The Difference the Digital Makes
So much of the content of digital humanities begins in the analog world: documents that are scanned and indexed; maps that are recast in GIS; quantities that are converted to machine-readable tables. Although we tend to focus on the final product — the digital construction viewed over the web — we remain cognizant of this transition that artifacts of human expression have taken.
In this issue of the Journal of Digital Humanities, several scholars take a deeper look at that transition. Sarah Werner suggests ways the traditional act of reading is forever altered by the nature of digital texts. From her experience in early modern book scholarship, she builds a case for how book history might inform our understanding of reading beyond the codex. Craig Mod speaks less of a one-way street from analog to digital and more of a two-way street between the virtual and the physical. As a designer of both websites and books, he brings to bear knowledge about the boundaries and content of ebooks and physical books. Both sense a tension between physical and digital sources, methods, and productions.
Digital productions have many advantages, of course. They can help us to visualize and better understand the past, as Matthew Booker does by revealing the physical and human alterations to San Francisco Bay over the past two hundred years. Digital methods of communication also offer important opportunities to distribute our scholarly work more widely. Social media activity, Melissa Terras demonstrates, can aggregate attention to digital publications and projects available on the open web.
In a special section we showcase three recently-released projects which represent years of collaborative effort: ORBIS: The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World, the French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe, and Mapping Texts. These projects provide interfaces for large data sets of written documents and information about the physical world in order to enrich the study of ancient Rome, eighteenth-century Europe, and the modern United States. At the same time, they also enhance the questions scholars can ask of their sources, their technology, and their fields.
Although they have different topics and goals, each project blurs the categories of archive, tool, and publication. At the most basic level, ORBIS offers new methods for modeling extremely complex data; the French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe introduces an interactive resource that will prove critical to disparate areas of the humanities; and Mapping Texts provides the opportunity for, and proves the necessity of, evaluating data that we already have.
The creators of each project introduce their intellectual goals and resulting design in an overview and a case study. Completing the issue are three independent reviews solicited by the Journal of Digital Humanities that evaluate the topics and methods of these projects. As both the creators and reviewers note, these projects allow scholars to address questions arising from traditional concerns through the ability to hone in on very specific details and to uncover and visualize relationships. Ultimately, the deliberate design of the projects, in addition their sheer size, encourage new and unanticipated questions that may now be possible to answer.