Nothing to Fear in Exploring DH Tools

By William Dean

The pace of technological change is fast, and even faster than that is the pace of breathless articles about how libraries must change to survive. How will libraries that have offered cloth-bound tomes for decades, or centuries, deal with all those wires and screens? Technology can shape and change the way we think and work, but it is also a set of tools that are available for use, and while there will certainly be a lot of changes, the core goal of most libraries – providing access and specialized insight to information – remains the same. There are as many possibilities as pitfalls in new technology and the expanding field of Digital Humanities—and the digital tools associated with it—provides a great example of the changing – and unchanging – place of libraries.

Special libraries can benefit from the possibilities offered by advances in digital technology as much as large institutions, as they can support projects that tease out new insights from small or specialized collections, and offer new opportunities for collaboration. Digital Humanities provides both a great deal of new tools in addition to new ideas of how information can be presented, searched, and organized. Digital Humanities is a field that is still somewhat amorphous and hard to describe succinctly, but it seeks to apply new digital technologies to the humanities, and connect research and learning in new, more open and collaborative ways. To read more about it, check out the CUNY Digital Humanities Resource Guide. The array of tools means that information can be showcased in myriad creative ways that often enhance access and understanding. Digital humanities tools are ideally designed to both provide better access to information that minimizes the often time-consuming and tedious research phase of compiling and organizing relevant information, and also inspire users to do new things.

Your collection, however, does not need to be part of a huge research institution to use new digital tools. One project I have worked on is the Hidden Worlds Database, a digital humanities project that looks at the connections between female-identified science fiction authors who used pseudonyms; it also displays works by this group of authors and connections between them. A pretty specialized niche to be sure, but such small facets of a larger collection can often inform the way we think about whole collections and provide new insights. Our project team also looked at how connections between authors changed based on whether they used masculine or gender-neutral pseudonyms in their publishing careers.

This project was built using all open-source digital tools, such as python, Drupal and Gephi. We used python was used to write several small scripts to collect data, Drupal to provide a base for the site, and Gephi to build network visualizations of the authors. The goals were both to explore connections between the authors and to present the collection of works in a new way. The project shows how authors were connected to the same publishers, using network graphs based on publication information, and from that, which authors were more closely connected. Other pages on the site provide publishing and biographical information about the authors, and offer avenues for interested users to do their own research about these authors.

These tools take time to learn but can be used as building blocks for innumerable new projects, and excite new interest in what your library have to offer. Any collection has something interesting about it that can form the basis of project.

For those statistically-inclined, digital humanities and information visualization tools offer new ways to interact with even the most dreaded part of library administration: budgeting. As a small example I took data from the Institute of Museum and Library Services survey of state library agencies, and put it into a visualization program called Tableau. As you can see below, data about the expenditure of federal money in 2012 can be represented in a variety of ways:


On the top of the visualization there are tabs that let the viewer move between the visualizations. The bubble view gives viewers a quick glimpse of which states spend the most federal money on their library systems. California and Texas stand out, as one would expect given their population size, but Alaska is fairly large, as are North Carolina and Ohio. Another view is the bar graph, where viewers can see each state compared to each other, though in a less immediately appealing fashion than with the bubbles. There is also a hover effect that provides a pop-up of the data about an institution when the cursor is placed over a bubble or bar. Visual representation helps everyone grasp this type of information more easily, and particularly those who would drift off while looking at a spreadsheet (most of us), so displaying statistical information is an effective way to integrate digital humanities tools into even the administrative work we do for our institutions.

Finally, Tableau offers a dashboard view where you can see different visualizations on the same page, for comparison. It can be useful to have a visually appealing visualization matched with one that lists the data in a simple fashion, so different viewers can investigate the data in different manners. Once you get good at using the software there a great number of clever layouts and interactive elements that can be added to a visualization like this.

This is a very simple project that can be done with the most mundane of data from any organization. Think of what your organization could do with tools like these (and the many others available) on your own specialized collections. The possibilities are there, just waiting for librarians to dig in. Many libraries are already expanding their Digital Humanities offerings, including such hubs as CUNY and the University of Birmingham. Other library systems are offering more digital research resources to their students, such as the Hesburgh Libraries at the University of Notre Dame and Trinity College Dublin. The field of digital humanities is something libraries are well-suited to contribute to, and offers new opportunities to every area of academic study – even the dry world of classics has its own digital pioneers. Embracing new tools can be beneficial both to the libraries by staying relevant and to the research they will help support.