Bits, Bytes, Blogs, and Books

Scholars are using digital tools to expand access and find new ways of thinking about the humanities.

Scholars are using digital tools to expand access and find new ways of thinking about the humanities.

By Michael Anft

It was almost exactly 10 years ago when this magazine asked me to survey a fresh, new digital landscape at Johns Hopkins and then report back. Things were just heating up on campus then, with some techy blips just beginning to pop up on the scholarly radar.

At that time, Johns Hopkins was hardly seen as a cyber pioneer. In fact, there was a sense that the university was just catching up with the crowd.

Fast-forward to now: Johns Hopkins has not only caught up but is now helping lead the pack, say some researchers who work to develop new ways to study and teach the humanities.

“If you ask higher education people which institutions are leaders in digital humanities, you’ll hear Hopkins’ name mentioned, along with Stanford, Virginia, and a few others,” says Earle Havens, the Nancy H. Hall Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at the Sheridan Libraries. “We’ve made excellent progress. Ten years ago, digital humanities largely meant taking pictures of the pages of books and putting them online. Now, among other things, we can pick apart bits of information digitally within the images themselves and help researchers draw out their meanings to learn how people in ages past interacted with texts and used them as scholars.”

One sign of progress is the number of scholars who are jumping on board.

“I tend to be on the more old-fashioned, bookish end of the teaching spectrum,” says William Egginton, a professor of German and Romance Languages and Literature at the Krieger School, and the director of the Alexander Grass Humanities Institute, formed on campus last year in part to kick-start digital programs. “That said, I am excited by innovations, some hosted by Hopkins, that allow unprecedented access to and searching of early modern texts. I feel certain I’ll be using them in my classes in the near future.”

To learn precisely how the Krieger School has raced ahead to help its researchers, students, and teachers use bits, bytes, and high-tech platforms to dig at the past, we’ll need to progressively take several trips back into history, to where new methods are mining old stories—and yielding new findings.

1836: Tracing the Footsteps of Frederick Douglass

When Lawrence Jackson was hired as the Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of English and History last year, the author jumped at the opportunity to research the lives of Baltimore personages, including Billie Holliday, whom he had admired and studied while growing up in the city.

Jackson had also been fascinated with Frederick Douglass—particularly his early years on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and the time he spent working as a slave caulking ships at Baltimore’s harbor.

Soon after arriving at Hopkins, Jackson put several graduate students to work researching Douglass in a class called Mapping Frederick Douglass’ Escape: An Historic Maryland Odyssey. Jackson asked them to figure out how and where young Douglass lived, those whom he may have hung out with, and how his time in the city might have influenced his thinking.

“There has been a persistent thought among historians that though Douglass worked in Baltimore, he really received his education in abolition after escaping from slavery here in 1838,” Jackson says. “I’m trying to put some meat on the argument that he actually learned a lot while here, and long before he went on a tour with other abolitionists in 1841.”

His students use traditional tools of the historian and writer—poring over city directories from the period, reading yellowing copies of newspaper articles and abolitionists’ pamphlets—to flesh out the social environment Douglass lived in. But they went one step further, taking that analog information and converting it into four interactive online maps that follow Douglass’ movements. Using a geographical information system that incorporates old addresses, names, and landmarks, they analyzed who Douglass’ neighbors and co-workers were and how they may have helped form his ideas on slavery and freedom.

Douglass’ story, digitally presented, can be accessed by clicking on lines and pins, which activates lists of names, the locations of slave homes, and some context surrounding his workplace and social circles.

“If you traveled two blocks from where he lived, you’d find black caulkers like Douglass, but who were free,” Jackson says. “Those are people Douglass had contact with who likely had frequent discussions about slavery.”

A half-block away from Happy Alley, where the caulkers and their families lived, sat the residence where Douglass was sold an illegal set of seaman’s papers that allowed him to escape from bondage, via a boat to New York.

Jackson’s students were delighted by the prospect of using digital means to investigate Douglass’ life. They dug into the assignment with gusto. They studied old maps, plotted points on new ones, found references and records on Douglass’ original owner on the Eastern Shore, and coded in information about one slave owner who regularly whipped him.

By offering students the chance to master other research methods, Jackson hopes that they learn more than just facts. “The capacity to produce public scholarship with wide-ranging appeal to a larger audience, and in a readily accessible format, will be fundamental to future career opportunities,” he says.

1780: Chronicling the Travels of Slave Women

Long a media-savvy commentor with an appreciation for the internet’s unique power to grow political movements, Jessica Marie Johnson has converted her energy for change into a quest for knowledge.

An assistant professor in the Department of History and the Center for Africana Studies, Johnson has founded websites that track down information about enslaved women and the African diaspora, blogs that examine the lives of gay slaves, and sites focused on transformative justice issues. Her goal: to better understand history and strengthen social movements that aim to tell the full story of the global black experience, so that meaningful change can occur.

When she started her career more than a decade ago, Johnson used more prosaic means of inquiry in her work, even as she blogged and tweeted in her personal life and social justice work.

Soon enough, though, she began to incorporate digital methods into her career, eventually finding troves of information on how slaves traveled across the Atlantic, how they were treated, and how the lives of black women changed after the Civil War.

“I’ve moved from my personal passion to intellectual pursuits, with the hope that I can help dismantle systems of oppression through my research and teaching,” Johnson says. “The compiling of all this information allows us to dream up new ways to create and analyze data, and to put it to use.”

Central to her theories on gathering new information is the value of archives long overlooked by the usual investigative approaches: family tales that have become newly accessible via internet postings, “microblogs” that share bits of such information, uploaded letters that tell the stories of slaves and ex-slaves. Johnson also pulls together contemporary social media postings, which she collects as living history.

“I share everything,” Johnson says. “The data I tend to work in aren’t long, written texts. We can examine these postings to see what they tell us about how movements work and what people collectively are thinking.”

The practice of digital humanities provides justice-minded scholars such as Johnson with the chance to knock down the walls of history and move beyond the lives of rulers and the rich, or even the trail laid down by corporate media.

“I love digital humanities because it’s a big tent,” says Johnson. “We need big data projects, of course, but often it’s the micro-conversations—the blogs, the Twitter back-and-forth—that produce new insights.”

In Black Code Studies: Black History and Digital Media, an undergraduate course that she teaches each spring, Johnson encourages and coaches her students to use a wide variety of media in search of new ways to amass knowledge about race issues.

1570: Taking Notes, in Between Visits to the Queen

John Dee spoke to angels and demons. He also commanded the ear of Queen Elizabeth I, so much so that his astrological reading of the stars helped her decide the date of her coronation. A ballyhooed scholar of the Elizabethan Renaissance, his achievements included a mathematical preface to Euclid’s book on geometry, The Elements.

Dee, also an alchemist, wasn’t able to conjure the philosophers’ stone to convert base metals into gold, but he did leave us with a richer legacy: his scribbled insights captured in two dozen great books by other great thinkers in math, medieval history, navigation, and New World discovery. Copies of those books feature Dee’s signature squiggles, shorthand marks, doodled drawings, and deep thoughts written on the margins of their pages.

“Dee was the great polymath of the Elizabethan era. He was the quintessential magus, one who seemed to understand more about the ineffable secrets of nature than anyone else. He read books with a pen in his hand,” says Earle Havens, the Sheridan Libraries curator who has spearheaded Johns Hopkins’ contribution to an international project called The Archaeology of Reading in Early Modern Europe (AOR).

“By taking these texts, digitally mastering and analyzing them, and transcribing and making the notes searchable, we can actually begin to see what he was thinking as he read. We’re learning amazing things about the development of scholarly thought as it happened 450 years ago.”

The Archaeology of Reading was founded four years ago, with Havens as its principal investigator, and a team of talented scholars, digital humanists, and technologists, to take books once owned by Dee and another serial annotator of the Elizabethan era, Gabriel Harvey, mine them for marginalia and other markings, decode them, and make their pages and curious markings available to scholars worldwide.

Johns Hopkins doesn’t own any of the books in its physical collection. But in a digital era, new collections can be built around specific scholarly interests—even if those materials are elsewhere. AOR has amassed the tools to view the pages of its books digitally—and from anywhere there’s a computer or mobile connection. AOR researchers are now working on a statistical analysis of their dataset that will explore how often some terms or subjects are mentioned in relation to one another across the marginalia. They hope to isolate patterns where none could be seen before.

The work has been painstaking. Dee made observations in English, Greek, and Latin. Harvey added 20,000 annotations to his own copy of Livy’s History of Ancient Rome.

“What we’re offering is a more candid look at how the scholarly mind worked in the past,” says Havens.

The marginalia represents the beginning of an epochal change in humanities scholarship.

“We’re taking a look back at a revolution that happened in the wake of Johannes Gutenberg and the printing press,” says Havens. “How did they manage ‘too much to know?’ Obviously, that’s a really good question for today: How do we deal with all this knowledge now and in the future?”

1290: Romancing the Rose, and Other Tales

At the center of the Krieger School’s digital efforts to disseminate new knowledge 10 years ago was the text of Roman de la Rose, a medieval French text considered to be the Holy Grail of medieval European poetry. By 2007, scholars and digital experts at the Sheridan Libraries had managed to scan and place online 150 versions of the tale, each with its own variations in language, images, and presentation—making them freely available to study online around the globe.

Before they did, scholars needed to travel to libraries throughout Europe to look at various “original” copies of the poem. And when they couldn’t afford the time or money to do that, they would have to rely on “critical” editions—ones that were composites of two or three versions of the saga.

At the time, Stephen Nichols, now a professor emeritus of French, said the digitization of Roman de la Rose represented “the Copernican revolution.” He’s not backing down from that bold statement after the passage of years—especially since he has helped open new websites and journals in the interim that help scholars more deeply understand Roman and other classics.

“It’s an entirely new epistemology, a whole new way to look at literature, particularly medieval literature,” Nichols says today. Marginalia, binding, and other facets of a medieval work differed from place to place. Writers changed lines or added new ones. The revisions became the story. “It was almost like crowdsourcing,” he says. “And when we dealt with critical editions, we weren’t dealing with genuine medieval artifacts. Now we can, much more easily. It changes the questions we can ask about the text. We think of relativity between documents instead of a fixed universe of one. Suddenly, it’s all Einsteinian.”

3000 BC: Preserving Ancient Worlds

Last January, when ISIS took machine guns and explosives to an ancient Roman theater and a tetrapylon in the Syrian city of Palmyra, antiquities experts and historians gasped. That desecration of history came on the heels of several years of largely irreversible damage to Mesopotamian and other artifacts at the hands of the terrorist group in northern Iraq.

Preservation of 5,000-year-old objects of art and culture now, sadly enough, is often entrusted to people who can digitally scan pictures of the objects in 3-D, making them whole subjects for analysis.

In response to this need, the Krieger School’s Near Eastern Studies program is creating a course that will teach students how to use high-tech tools to preserve objects and search them for meaning. Designed by Megan Lewis, a PhD candidate, Hammurabi in the Digital Age: Digital Humanities and the Ancient Middle East, will devote two-thirds of the class time to explaining how digital scanners and printers can save antiquities for the purposes of scholarship.

Students will view a digital collection of objects stored at the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania, and will use technology, including scanners and printers borrowed from various Hopkins departments, to “recreate” artifacts from the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum. “The class is designed to get people doing more hands-on work,” says Lewis. By doing so, they’ll learn more about ancient Middle Eastern culture while honing their preservation skills.

Palmyra presents a precedent of sorts: After the destruction, the United Nations helped finance the creation of a 3-D replica of the sites that can be used to study them.

“Digital humanities play a huge role in the ability to do that,” says Lewis. “If you study something virtual, is it the same as studying the original? I’m not sure where I stand on that. But there are times when there’s no other choice.”