Digital humanities is a new field at the intersection of computing and humanities that has provided scholars with a host of new tools. By searching millions of books, newspapers, and other texts, computers can, for example, help scholars understand why “the Great War” began to be called “the First World War” or analyze an author’s style to pinpoint who wrote an anonymous text. Digitization of books in distant libraries has made obscure texts available and searchable. And digital tools allow scholars to create visual representations of information — such as 3-D images of an ancient historical site — that can yield new insights.
“Computers quickly can accomplish things that once would have taken an entire career to do,” points out English professor Meredith Martin, who spearheaded the founding of Princeton’s Center for Digital Humanities last September. The center helps professors launch and manage digital projects and works with students studying the humanities and computer science. Martin spoke to PAW about how the center is improving scholarship at the University.
How have scholars used digital humanities at Princeton?
Szymon Rusinkiewicz, a professor of computer science, created a system to help archaeologists match up fragments and reconstruct ancient Greek frescoes. And history professor Emmanuel Kreike is creating an interactive digital archive, using aerial photographs and survey data, of the Namibia-Angola border across several decades. So you could look at a single village in one year, then 30 years later, and see how people’s homesteads and the landscape changed in response to social, political, or environmental factors.
How are you using these tools in your own work?
I’m creating an online archive that will be a searchable database of more than 10,000 texts published between 1750 and 1950 pertaining to the teaching of poetry. It brings together grammar books, periodical essays, reviews, letters, technical handbooks, and other texts — many of them primary materials that are otherwise unavailable — that will allow scholars to trace the popularity of texts or a particular concept across different media and over time.
Are students using the center?
William Gleason, the chair of the English department, is digitizing early children’s ABC books from the Cotsen Children’s Library in conjunction with his popular children’s literature course. Students are writing descriptions, keywords, and other metadata that make the books searchable. As they do that work, they explore the material, understand how a computer performs searches, and see their scholarship become public. They are making meaningful contributions to the field as early as their freshman year.
Courtesy the Princeton University Art Museum