The humanities make for awkward data

I’m in the earliest stages of a project that hopes to combine data visualization and network analysis to cast light on English medieval scribes, medieval manuscripts, medieval texts, and the unstable connections between them. While generating a small sample dataset in order to help conceptualize what usefully-structured data might look like for the project, it has become abundantly clear how awkward the fit can sometimes be between the digital and the raw, messy “stuff” of the humanities.   There is an enormous amount of uncertainty in the things I work on: books dated to within a quarter century or so, texts dialectally localized not to lat./long. but to a county or a large chunk of the country, manuscripts about which we know very little until they entered libraries and collections in the 18th century.  It’s not simply that we lack metadata for medieval books and texts, but that the nature of the metadata, and expectations for the information, are simply different when looking at 600-year-old books.  There are ways to accommodate these uncertainties in nice, tidy schemas, of course, but one thing I hope to spend some time thinking about this weekend is what messier schemas might look like and how they might work: what digital structures more closely modeled on the analog sources of the humanities might resemble, what ignorance might look like when acknowledged and included rather than elided.

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About bookhand

Having graduated from Berkeley at the height of the dot-com boom, I did what everybody else did, and worked at a startup software company. I was the technical writer at an 11-person company targeting the enterprise space - it was a swift education in doing a bit of everything. I supported myself through graduate school with some of those skills - first with web design, then as a network admin, and ultimately as a generalized IT person for several small businesses. Computers thus paid the bills while I pursued my graduate research in medieval literature. In the years since I started working at UCLA, however, I have finally begun to bring those two sides of my interests together. I launched a Catalogue of Digitized Medieval Manuscripts in 2008, which was a big deal if you were a medievalist who worked with manuscripts, though less noteworthy for the rest of the planet. Even as I begin work on my second book, I'm also looking to bring my hybrid interests to bear in initiating new tools, projects, and conversations in the digital humanities.