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Stanford digital humanities researchers receive National Endowment for the Humanities grant
BY CORRIE GOLDMAN
A grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities (NEH) will enable Stanford researchers to develop a suite of network visualization tools specifically designed for humanities research.
, an associate professor of French and history professor Paula Findlen
are the principal investigators of “Networks in History,” which was awarded nearly $300,000 from the NEH.
“Networks in History” is one of six NEH Digital Humanities Implementation Grants
, which support digital humanities projects that have “successfully completed a start-up phase and demonstrated their value to the field.”
The grant will allow Edelstein, Findlen and their colleagues to build on visualization tools they developed for Mapping Republic of Letters
, a Stanford digital humanities endeavor that is using technology to analyze the circulation of people, letters, and objects during the 17th and 18th centuries.
Drawing from an array of digitized materials from Stanford Library, Oxford, Bibliotheque National de France, the Centre National de la Recherché Scientifique, and other archives around the globe, Mapping Republic of Letters projects have given scholars new perspectives on the social networks that connected the intellectuals of the European Enlightenment.
Findlen, a science historian who has been mapping and analyzing
the surviving correspondence of the mathematician and astronomer Galileo, said that the work has given her “the opportunity to engage in a long-term collaboration, with colleagues, students and academic technology specialists, to figure out how to make database analysis a more dynamic and interactive tool of research.”
A scholar of eighteenth-century French history and literature, Edelstein has been using metadata provided by the Electronic Enlightenment Project at Oxford University to situate Voltaire’s correspondence network
within the broader Enlightenment Republic of Letters
However, as professors Finden and Edelstein and other humanities scholars experimented with the data through a range of case studies, including interactive visual representations of Benjamin Franklin
and John Locke’
s social networks, they discovered the tools were lacking.
“Almost all of the data visualization tools that are currently available have been designed with modern data sets in mind,” Edelstein said. Existing tools, such as those for statistical, literary and spatial analysis, “don't work well for historical data, which tends to be messy and incomplete,” Edelstein added.
Nicole Coleman, the academic technology specialist who contributed to the development of each of the Mapping Republic of Letters case studies, said that as she and the researchers built those visualizations they didn’t realize they were at the “beginning of a deep exploration of how to use graphical interfaces for humanistic inquiry.”
As the “Networks in History” team described in the grant application, the massive influx of big data in the electronic age means that humanities scholarship is “on the cusp of a methodological revolution.”
With support from a previous NEH Digging into Data Challenge
grant, the Mapping Republic of Letters team spent the last couple of years developing and experimenting with visualizations of correspondence and travel. Five resulting prototypes were driven by real historical data sets and research questions.
For example, to explore travel on the famed Grand Tour, the team created an interactive version of Joseph Priestley’s A Chart of Biography (written in 1765, it traces significant figures throughout history and is one the earliest such timelines.) With the digital version, scholars can pan and zoom, click through layers of information, and sort and filter according to any number of attributes associated with individuals represented in the database.
Digging into Data funding ended in 2012, and the primary objective with the new grant, Edelstein noted is to build on the prototypes and “make computational tools that facilitate qualitative, and not just quantitative, analysis.”
Traditional computational visualization formats, like graphs, bar charts, and scatterplots can be abstract, but Coleman said customized tools contextualize fragmentary information and “make visible possible connections that are not otherwise in the data.”
Coleman, who heads the Humanities + Design Lab
, which will manage “Networks in History,” said her team wants to “inject humanities thinking into the design of visual interfaces by bringing out spatial, temporal, and relational dynamics.”
As an example, Coleman pointed to the initial point A to point B map views they created for three of the prototypes: Corrispondenza, Inquiry, and Ink, which were “based on the source location and destination location of letters.” The new mapping view, Coleman said will take into account “either points alone, point-to-point, or sequential data.”
With this more nuanced representation of the data, the researchers “will be able to map not just the exchange of letters, but any type of location-associated data like place of birth, place of publication, travel, etc.” Coleman said.
The researchers, Coleman commented, want to create research tools that “take advantage of our innate ability to organize information meaningfully,” without “reducing it and forcing it into a grid, be it a map, timeline, or network graph.”
The specialized suite of tools will be designed “so that anyone interested in history can easily use them,” said Edelstein. Open source modules or “widgets,” will benefit all walks of researchers, from amateur historians to high school students, though Edelstein noted that scholars working on the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment “will probably benefit the most from this work, since they can use the tools as well as the data, and even upload data sets of their own.”
The new NEH Implementation Grant will support a full time programmer and two post docs who will focus on creating not a set of applications, but “techniques for making graphical interfaces beneficial for humanities research,” which Coleman hopes will ultimately “influence how tools for data analysis in other fields are built.”
Corrie Goldman is the Director of Humanities Communication for the Stanford Humanities Center.