August Inspiration: Neat Projects in the Digital Humanities

Rochelle Terman
August 02, 2012
Map illustrating where Italian Jews were most frequently arrested during the Holocaust.

August is here, which means getting our sharp pencils and crisp notebooks ready for the new school year. The 2012-2013 year will be an exciting one for digital humanities, especially on the Berkeley campus, and there is surely no better time to join the wave of digital humanities scholarship. One question I often hear is, what are digital humanities, and how can it further traditional humanities scholarship and teaching? I find that the best way to answer this quesiton is by referencing the old adage, "show - don't tell." 

In this spirit, here are, in no particular order, a few projects illustrating the breadth of possibilities in digital humanities. We hope it provides a spark of inspiration that motivates you to start your own project. 

1. Mapping the Republic of Letters

Social networks are not a 21st Century phenomenon. Long before there was Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter, there was the Republic of Letters, a vast long-distance community among Enlightenment intellectuals like Voltaire, Leibniz, Rousseau, Franklin, Newton and other pillars of the Western cultural tradition. 
With the help of advanced visualization techniques, Mapping the Republic of Letters, led by a team of students and professors at Stanford, literally "maps" the Republic of Letters by plotting the geographic data for the senders and receivers of correspondences. The project pulls from the Electronic Enlightenment database, an archive of more than 55,000 letters and documents exchanged between 6,400 correspondents, and maps the geographic origin and destination of the correspondence.
These maps allow researchers to perceive the larger patterns of intellectual exchange in the early-modern world and raise new questions about the importance of places, nations, and cities, in the circulation of knowledge.
While the site is temporarily unavailable due to redesign, this video gives a good overview of the project: 


2. Spatial History Project:

Also at Stanford, the Spatial History Project brings together scholars working on various projects at the intersection of geography and history using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in their research. Users can see visualizations on topics from fire and regrowth over ten years in Western Australia to the spatial dynamics of the Holocaust (from which we obtained the image attached to this post.)


3. Ethnography of YouTube

Digital Humanities are not only relevant to research, but can serve as an excellent teaching tool as well. Take the example of Kansas State University Professor Michael Wesch, a cultural anthropologist and media ecologist exploring the impacts of new media on human interaction. Wesch himself rose to internet stardom following a video he made last year on Web 2.0, which has been viewed over 11.5 million times just on YouTube alone:


Wesch became more interested in YouTube from an anthropological point of view, and so created a class that served two functions: teach his students the basics of ethnography and participant observation, while building a project on the anthropology of Youtube.

In addition to their own personal vlogs, many of the students also produced some excellent documentaries about YouTube as a platform and phenomenon. Wesch’s project illustrates the possibilities of digital humanities both in and out of the classroom.

4. The Joys of the World Cloud: How Toy Ad Vocabulary Reinforces Gender Stereotypes

Wordle – the free online tool to make word clouds – has long been a favorite of digital humanists, as well as one of the most accessible.  Word clouds are not the be-all end-all of digital humanities research, but they can, if used correctly, be incredibly powerful. To see how, check out this project investigating gender-laden language in toy adverts. See if you can guess which image corresponds to which gender's toys:
5. Museums on the Web, the Web at the Museum
Museums are steadily going digital, mostly by putting their archives online. But in order to really experience a exhibit, most of us have to go inside the (physical) museum. Released this month, Google’s Web Lab and Exquisite Forest projects are taking digital museums to the next level by opening up the actual exhibits to an online audience. No ticket required.

Launching in beta, Web Lab is a set of five physical installations housed in the Science Museum in London. Each of the five experiments—Universal Orchestra, Data Tracer, Sketchbots, Teleporter and Lab Tag Explorer—showcases a modern web technology found in Chrome to explore a particular theme in computer science. You can interact with them in person at the museum, or from anywhere in the world at (Be sure to open the link on Google Chrome web browser.)


Also this month, in partnership with the Tate Modern in London, Google released an online art experiment called This Exquisite Forest, which lets you collaborate with others to create animations and stories using a web-based drawing tool.


Seven renowned artists from Tate’s collection, including Bill WoodrowDryden GoodwinJulian OpieMark TitchnerMiroslaw BalkaOlafur Eliasson and Raqib Shaw, have created short “seed” animations. From these seeds, anyone can add new animations that extend the story or branch it in a new direction. Or you can start a tree of your own with some friends. As more sequences are added, the animations grow into trees, creating a potentially infinite number of possible endings to each animation. In addition to the website, an interactive installation will open on July 23 in the Level 3 gallery of Tate Modern.



6. Street View goes on a road trip through California's national parks

Okay, so this isn’t really a digital humanities project, but it might bring the inspiration so many of us find in nature to those unfortunate scholars trapped in their windowless offices. Google recently added 360-degree panoramic imagery for five of California’s national parks—including Yosemite—to Google Maps. So click on the link above, and take a break from working on your digital humanities project to enjoy some digital nature.