Taking a Team Approach: WU Libraries and the Humanities Digital Workshop

WU Libraries’ 2017 HDW Summer Fellows (left  to right): Michael Schaefer, AJ Robinson, Ruth Lewis, and Jaleen Grove; photo by WU Libraries

Digital humanities—the application of computer-based tools and strategies to humanities research—is flourishing at WU thanks in part to the efforts of the Humanities Digital Workshop (HDW), a division of Arts & Sciences that supports digital scholarship on campus.

The HDW assists with the projects of faculty members whose work can benefit from digital engagement, whether it be through electronic publishing or the collection and analysis of data. Projects involving Dada and Expressionist art, 19th-century German literature, and the poetry of James Merrill are currently on the roster of the workshop, which takes a collaborative approach to research, bringing together WU students, faculty, staff, and outside scholars.

Since 2008, the HDW has offered a summer workshop for graduates and undergraduates. The program gives students the opportunity to work on a research project led by a WU faculty member who acts as principal investigator. Students also have the chance to learn digital humanities methods, such as text encoding, data cleanup, and topic modeling. Advanced computer skills aren’t a requirement for participation. Technical support and instruction are provided by HDW assistant director Douglas Knox and digital humanities specialist Stephen Pentecost.

WU Libraries staff members have taken part in the summer program as fellows since 2015, through the coordination of Joseph Loewenstein. A professor in the department of English, Loewenstein co-directs the HDW with Ken Keller, leader of Arts & Sciences’ computing team.

HDW Co-Director Joe Loewenstein; photo by Sean Garcia

“We knew that our librarians were interested in digital humanities, and that they have huge skill sets for supporting research and using digital resources, so it was a logical move to bring them on board,” Loewenstein says. “They have enormous flexibility when it comes to problem solving. When a researcher can’t find something using one approach, they have four or five other approaches to suggest.”

The summer workshop starts in mid-June and lasts for eight weeks. In order to participate, library staff members submit a statement about why they want to take part, and they must be able to dedicate 20 hours a week to the program. Each library staff member is assigned to a project and teamed with a graduate or undergraduate student, although staff sometimes float between projects to provide assistance with research.

“Our main mission is to support faculty research, with a strong emphasis on pedagogy outside the classroom,” Knox says. “It’s an evolving mission as new faculty come on board with new interests. We take a team approach, and WU Libraries staff understand that approach. They bring skills that we can draw on. It’s cross-pollination—sharing and learning.”

The workshop takes place in Eads Hall, in WU’s Active-Learning Classroom, and culminates in presentations by participants. Along the way, there are group discussions, assigned readings, and meetings between students, faculty, and staff.

Most HDW projects are ongoing, with research progressing over a number of years. The ways in which digital tools are used for research differ from project to project. Some projects turn analog items—pages from a James Merrill manuscript, for instance—into shareable, digital objects that researchers can access online. With other projects, computational methods are used to analyze materials that have already been digitized.

WU Libraries data specialist Cindy Traub assisted with one such project—Early Modern Print—during the summer 2016 workshop. The project’s principal investigator is Anupam Basu, assistant professor in the department of English. During the workshop, Traub assisted Basu with code he created that allows users to measure the frequency or rarity of a collection of words in a large group of texts. For the Early Modern Print project, Basu applied his techniques to Early English Books Online (EEBO), a collection of more than 60,000 early English works that have been digitized.

“It’s not feasible that one person or group of people is going to sit down and read all of the works in EEBO and then be able to find the similarities and differences between them,” Traub says. “Part of what a computer can bring to the humanities is the capacity to investigate phenomena at scales that aren’t possible for humans.”

Traub, who holds a doctoral degree in mathematics from WU, found the immersive, collaborative experience of the HDW beneficial. “My background isn’t in the humanities, so the HDW really helped me understand the mindset of humanities researchers,” she says. “I now have a better grasp of the types of questions they ask and the techniques they find convincing.”

Daria Carson-Dussán, Romance languages and literatures and Latin American studies librarian, also participated in the 2016 workshop. She collaborated with students Joshua Brorby and Adam Becker on the text encoding of materials for the James Merrill Digital Archive (digital.wustl.edu/jamesmerrillarchive), a website that features digitized manuscripts and other resources connected to the poet’s career.

HDW summer fellow Adam Becker at work in Special Collections. Photo by WU Libraries

“The students and I really learned from each other,” Carson-Dussán says. “It was great to work with them and to see how much we could accomplish during the summer. I also enjoyed having the chance to add to the digital archive.”

The team spent part of the summer working in WU Libraries’ Department of Special Collections, which houses the James Merrill Papers, an archival collection of the poet’s materials that includes manuscripts related to his long poem “The Book of Ephraim.” For the workshop, they tackled a section of the poem, sorting through numerous drafts and arranging them chronologically. They then text encoded digital images of each draft using XML tags established by the Text Encoding Initiative, a nonprofit organization made up of scholars and research institutions that maintains guidelines for working with digital texts.

The code makes it possible for researchers to track Merrill’s edits, search his notes, and get general insights into his creative process. The team added a total of 67 new drafts to the Merrill Digital Archive during the summer of 2016.

“Our team had to make decisions that shaped the direction of the project,” says Becker, an undergraduate majoring in English and creative writing. “It was a privilege to have that kind of influence, to know that my opinion was valid in shaping the archive.”

In addition to finding out about Merrill and the basics of XML, Brorby, a graduate student in literature, says he received a “crash course” in working in WU Libraries’ Department of Special Collections.

“Having Carson-Dussán on our team was helpful, because she was already aware of many of the tools and resources available to people working in Special Collections, and she could direct us to specific websites or people who could help us,” he says. “She was concerned with the practicalities of the work we were undertaking: How can we make the materials easier for the general public to understand? How can more people get access to these resources?”

Preserving the projects

Making research accessible is a key part of the mission of the HDW—a part that often involves WU Libraries’ Scholarly Publishing unit. The unit oversees the WU Digital Gateway (digital.wustl.edu), the online portal where projects like the James Merrill Digital Archive reside once they’re ready to go live.

Scholarly Publishing built the website for the Merrill Digital Archive in collaboration with HDW staff, and it also oversees the addition to the site of new material like the encoded drafts created by Carson-Dussán’s team. The archive has been supported by the summer workshop since 2011. Shannon Davis, a member of Scholarly Publishing who serves as WU Libraries’ digital library services manager, has worked with teams each year on the project.

HDW Assistant Director Doug Knox; photo by Nitish Bhat

“The Libraries contribute to the lifespan and sustainability of these materials,” Knox says. “The HDW on its own doesn’t have the capacity to maintain project resources for the long term. Collaborating with the Libraries is our best way of addressing this challenge.”

The Digital Gateway provides public access to HDW projects, as well as all other digital initiatives and collections at WU. Students, faculty, and outside scholars can view the materials online any time.

“The creation of a resource like the Merrill Digital Archive is facilitated by digital humanities tools and infrastructure in ways that weren’t possible years ago,” says Andrew Rouner, director of Scholarly Publishing. “These types of projects need a place to live—they need preserving—and we are a natural fit for sustaining them and making them accessible.”

The Digital Gateway can be traced back to 2006, the same year Rouner joined WU Libraries. He was brought on board to manage and provide support for digital scholarship created at WU. Today, with a staff of six, Scholarly Publishing is continuing that work. The unit collaborates with faculty on the planning and execution of digital projects. It assists with all facets of the process, from offering advice on copyright issues to doing hands-on work such as scanning and coding. Rouner says his team is dedicated to maintaining the infrastructure for supporting long-term access to WU’s digital scholarship.

The output of such research seems to be increasing on campus. In summer 2017, the HDW featured more projects than in previous years—a total of 11.

The increase is also reflected in WU’s new graduate certificate and minor in Data Science in the Humanities. The academic tracks were created in response to growing interest in the HDW. Both tracks are offered through Arts & Sciences’ Interdisciplinary Project in the Humanities, an honors program for which Loewenstein serves as director.

“How do you take an expression or a pattern of imagery found in a novel and make it quantifiable, so that you can determine if it stands out from a thousand texts you haven’t read? That’s a conceptual problem that’s enormously productive,” Loewenstein says. “The tools used in digital humanities make it possible for us to take on such problems. This is part of the future of scholarship.”

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