Posted by: melissayang | December 4, 2010

digital humanities?

I found this New York Times article on “Analyzing Literature by Words and Numbers” quite intriguing. It’s the second article in a series on how “The Liberal Arts Meet the Data Revolution,” and I thought I would post it since it discusses Victorian literature a bit.

“Victorians were enamored of the new science of statistics, so it seems fitting that these pioneering data hounds are now the subject of an unusual experiment in statistical analysis. The titles of every British book published in English in and around the 19th century — 1,681,161, to be exact — are being electronically scoured for key words and phrases that might offer fresh insight into the minds of the Victorians.

This research, which has only recently become possible, thanks to a new generation of powerful digital tools and databases, represents one of the many ways that technology is transforming the study of literature, philosophy and other humanistic fields that haven’t necessarily embraced large-scale quantitative analysis.”

The ways powerful new technology can enhance the study of humanities in different ways “has generated exhilaration and also anxiety,” according the first article of the series. I haven’t entirely formulated my views on this topic, as it’s one that seems to come up over and over again in different forms, given the endless stream of information the age we live in throws at us. I am curious to hear your thoughts on it, regardless.


  1. Hey! I read that article, too and really enjoyed it. One of the parts I was most drawn to was the end:

    “Of more concern, Mr. Bevis said, is the fear that statistical measures could overshadow meaning and interpretation.
    Not to worry, say those who embrace the new methods. There is no need to pit computation against interpretation. If anything, Ms. Jenkins argues, large-scale, quantitative research is likely to highlight “the importance and the value of close reading; the detailed, imaginative, heightened engagement with words, paragraphs and lines of verse.
    “Close reading,” she continued, “will become even more crucial in a world in which we can, potentially, read every word of Victorian writing ever published.””

    I must admit I’m addicted to searching Project Gutenberg digitized versions of texts (and other sources of searchable online texts) for specific words. I love that it now only takes a matter of minutes to find all the times that, for instance, Gaskell used the word “gore” in all of her published works; that way, it is so much quicker to dive into close readings of passages rather than spend days scouring her novels for that one word. In that respect, I think that technology can be really liberating in that it frees up time, allowing researchers/scholars/students/writers to focus on close readings/interpretation/engagement with the text rather than on having to manually search for words or create statistics. I realize that my response pertains to something (searching for word use by one author or in one text) at a much smaller scale than that which Patricia Cohen, the author of the NYTimes article, describes: using statistics to draw conclusion about Victorian literature en masse. Like you, Melissa, I am not quite sure where I stand on this issue, but I am very curious to see what sorts of patterns these researchers find. I also think the article is helpful in pointing out the flaws of rushing to quick assumptions based on the statistics (in case the words refer to racehorses and not poetic language, as in the example given) and the need for close and careful considerations of the statistics. I could easily see how this type of project could run into the tempting but dangerous territory of drawing vast, general conclusions about the Victorian Age, so I am interested to see how that issue is handled and how this all plays out.

    Tangent: Have you read this article? It’s no longer recent, but it’s about France’s digitization of its literature and its distrust of google as the means to do so. It brings up the interesting question of national ownership (and ownership in general) in regards to online media.

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