#6 From Access to Analysis: Scale and the Digital Turn

#6 From Access to Analysis: Scale and the Digital Turn

“Global Shakespeare and the Digital Humanities” consists of a series of lectures at NYU Abu Dhabi aiming to discover the contribution of Shakespeare’s work in the global cultural heritage. I had the opportunity to attend one of the lectures and learn more about the digital humanities’ Shakespeare problem.

In the lecture “From Access to Analysis: Scale and the Digital Turn”, professor Anupam Basu started off by redefining the term “digital humanities”. “When we are talking about the digital humanities are we talking about building a set of tools for accessing materials or ways in which computational tools challenge us to think about culture in new ways”, asked Basu. I got quite confused. “How is culture connected to digital humanities and why would an algorithmic way of thinking change our perception about culture”, I questioned myself. I started getting an answer once Basu introduced the “Early Modern Print” project.

Website: link

The “Early Modern Print” project is a digital image archive of the first two centuries of English print. It currently consists of 65000 volumes, 2.5 billion works excluding scientific and musical notation texts. Basu’s goal was to have at least one edition of every printed text in English starting from the beginning of print in England up to 1700. His main idea was to reprocess texts and their metadata using visualizations and other computational tools with an aim “to see early modern book culture in a new way, as a structured flow of words”. When discussing the first phase of his project, Basu mentioned that his first obstacle was non-uniformity of the data available. He stated that the authors’ names were the only easily regularized elements. All other information like the dates were quite hard due to their mixed format.

His second problem was the amount of time needed for parsing certain information like genre, and mapping multiple representations into one. He specified that working with languages within this context is quite hard since they are dynamic and have a rich history of changes. “You want to keep the originality and algorithmically regularize it at the same time”, Basu concluded. This sentence connected Laura Estill’s argument that “No digital project will offer a complete, unmediated view of the past, or, indeed, the present” and triggered my computer science perspective to focus on ways in which we can bring a more complete digital image of the work we see on paper.

Source: link

Basu continued talking about the features of the “Early Print Library”. Apart from the fact that this project gives access to all texts in reading editions, he mentioned that the user is also able to correct the spelling. He was quite enthusiastic about engaging students with tasks where the percentage of correct encoding policy is available and they are required to find all spelling errors. He explained that this method triggers students to scan the original work and compare it to its online version. It pushes them to recognize patterns based on hierarchical search, algorithmic assumptions, thematic similarity, page layout and other logical elements.

Number of regularized spellings for the word “love”

Although Basu’s lecture was not a directly related to Shakespeare’s work, I was able to observe the digital humanities’ Shakespeare problem. I was able to see the implications of transferring early English texts into the digital world. I realized that there is a connection between culture and finding patterns. I became a strong believer that these visualizations impact the way we observe certain cultural signals that are being passed between generations. To conclude, I absolutely think that quantifying literature through algorithmic thinking tools is necessary in order to find certain cultural connections that the human eye might not have necessarily realized before.