Posts Tagged ‘Open-source tool’

NEH Digital Humanities Startup Grants: Funding the Future

May 13, 2012

Adapting the “‘high risk/’high reward'” model often employed in funding the sciences, NEH Digital Humanities Startup Grants reward originality. To be considered, the proposal must entail an “innovative approach, method, tool, or idea that has not been used before in the humanities” (Digital Humanities Startup Grants Guidelines, p. 2). These Startup Grants fund two levels of projects. As expected, the Level I award supports projects at the embryonic stage of development, while the Level II award funds projects that are more advanced and nearing the implantation stage. The Grant Guidelines provide full details.

In late March the NEH Office of Digital Humanities announced the most recent projects to be awarded a NEH DH Startup Grant. As in the past the projects receiving funding were diverse and promising: a workshop to assist university presses in publishing digitally-born, scholarly monographs; tools to convert text to braille for the visually impaired; improvements to OCR correction technology; software adapted to enable better identification and cataloguing of various features within illustrations in the English Broadside Ballad Archive, a prototype application to promote analysis of visual features such as typeface, margins, indentations of printed books, to name a few.

While these grant-winning projects all carry brief descriptions, they are still in their gestation or early implementation phase. A better sense of what this funding yields can be gleaned from the NEH “Videos of 2011 Digital Humanities Start-Up Grantees” as well as the other online material that has emerged in connection with these projects. The following showcases a few of the 2011 DH Startup grantees most likely to interest EMOB readers.

As the project’s title “New Methods of Documenting the Past: Recreating Public Preaching at Paul’s Cross, London, in the Post-Reformation Period” suggests, this project seeks to reproduce the seventeenth-century experience of hearing a sermon in Paul’s Cross. To do so, it employs architectural modeling software and acoustic simulation software to re-create conditions that will mimic those of a time in which unamplified public speaking competed with the sounds of urban life. One of the questions this simulation aims to answer is whether the printing of many Paul’s Cross sermon points to their popularity among those who gathered to hear them or, instead, to the need to distribute printed versions because their original oral delivery was inaudible save for a few. English professor and Project Director John Wall’s The Virtual Paul’s Cross website details the project’s objectives and its progress. The site also contains a blog that offers occasional updates . Here, for example, it offers various views of the draft model created by Josh Stephens using Sketch-Up such as this perspective of the Churchyard with the east side of the Cathedral:


From John Wall’s The Virtual Paul’s Cross Project blog, May 15, 2012

Preliminary results from the acoustic simulation will be available this month.

Another project, the University of South Carolina Research Foundation’s “History Simulation for Teaching Early Modern British History” integrates gaming with the humanities. The interactive “Desperate Fishwives” game, first conceived by Ruth McClelland-Nugent, (History, Augusta State University) who serves as a consultant to the project, enables student to experience life in a seventeenth-century by assuming the persona of a villager who must adhere to the conventions and social rules of early modern England or face the consequences. Play is designed to take place in hour segments, so the game can be played over several class periods or assigned for homework. After the completion of play, students write a narrative of their experiences, an assignment aimed at teaching historiography. An article appearing in the Columbia, SC Free Times, “Desperate Fishwives Players Navigate 17th Century English Village Life,” offers an enthusiastic account of this teaching tool. In addition to producing this specific game, the project also hopes to provide tools and documentation that would help humanities scholars create educational simulation games suitable for their particular discipline.

In comments to an earlier EMOB post, we referenced a project out of the University of Washington, “The Svoboda Diaries Project: From Digital Text to ‘New Book'”. Yet its innovativeness warrants mentioning it again here. The project features a 19th-century travel diary written by a European but in Arabic. The following description, taken from the project’s successful 2011 NEH grant abstract, offers a succinct overview of this rich project:

Based on its work with a large corpus of personal diaries from 19th century Iraq, the project will develop and test a process for the simultaneous web and print-on-demand publication of texts and transcriptions of original manuscripts with annotation, indexing, translation, images, etc. in complex scripts [l-r and r-l, English and Arabic, in our case]. This process, involves a re-thinking of “the book” that will use digital and new-media resources to combine the functions of traditional print publication, including editing, book design, printing, advertising, and distribution with web-based publication and produce, in house, a low-cost printed book supported by a wide array of web-based materials. Moreover, the “book” (both web and print) will flow directly from a richly tagged TEI-compatible XML text prepared for scholarly investigation, and be capable of continuous regeneration from up-dated and enriched versions. Funded Projects Query Form

For EMOB readers, the project’s interest may well stem from its work in creating a “publishable book on its website that anyone can produce using a machine like the Espresso Book Machine (see an earlier EMOB post. An equally fascinating feature of this project is its dual display of English and Arabic text as this sample page illustrates.

Designed especially for literary analysis, University of California Berkeley’s WordSeer: A Text Analysis Tool for Examining Stylistic Similarities in Narrative Collections uses grammatical structure and national language patterns; its functions include visualization tools. In addition to the NEH lightening round video, other videos and blogs detail ways that this tool has been used to ask questions of Shakespeare’s works as well as African American slave narratives.
In WordSeer demos: Men and Women in Shakespeare, the tool is employed to compare analytically the ways in which men and women are depicted in various circurmstances. The video “How Natural Language Processing is Changing Research” provides a more extended look at WordSeer’s usefulness for analyzing slave narratives, but its purpose is also to underscore how such a tool can benefit humanities scholars. In this video the discussion veers toward presenting reading as a chore from which humanities scholars seek relief. On that note, a student in Dr. Michael Ullyot’s undergraduate ENG 203 course, “Hamlet in the Humanities Lab” at the University of Calgary offers some pertinent comments. In her penultimate blog post for the course, Stephanie Vandework devotes a section to “The Pros and Cons of Exploratory Analysis” and examines more closely the claims in the WordSeer Shakespeare demo, finding some to suffer from overgeneralization. (For a view of the course from the instructor’s perspective, see Dr. Ullyot’s presentation, Teaching Hamlet in the Humanities Lab, for the Renaissance Society of America conference this past March 2012.)

These four projects represent just a glimpse of the many fascinating undertakings featured in the NEH 2011 Lightening Round Videos. That some projects such as WordSeer are already being incorporated into courses speaks to the rapidity with which research and pedagogical practices are changing.

Digital Humanities and the Archives I: Economics and Sustainability

February 22, 2012

Those directly involved with digital archives contend with numerous issues that the general academic community often fails to understand or address, even though they bear significant implications for the future of scholarship.

–Sheila Cavanagh, “How Does Your Archive Grow: Academic Politics & Economics in the Digital Age”

While the spread of print prompted the coining of new words such as “manuscript” and “handwriting” to describe the older technology of writing, the pervasiveness of new media today has yielded no newly invented vocabulary to identify print. Instead, the world of new media has created its own lexicon consisting of either newly devised words–website, blog, crowdsourcing, or texting, to name a few–or terms forged by combining adjectives such a “digital” or “electronic” with existing nouns to distinguish the new from the old. Despite these different etymological trajectories, the relationship between the digital and print, much like the interactions between print and manuscript, is often a symbiotic one and one that almost always transforms our understanding of the older media.

Digital tools, for example, are transforming our conceptions of and theorizing about “archives” as well as our actual use of these repositories, be they material or virtual entities. Similarly, digital facsimiles are exercising various effects on our understanding of original documents. Our digital environment is shaping the kinds of archival projects being undertaken, the methodologies used, and/or the types of research questions posed. Interactions between the digital and the archival are creating new paradigms or inspiring shifts in existing models of document preservation, audiences, access, and more. The advent of the digital archive, for instance, has afforded a ready means for humanities scholars to engage the public in their scholarship. Finally, digital tools and platforms are addressing and reconfiguring questions concerning the economics, equity, and accessibility of archival materials.

The archive in the digital age is a complex topic approachable from multiple angles and involving “numerous issues that the general academic community often fails to understand or address, even though they bear significant implications for the future of scholarship” (Cavanagh). Focusing on economics and sustainability, this post is the first of several entries devoted to issues surrounding archival transformations in the digital era. The discussions arising from these posts also serve as preparation for the “Digital Humanities and the Archives” roundtable that will take place on Friday, March 22nd, at the upcoming ASECS 2012 conference in San Antonio, Texas.

Just as the term “digital humanities” gives rise to numerous definitions, the word “sustainability” in the digital environment also carries multiple meanings. As a June 2011 JISC publication, “Funding for Sustainability: How Funders’ Practices Influence the Future of Digital Resources” reports, the word has been used to denote “a wide range of practices of varying rigor” from long-term access to preservation measures and securing audiences and users. No matter how one defines “sustainability,” however, economic factors are tightly intertwined with the creation, maintenance, and sustaining of digital work. Other forms of support (often entailing economic consequences) also play a significant role “as projects must justify their value not just to their funder, but to their host institution, to their users and to others whose support they require” (“Funding for Sustainability” 4).

As a primer to these issues, Daniel Pitti’s “Designing Sustainable Projects and Publications” offers a highly serviceable introduction to creating digital projects that will endure. While his article focuses on technical and logistical issues, ranging from mark-up technologies to selecting the suitable kind of databases, identifying the needs of users and uses, addressing intellectual property concerns, and adhering to industry standards, and more, collaboration at all stages emerges as a key tenet for ensuring the longevity and utility of the digital archive and other forms of digital projects.

In “How Does Your Archive Grow: Academic Politics & Economics in the Digital Age” ( Appositions May 2011) Sheila Cavanagh draws from her own experiences as Director of the Emory Women Writers Resource Project (EWWRP), a database featuring “female-authored and female-centered texts. . .from the 16th to the early 20th centuries,” to detail broader economic and collaborative issues affecting the sustainability of digital archives. That she began this archive as a solo project in 1995 affords a useful historical perspective to her remarks. Not surprisingly, a need for more funding and technical expertise resulted in EWWRP quickly becoming a collaborative project. While the academy has been slow to accept collaboration in the humanities and to devise protocols for evaluating digital scholarship and rewarding its practitioners, Cavanagh rightly notes that funding circumstances in contrast have changed in the intervening years. The ease with which she received institutional support for grant applications in the mid-1990s has now been replaced with a multi-level vetting process to assess how the “project and its needs rank with sufficient prominence on various institutional priority lists.” The end result? “In any given year, it is by no means guaranteed that innovations we envision for our database of early women writers will coincide with institutional desires.”

Moreover, as Cavanagh and others have also observed, not only have funding bodies become less enamored with projects that solely digitize documents in favor of those that offer more cutting-edge technology, but grant bestowers have also favored the funding of start-up projects as opposed to supporting the further development and maintenance of these projects. To be fair, the latter tendency is showing some signs of change as evidenced by grants such as the NEH Digital Implementation Grant “that seeks to identify projects that have successfully completed their start-up phase.”

The kinds of economic and sustainability issues surrounding today’s virtual archives are not the ones that concerned scholars working in the pre-digital age. Instead, for those professors and graduate students, the main economic issues consisted of having the funds and time needed to travel to the archives. While travel expenses remain legitimate needs today, access to commercial subscription databases, funds to support one’s own digital projects, and the feasibility of embarking on such a project for pre-tenured scholars have emerged as pressing economic concerns. Similarly, in the past, academic libraries created and maintained archives for users (admittedly often with some faculty consultation and collaboration). Yet today more and more professors, graduate students, and even some advanced undergraduates not only use archives, but they also build them and must plan for their management, growth, and sustainability as well. In doing so many enter into collaborative partnerships with libraries, while others form part of an academic center devoted to digital work. Some digital archives aim to reach more than an academic audience and instead afford a space for public humanities. And in almost all cases our experiences working with searchable, sometimes multi-media archives cannot help but color our forays into traditional archives. Yet, what Ed Folsom has deemed “Database as Genre: The Epic Transformation of Archives” and other theoretical reconsiderations of “archives” are subjects for a follow-up post.

New Open-Source Tool!

August 5, 2010

Thea Lindquist sends the following note:

A colleague and I at the University of Colorado at Boulder are interested in the idea of adapting or developing an open-source tool designed for use with digitized historical primary sources and would be interested in your feedback. This tool would be aimed primarily at students and offer them enhanced opportunities to interact with the sources and collaborate with others, hopefully also from mobile devices. We feel that engaging student interest in this way is increasingly pressing as digital collections propagate; as students integrate Web 2.0 technologies into every aspect of their lives; and as close work with primary sources becomes an ever-more important component of humanities curricula. Depending on how things go, this tool could be the first in a suite of extensible, open-source pedagogical tools that will facilitate student engagement with primary sources.

We are considering a tool that will allow students to: view and annotate text-based primary sources as well as images such as maps, cartoons, and photographs; create linkages between documents within the collection and to outside resources; and save the augmented source as a new learning object that can be shared among classmates and (at the instructor’s discretion) released for broader consumption. This is just one idea – we intend to work with students to assess their needs but are also interested in the instructor perspective.

As a first step, we are creating a freely available digital collection of World War I primary sources to use as a test-bed and are now beginning to look into what sorts of tools are currently available or in development that aim to achieve the same sort of goals. That way we can contact potential collaborators and also be sure not to duplicate effort.


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