect poorly on them nor will they lose the skills they have gained.

And as I advise undergraduates, I will ask them all the hard questions that angered me so much when I stubbornly told everyone I met that “I was going to be a historian.”  Because even if they can’t answer the questions, they need to hear them.  Because the job market has changed and tenure-track has be to your Plan B.  And because there are so many ways to be a historian.

So, at the end of the day — What’s love got to do with it?

Ads on LinkedIn targeting women make me want to delete my account

I have a LinkedIn profile. As someone who is about to hire three programmers to work in my research center at Princeton University, I may find it helpful in reaching top candidates. That’s assuming I don’t delete my account over the insulting banner ads I am treated to almost every time I log in.

First there are the banner ads for the National Association of Professional Women (NAPW). Google “NAPW Scam” and you will find plenty of blog posts detailing the experience of women who have paid almost $1,000 for an annual membership only to find out that the organization does not do anything for them and will not refund their money. For comparison, my membership in the Association for Computing Machinery (the premier, international professional association for Computer Scientists) only set me back $99. LinkedIn even hosts a blog post detailing these problems from LAST YEAR, The Art of the Scam: Say no to the NAPW and yet the banner ads continue.

Then I opened my account this morning to accept an Invitation and found this waiting for me:

Banner Ad Text: “NYC Egg Donation - Seeking smart, cute under 30 Donor.  Receive up to $8,000 compensation”
“NYC Egg Donation – Seeking smart, cute, under 30 Donor. Receive up to $8,000.00 compensation.”

I’m sorry. WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK. Cute? Under 30? At a bare minimum, if you are going to mine my personal profile at least bother to CHECK MY AGE. I graduated from college 11 years ago. I’m 33. Your algorithm sucks.

But ageism is the least of my concerns. LinkedIn professes to be a place where you can:

  • “Build your professional identity online and stay in touch with colleagues and classmates.”
  • “Discover professional opportunities, business deals, and new ventures.”
  • “Get the latest news, inspiration, and insights you need to be great at what you do.”

(Quoted from Accessed on 31 July 2015 10:04:00.)

Apparently what I can be great at doing (or could have been 4 years ago, assuming I was sufficiently “cute”) is selling my eggs. Not conducting cutting edge research. Not finishing my dissertation. Not writing open source software. Not even looking for a job. No.

Selling. My. Eggs.

At this point I want to take a breath, and say that I really sympathize with people who want to be parents. It is a noble and wonderful calling, and it is a tribute to modern medicine that there are many (still far too expensive) treatments for people who have the misfortune of not being able to conceive the children they so desperately want to love, cherish, and raise to be strong men and women.

But don’t advertise on LinkedIn. Or, more importantly, LinkedIn shouldn’t be taking this money. What LinkedIn is saying by accepting advertising dollars from egg donation banks is that professional women should know they can make some cash on the side by selling part of their bodies.

If you want to be an egg donor, more power to you. Call the number you see on a billboard, or in the subway, or in a newspaper. Or even on some other website NOT DEVOTED TO PROFESSIONAL NETWORKING.

And for those of you thinking, so what?  Why should I care if a social media site has shitty marketing?


Professional women already have to deal with so much crap in their lives — finding a good job, getting treated like a human being at work, not being passed over for promotion — all of these are much harder for women than men.  Heck, LinkedIn sends me articles on this very issue at least once a week.  So when a site that bills itself as helping people succeed in a professional context goes and treats their clients like baby farms or easy marks, it hurts more.  Context matters.  And women who already live with the stress of being female in their profession will feel it more.

What this ad, when displayed on LinkedIn, says to professional women is: we know you have skills and smarts, but we don’t care if you to use them in your life. We just want to you to pass them on to the next generation. We don’t want your brains, honey, we just want your genes.

And given that the other ad I see most frequently is for the NAPW scam, I really don’t think LinkedIn wants my brains at all.

So will I delete my LinkedIn account? I haven’t decided. Partly because I am interested in hearing what LinkedIn will say about my concerns.

And, for the record, saying nothing in this instance definitely counts as saying something.

The value of non-rare books: paperback musings of a digital humanist

Sometime last January I realized I was book-deprived.  Since September I had been shuttling back and forth among my new office in Princeton, my rented room in town, and the apartment I used to live in with my husband in Boston.

One Saturday morning in snowbound Boston I awoke in my old bed to a no-longer-familiar sight: shelves and shelves of books filled my vision.  I immediately felt better: less lonely, less stressed, and a little more wise.  Not to downplay the effect of waking up next to my husband, but I realized it was the books.  When I moved just enough stuff to Princeton to last me the year, I had brought little more than an armful of books, most of which lived in a small bookshelf in my aforementioned office.  Most of my personal reading material I put on my Kindle.

At home, every room was stuffed with books.  None of them valuable.  None worth digitizing or preserving, and with the exception of a complete set of my mom’s novels — all first editions, all signed to me — none worth designating a “special collection.”

And yet, there they were.  Little repositories of memory, sitting on shelves and putting me in context.  There were the YA fantasy novels I’d gotten addicted to in graduate school, stories of girls with swords who killed dragons and saved kingdoms.  Black Beauty and National Velvet neighed at me from another shelf, recalling all the time I’d spent on horseback.  James Herriot smiled at me, full of love for All Creatures Great and Small and the many years I was convinced I would become a veterinarian.  Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin sailed the waves alongside Horatio Hornblower. And, holding it all together, Aslan told Lucy Pevensie she was a lioness and Galadriel reminded Frodo that even the smallest person can make a difference.

I left the bedroom (where we kept the genre fiction) and moved through the rest of the apartment.  Former professors, and all they had taught me, were lined up like shorthand notes in the spines of the books they had assigned.  My own growth as a scholar was detailed in the books I had accumulated for my dissertation.  John and Abigail Adams spoke to each other of love and intellect shared across the years and oceans they were apart.

My husband’s books were everywhere as well.  Some I had read, others I had not, but they interleaved with my library, a literary embodiment of the marriage of true minds.

I sat down in the living room, and looked at our collection of War and Peace (3 copies in two editions) and I thought about the importance of non-rare physical books.

I spend most of my days looking at lit screens.  My job as Associate Director of the Center for Digital Humanities means that I work mostly with digital surrogates of rare materials.  The disc out of alignment in my neck (I fell off several of those horses back in middle school) means that I physically cannot read anything that weighs more than one pound.

Books are heavy.  Books take up space.  And it is the information or the characters or the story that live in our imaginations and direct the course of our lives, that is alive, and not the pulped trees and chemicals which bind them into neat boxes — as fascinating and illuminating as those codices can be in a rare-book context.

And yet.  I don’t look at my Kindle and see memories.  I look at it and see a gadget.  Even though until it was invented I despaired of ever being able to read my favorite novel ever again.  War and Peace weighs substantially more than one pound!

Where does that leave me?  I don’t know.  Physical books are not going away.  Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something — and it isn’t Digital Humanities, I can promise you that.

But libraries are putting the focus more and more on special collections and moving their non-special/ordinary? collections off site and entering into collaborative borrowing agreements.  I can’t and won’t argue with this.  Space is limited.  Money is limited.  Time is limited.

These days I buy almost all of my books in electronic format, unless they are art books or unless I think my husband (who refuses to buy a Kindle) will want to read them.  Somedays I wonder whether that means my shelves will tell a story that basically ends in 2010.

When we finally moved to Princeton in June, I almost gave away the vast majority of my history books — everything I had kept in the half-hearted belief that I might someday teach an American history survey class to undergraduates.  My husband convinced me otherwise.

“Are these good books?”
“Then keep them.”
“We don’t have the space.”
“Your new office will have more bookshelves, right?”
“Then put the history books there.”
“But I don’t need them anymore.”
“Someone will. And then you can give them a book.”

My favorite professor from college, Margaret M. Mitchell (now Dean of the University of Chicago Divinity School and a woman with her own interesting relationship to literature) often invokes St. Augustine to say that the New Testament exists because someone had a letter and then handed that letter to someone else saying: “Take. Read. Good for you.”

Take. Read. Good for you. That to me, is the value of books.

Desiderata for A Digital Humanist: My Ada Lovelace Day Tribute to Elli Mylonas

So I always forget about Ada Lovelace Day.  Maybe it’s because my childhood hero was Marie Curie . . . and Madeline Albright — clearly I was always going to end up in DH.

But this year is important, because I want to highlight a woman I have worked with for three years, and who has taught me more about Digital Humanities than I ever thought I could (or still had to) learn.  I have been especially fortunate in DH, I’ve had many mentors, and despite other trends in the community, they have almost all been women.  But if Holly Shulman got me started, Bess Sadler taught me to code, and Bethany Nowviskie became my grownup heroElli Mylonas taught me how to be a professional Digital Humanist.

I met Elli completely by chance.  In the final hours of the 2010 Chicago Colloquium on Digital Humanities we found ourselves suddenly united in the face of a common enemy: the completely clueless (male) desk clerk who did not believe us when we told him we had already downloaded the new printer drivers AND restarted the machine, so all we required of him was to enter a user name and password so the computer could restart.  We eventually persuaded him to log onto the machine and thus achieved our ultimate goal: printing our boarding passes and getting out of Chicago.

As we headed into the final session Elli said she had enjoyed my talk and started rummaging around in her purse.  She eventually found a business card and handed it to me saying “If you ever find yourself in New England, let me know and I’ll set up a talk for you at Brown.”

When I wrote 2 months later to say I would be in Boston, Elli was as good as her word and better.  She organized my talk, gave me a tour of the campus (beautiful in the snow), and took me around to meet her colleagues — many of whom were already heading home before the blizzard really hit.  Within hours she had completely sold me on Brown University, and I vowed that if I ever had the chance to work with her,  I would take it.

That chance came just 3 months later, and I had the good fortune become the first Digital Humanities Librarian at Brown.

When I started at Brown, I had four years of DH project work under my belt, but only as a graduate student.  Elli offered to meet with me every Wednesday at 8:30am for coffee and conversation.  She told me about what she was working on and then answered any (and really all) questions I had about the university.  She brought me to all her DH project meetings, and graciously attended the few lined up for me.  And when it all became overwhelming, she told me about the early days of the Perseus Project or just talked about the avant-guard music/noise/multimedia concert she had attended the night before.

Have I mentioned at this point that she was never my boss?  And originally was in a different department?  No one asked her to do this, and when I have thanked her for keeping me afloat that first year, she was genuinely surprised that anyone wouldn’t offer this level of mentoring to a new, junior colleague.  Imagine a world where she was right.

From watching Elli (and receiving her advice), I learned not just how to ‘do’ DH, but how to manage DH projects.  She showed me how to write an agenda.  The importance of action items, how to learn the feel of a campus, how to engage stakeholders, how social contacts cut across bureaucracy, and what to do when a faculty member decides they want to apply for a grant that’s due in less than 2 weeks.  How to write a grant quickly, and how to write a grant well (but never in only 2 weeks).

I wish every new DH alt-ac could work with Elli.  And I know I am not the only person she has helped succeed.

One final note of awesomeness — Thanks to her Classics background, Elli refers to Project Outcomes as “Desiderata.”  And, really, what could be better than that?

Some thoughts on “Niceness” and the Yack-Hack Cycle

So apparently Twitter exploded yesterday, in that way that Twitter has of “exploding.” I missed it thanks to back-to-back meetings, a long commute, and a desire to spend time with my husband rather than check social media.

On any other day, I would probably be pissed as hell. But it’s not any other day. It’s September 11th, and I’m a New Yorker. I’m a New Yorker who watched a real explosion, who still lives with the fallout, and who tries to hallow the memory of the dead on that day and in all the wars since by studying diplomacy and seeking new ways of communicating in the hope of finding common ground.

Part of that search lead me to Digital Humanities. Some are now saying that Digital Humanities is too dysfunctional to be considered a community. Maybe that just makes us a family. I don’t know. I do know we’ve become quite comfortable with name calling over the past few years. We said we wanted a bigger tent and now we’re pulling the poles from the ground. Growth pains are inevitable, but vindictiveness, suspicion, and careless dismal of pain are choices. 140 characters may be just enough space for the cut direct, but we don’t have to give it.

And speaking of Twitter, if Digital Humanities has taught me anything, it is that we are called to be thoughtful, critical users of technology. Tools and workflows shape our content, whether it is fixed menu categories or editorial practices. But we (should) know enough to explain our choices. There is no web authoring platform so restrictive it cannot have an About page or tool so small it doesn’t need a file that explains the creator’s intentions.

There are no self-signifying technologies. We choose our tools in full knowledge of their strengths and weaknesses. We build tools knowing our own limitations. At any given moment the tool is what is it is, whether you built it or someone else did. The choice to use it is yours, and you owe it to yourself and your scholarly community, to explain the choices you made. When our best faith efforts to promote openness and share our knowledge exclude others or warp perceptions in unacceptable ways then it’s time for us to take responsibility, to apologize, and to figure out how to fix it.

This is the Yack-Hack Cycle. It’s not a debate. There is no “right side.” We theorize, we model, we build, we reflect, we tweak. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

I was on earlier today and watched the letters fall down the side. At one point a capital H and a capital D came into view and danced with each other down the screen.

Digital Humanities
Humanidades Digitales
Digital Humanities
Humanidades Digitales

It reminded me of Isabel Galina’s incredible closing keynote at DH 2013 in Lincoln, Nebraska. If you haven’t already watched it, do so ASAP or read it here

This brilliant, insightful younger woman stood at the same podium Willard McCarty had spoken from the night before and, in her second language, quietly (and I would say nicely) told the international community of Digital Humanists that we are not nearly as nice as we want to believe. We exclude people on the basis of language, culture, gender, geography, finances, and access to cyberinfrastructure. Ignorance or mistaken good intentions doesn’t get us off the hook, they just commit us to fixing the problem. She then listed a number of tasks ranging from simple to complex that will help address those issues. I was floored, humbled, and inspired.

I am part of the problem. I want to be part of the solution. But after seven years in DH, I know I am not alone.

Network Analysis for Humanists

Today I am teaching a workshop called “Network Analysis for Humanists” at Northeastern’s NULab for their Boston Area Days of DH.

If you attended my workshop (or are just interested in learning more), here are a few suggested readings. I would include more, but following the links from Scott Weingart’s blog posts will help you find most of them.

If you have additional readings, put them in the comments and I’ll move them into the main post.

Happy Networking!

Scott Weingart’s Demystifying Networks I & II
2 blog posts from his great blog “The Scottbot Irregular”, republished in the first volume of the Journal of Digital Humanities

Gephi Tutorials
Gephi is one of the main open source packages for analyzing and displaying networks. It is very powerful, but also finicky and rarely intuitive. I strong suggest looking through the 3 ‘Official Tutorials’ before you start using the program. There are presented as slides (without audio) but provide a good overview to the software. If you keep using Gephi, you will probably find yourself returning to them again and again.

Tales from the Port: Part 2 — Migrating the Database

In retrospect, maybe I shouldn’t have promised to write a blog post every night this week. The port has been going well, but I’ve been working late each night, and it’s just too hard to write clear English prose starting at midnight. So here, at last, is the promised post on migrating Project Quincy’s database from Rails to Django.

My first love in Digital Humanities is data modeling and database architecture. The actual “code” in Project Quincy is pretty basic by professional programming standards. The underlying data structure is the real intellectual achievement. I spent six months of my nine month fellowship at the Scholars’ Lab designing a database that would effectively and efficiently model historical sources and allow scholars to catalog and analyze their research in meaningful ways. I even wrote a program called DAVILA to auto-generate interactive, color coded, annotated diagrams of my schema to show other historians how the system works. After all that work had been done, designing the interface for The Early American Foreign Service Database (EAFSD) took about two weeks.

As I mentioned last time, Rails and Django are similar frameworks for connecting databases to websites. They both have procedures for creating new database instances in several open source databases: MySQL, PostgreSQL, or SQLite3. But I already have a MySQL database with all the information I’ve been entering for the last three years. I really didn’t want to redo all that work, so I kept the same underlying database and connected it to the new Django project, with a few minor changes.

In the past three years, I’ve found a few shortcomings in the data model I created. So, I’ve used the port as an opportunity to add a couple more tables. Project Quincy records a “latitude” and “longitude” point for every location in the database, but I forgot to indicate which geographic coordinate system the latitude and longitude were from. Luckily for me all my coordinates were in the same system, so my maps work properly. But I can’t count on that forever, so I added a table called CoordinateSystem. I also extended the table that records which individuals were members of a specific organization. I had a field called “role” but there was no way of creating a list of all those roles and reusing them. I added two new tables “RoleTitle” and “RoleType” to allow for lists and grouping by type.

Then there were a few changes required by Django, mostly to my Footnotes module. Since Project Quincy is designed to store scholarly research, it gives users the ability to ‘footnote’ any record in the system by attaching the record to a cited source and saying whether or not that source supports the information in the record. This is accomplished by the Validations table, which can (but does not have to) be connected to any record in the database. This type of unspecified relationship is known as a “polymorphic association,” and Rails and Django implement polymorphic associations differently. Rails uses the name of the table to create the relationship. Django makes a meta-table that holds the names of all the other tables and assigns them a numeric key. So, I had to replace my table names in the Validations Table with their new keys. Figuring out how to do this took a post to the ever helpful Stackoverflow website and I was back in business. The old Footnotes module also had a little “Users” table that kept track of the people who could upload into the system. Django comes with a very powerful authentication system which also records users, so I got rid of my little table and hooked the footnotes module directly into the django_auth_user table.

I had greater plans to include an “Events” module. But, as I started to design one, I realized that this was not a decision I should make on my own and under a deadline. Project Quincy is an open source project, and I want other scholars to use it for their research. I need to do more reading on modeling events and talk to people before I commit to one particular structure.

So how did I actually migrate the database? MySQL has a nice command for backing up and redeploying a database; it’s called mysqldump. I took a dump (yes you read that correctly:-) of the database off my server and used it to create a transition database on my local machine. I then went in made the changes to the transition database directly, safe in the knowledge that could always restore the original database if I messed up. Once I had the transition database the way I wanted it, I made a second dump and used it to populate the database Django had already created for the new project.

Once all my data was in the new database, I ran an extremely helpful Django command ‘inspectdb.’ This lovely little program examined my database and created a file with its best guess on how to represent each database table in Django syntax. Then all I had to do was check for errors, and there weren’t many. It mistook my boolean (true/false) fields for integers and wanted me to specify some additional information for self joins (tables containing more than one relationship to the same, second table).

Once I had the tables properly represented it was time to sort them into their appropriate ‘applications.’ One of the biggest diferences between Rails and Django is their file structure. Rails creates a folder (with its own nested folders) for every table in the database. Django asks developers to chunk their database into folders called applications, designed to keep similar functions together in the system. Project Quincy was always designed with six modules: Biographical, Locations, Correspondence, Citations, Organizations, and Assignments. Each of these modules has 2 to 8 database tables inside it. One of the biggest decisions I had to make in planning this port was how to use applications. Did I put everything in one app folder, create an app for every module, or find an new way of grouping my system?

To make the decision, I wrote out index cards for each module listing the tables involved and what other modules it related to. I realized that Assignments and Organizations both brought people to a location for a reason, and that I would likely be visualizing those two kinds of relationships in vary simliar ways, but what should I call the new app? I ran the idea past my father, who has been designing databases since before I was born and recently took his entire development to python and django. He suggested the name “Activities” and that my future Events module could go in the same application.

After I sorted my tables into their appropriate (and newly created applications) I synced my Django project with the underlying database. So far, everything looks good.