Where do the digital humanities and eScience intersect? — Crosspost with VertNet

This special post was co-written with David Bloom, VertNet Coordinator and crossposted (with some minor mods) at the Vertnet Blog.  

First and foremost, digitization of natural history collections and tools to make these digitized records available, such as VertNet, support global biodiversity research.  We suspect that the majority of use of digitized records will be to generate products such as species distribution models and change assessments, and to answer questions about what is in any given museum collection.  However, in the broader context of academic endeavor, these data could also serve as a unique link between the digital sciences and the digital humanities.  Work in the digital humanities includes everything from crowdsourcing manuscript transcription to humanistic fabrication to data mining — work that is not so dissimilar in method, description, or data type from that in the digital sciences.

Biological collections aren’t the only organizations engaged in massive digitization efforts; libraries and archives have been digitizing and making their materials discoverable and interoperable for decades as well.  As a result of these efforts, an unprecedented number of research materials from a wide range of domains are now available for free on the Web.  Just as VertNet does for biodiversity data, the University of Illinois’ Digital Collections and Content project does for cultural heritage records, the Australia National Library’s Trove for newspapers, articles, and music.  The Hathi Trust makes more than 9 million books available — and the list goes on.  Digitization allows these materials to be recombined and analyzed quickly and (relatively) easily in new ways.

Our question is a simple one:  Where do the digital humanities and e-science overlap and interconnect?  One method of digital investigation that caught our attention is the mapping of novels and other historic texts; researchers take prose text and mine it for mappable units.  Erin Sells and her students, for instance, have used this method to create dynamic maps of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, which incorporate “pictures, sounds, videos, and the text itself into the map.”  Similarly, in the Google Ancient Places project, researchers mine archaeological and historical texts to create databases of georeferenced ancient locales which can then be mapped.  Though these researchers are working with novels, they’re producing data in formats similar to those used for species occurrence records in databases such as VertNet.

This made us think: what sorts of questions could we ask of a data set composed of all kinds of georeferences — not just species occurrence records, but locations from history or works of fiction as well?  If students of the humanities can create maps with such texture using similarly organized data sets, could they build on this richness by including analysis of the natural world as it existed at the time described in the novel?  Perhaps searching on the VertNet portal (or GBIF or ALA) could provide a detailed list of vertebrate species and, with a little more work, the associated ranges of these species.  Suddenly, the map of Mrs. Dalloway’s world, and the atmosphere of Clarissa’s party, can be enriched not only with human influence and creation, but by the natural environment, too.  Conversely, data from diaries or other digitized sources could be mined for data about distributions of now-extinct species.  Could these data be used as observations and published as records along with those from natural history collections?

We hope that VertNet will support interdisciplinary research in the science and the humanities by providing new avenues for deeper readings, and new ways to reconstruct real and imagined worlds.  Where are the specimens that Lewis and Clark found on their expeditions and how do those link up with their journals (online already!!)?  What about whale species described by Melville?   How accurate are James Fenimore Cooper’s depictions of the animals Hawkeye and Cora encountered as they traveled through the Great Lakes?  What does this accuracy or inaccuracy tell you about Cooper as an author?  What about Thoreau’s notebooks of life at Walden Pond, and how have this iconic landscape and its animals and plants changed since his stay?

We also hope that other folks have more ideas about what new combinations of data and domains of inquiry are possible now that so many different sources of knowledge have been digitized.  How can eScience support and enrich the digital humanities and vice-versa? What happens when images of specimens* mix with drawings from the literature? Point-radius georeferences, for example, are easy enough to pull together from different sources — what further visualizations could be created with the combination of journals, books, and catalog ledgers?  What further ways can we use data and smarts to bridge gaps between the sciences and the humanities?

SYTYCD is offering the inaugural Thinky People’s Digitizaton Challenge (THIPDIC).   This first THIPDIC will go to the person or people who provide our favorite comment showing how digital science and the digital humanities intersect.  Any cool examples?  Any deeper thoughts about how this happens?  Any cute pictures of animals reading book?  Winners will be celebrated the world over and will be eligible for a (modest) prize, offered by Rob (don’t worry, it’ll be something interesting and of actual value).  You may now talk amongst yourselves.

* gigapan snakes in jar!

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About Andrea

Andrea is a Ph.D. student in Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and is supported by the Center for Informatics Research in Science and Scholarship. Her research interests include text mining; scholarly communication; data curation; biodiversity, phylogenetic and natural history museum informatics; and mining and making available undiscovered public knowledge. She is particularly interested in information extraction from natural history field notes and texts, and improving methods of digitizing and publishing data about the world's 3–4 billion museum specimen records so they can be used to better model evolutionary and ecological processes.
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8 Responses to Where do the digital humanities and eScience intersect? — Crosspost with VertNet

  1. Paul Flemons says:

    As always i enjoyed your post Andie – love your work. My initial response, and I really have to write with that in mind cos I know if I take too much time to cogitate it will all just evaporate from my brain in a seniors moment, is that Museums are already combining these in subtle ways that are lying dormant waiting to emerge from the chrysalis into the world! This emergence is beginning to gather momentum and Ill use my home patch of the Australian Museum as an example. We have large natural science collections, cultural collections, book collections (also known as a library) and archives which consist of collections of historic media such as photographic plates and field note books. By reaching across and into all of these collections we can create a user experience and knowledge base that bridges the divide between science and the humanities. We have recently been discussing creating online and inhouse exhibitions focused around expeditions where specimens and cultural objects tell a story of what was collected and what existed along their expedition path, their field notes (from Archives) describe their daily activities in a way which cannot be gleaned through the scientific record of collection and publication and add a humanities angle to the expedition, the literature that arose from specimens found on the expedition can be sourced from the library etc etc. So the stories and the data are there for exploring not just the biodiversity of the time and how it may have changed, but also the human stories, in written word and image. So we have the material – it is in many cases poorly organised and patchily digitised which provides an even more powerful motivation for the sciences and the humanities to unite in the fight against the common enemy – “undigitisation” . And yes it is happening already – the Australian Museum has an exhibition on at the moment about a couple of sisters (http://www.australianmuseum.net.au/Beauty-from-Nature-art-of-the-Scott-Sisters) who painted remarkably accurate and beautiful actual size illustrations of Lepidoptera in the mid 1800’s. The exhibition is about them as people and the beauty of their art AND the remarkable scientific illustrations and significance of their work. At the same time the Atlas of Living Australia and the Australian Museum have teamed up to create a crowdsourcing transcription site (http://volunteer.ala.org.au/project/index/42780) for the unpublished field note books of the Scott Sisters which facilitates access to these fabulous documents and their unpublished paintings AND captures useful scientific data from these note books. So we see science and the humanities not only intersecting but dare I say integrating :-)
    Cheers
    Paul

  2. Andie says:

    Paul! Thanks for the comment. Clearly, I will have to travel to Oz to see these exhibitions for myself… I think you’ve really hit the nail on the head here, and yeah, I really REALLY agree that field notes are such a natural intersection between the humanities and the sciences. I wanna work more on this!! Me and Rob and his student Gaurav are working on a small project (we’ll be talking about this in the next couple posts) that seems REALLY in line with what you guys are working on at the Australian Museum. We should chat more about this….

  3. Pingback: An Ode to Founders and a Field Notes Challenge: Part 1 | So You Think You Can Digitize

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  5. Andie, This is Allegra Swift Gonzalez. I met you at the Page Museum, my mom is Dixie Swift. This is the same Andie isn’t it? Any way, I discovered your page while doing research for Digital Humanists at the colleges, looking to see where DH and the hard sciences collide. I am so happy you are at Urbana. Great posts BTW!

  6. Andie says:

    Ahhh! Hey Allegra!! Glad to hear from you! Yes, same Andie, and glad you stumbled across this, and hope it was helpful! Tell Dixie hi from IL!!

  7. Pingback: How is finding a consensus among citizen science transcriptions like aligning gene sequences AND textual analysis of medieval codices? Part 2 | So You Think You Can Digitize

  8. Pingback: Notes from Nature: Citizen Science Meets Museum Collections and The Trouble With Transcriptions - SciStarter Blog at SciStarter Blog

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