Digital humanities summer listening

2010 June 22
by Shane Landrum

I’ve been working on some thorny research problems lately which are, mostly, about handling large volumes of archival data. When I get stuck, I try to go for a bike ride. Lately, following Ryan Cordell’s advice on podcasts as a way to broaden your intellectual horizons, I’ve been listening to scholarly talks on my rides. Here are 2 lectures I’ve particularly enjoyed:

Jeffrey McClurken on Confederate veteran families and database methods

Jeff McClurken’s recent talk at the Virginia Historical Society, “Take Care of the Living: Reconstructing Confederate Veteran Families in Virginia” is based on his newish book of the same name. He talks about the Civil War’s impact on Confederate veteran families after the war, including families whose their military relatives died in the conflict, were physically wounded, or were mentally traumatized.

McClurken’s conclusions are interesting, but what really got my attention was his use of a database to build his conclusions. For reasons he describes in the talk, he focuses on soldiers from a particular town in Virginia– Danville– and Pittsylvania County, which surrounds it. He put each veteran’s name into a database, then reconstructed how they and their families appear in the written record over time as they made claims on relief systems: local elites, churches, state military pensions, state asylums, and such.

On one hand, this is a method we don’t see a lot of anymore, reminiscent of the early 1970s New England community studies– but he has a database, rather than punched cards, which makes his analysis more flexible. He can do numerical analysis, talking (for example) about the differences in family finances caused by having a relative killed or having a relative wounded in Confederate service— but he can also track individuals and their families over time. I’m very interested in this, since it’s similar to some methods I’d like to use; I haven’t read the book yet, but I’m told that the appendix contains more technical details, and I’m looking forward to it.

Julie Meloni et al. on annotatable digital archives

Julie Meloni’s talk at the University of Virginia’s Scholars Lab, “N-Dimensional Archives,” is more conceptual and theoretical. She builds on the work of Johanna Drucker, Bethany Nowviskie, and others at UVa’s Speculative Computing Lab— particularly their concept of a ‘Patacritical Demon. Nowviskie’s introduction gives good context for why this is important. Meloni describes a system which allows multiple readers to annotate an electronic text and to see one another’s annotations.

Although Meloni’s trained in English and approaches much of this problem as a literary-studies scholar, I can imagine this system’s use for historians. (Note that she hasn’t actually built it, but she describes a little bit about the technologies which would enable such a system. The Open Annotation Collaboration is currently building some systems which might head towards this goal, and they’re worth keeping an eye on.) Jerome McGann also follows with some remarks. Although the Q&A session at the end didn’t come through the recording system well, I found the whole session good for sparking my thoughts.

If you’re interested in digital humanities and want to know more about the field, you could do far worse than to subscribe to the podcasts from the Scholars’ Lab and from the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities. Every time I listen to one of them, I get more excited about the new interdisciplinary work being done at the intersection of computing and the humanities.

If you have other suggestions for podcasts on history or digital humanities that you’ve enjoyed, please share!

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