Researchers working in digital humanities are probably familiar with the notion that a lot of DH projects are done in teams. The nature and scope of the work involved tends to require expertise in different areas as well as considerable labour power to populate digital platforms with scholarly data. Despite this collective quality to DH work, it can often feel like digital humanities projects have to begin from scratch. Researchers bold enough to envision DH projects that involve this kind of scope of expertise and labour, and who venture forward to assemble teams and build platforms often feel like they (even with their teams) are constructing isolated tools. However useful, these projects are often conceived as discrete, self-contained works that make use of digital technologies in new (and exciting) ways for the humanities. Speaking recently at the Queen’s English Department Research Forum, Dr. Janelle Jenstad pointed to the need, and the potential, for DH projects to integrate with other platforms and projects rather than only construct new ones. She emphasized the value of developing “data crosswalks” not only between different DH projects but between such projects and scholarship more broadly.
Dr. Jenstad spoke about creating a digital gazetteer for the Map of Early Modern London (MoEML), a DH project based on the 1560s Agas woodcut map of London. The map itself allows users to visualize, overlay, combine and query information in the five databases that comprise the map’s Encycplopedia—a placeograpy, personogrppahy, orgography, bibliography, and glossary. As such, it reflects the spatial turn in the humanities where information is organized and connected geographically. The gazetteer, as Dr. Jenstad explained, is an important addition to the project that serves as a geographical index, or dictionary.
For students and researchers in attendance, the relevance of Dr. Jenstad’s presentation extended far beyond scholarship of the Early Modern period. It went beyond discussions of geo-humanities or even the value of digital gazetteers. Rather, it raised issues of how digital technologies can be used in humanities research to foster integration through standardization, and as a result, streamline and exponentially grow scholarly work. As Dr. Jenstad explained, one of the key components and advantages of a gazetteer is the establishment of an authority name for a place. Establishing standard authority names for historical places enables interoperability between different scholarly projects, particularly digital humanities projects that adopt the same xml:id for the place. The more projects that adopt the same standard for names and the same standardized encoding, the greater the possibility for integration of project platforms and, consequently, for streamlining scholarly work. In addition to an authority name, the digital gazetteer also includes all variant names, or toponyms, aggregated together and linked with the authority name, allowing for the preservation of this key nuanced information while still forging the necessary links to standardized language and encoding. Other digital humanities projects that have integrated with the work done by MoEML include Shakeosphere, a DH project concerned with mapping Early Modern social networks, and the Database of Early English Playbooks (DEEP). Not only have these projects adopted the same authority names as MoEML for standardization purposes, they have also been able to link their data directly to the MoEML. Queen’s graduate students listening to Dr. Jenstad’s talk were particularly intrigued by this idea that the more scholars, editors, and researchers adopt these same authority names in their research, edited editions of texts, and DH datasets, the easier it will become to link research together and build on each other’s work more effectively.
While many in attendance were students or faculty working in or interested in digital humanities, many were also either unfamiliar with DH or even dismissive of it as a field. Amongst this latter group were those who held the view that digital humanities doesn’t present anything really new in humanities research—it just involves the use of computing technology which everything does now anyway. Dr. Jenstad’s illustration of how digital technology can be used to standardize, integrate, and streamline humanities scholarship at the level not only of language but of encoding problematized such a view. The key aspect of a digital gazetteer is that all data contained in it can be tagged, and therefore, mined. The development of a digital gazetteer also opens up opportunities for using Natural Language Processing (NLP) and Named Entity Recognition (NER). Advocates of DH research who attended Dr. Jenstad’s talk were quick to point out to those less convinced of the unique potential of DH that mining and analyzing humanities data through these mechanisms represents new scholarly methodologies and opens up the possibility of entirely new research questions. Furthermore, as Dr. Jenstad mentioned, standardized encoding makes it possible to link projects like the MoEML with works such as the Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership (EEBO-TCP) at the Bodleian Libraries, Oxford. This kind of integration makes it possible to mine and analyze huge amounts of data not feasible before. In discussion after Dr. Jenstad’s talk, several attendees began to think of this capacity of computing interacting with humanities texts not only as a question of handling a greater quantity of data, but in so doing, changing what humanities scholars can ask.
One final component of the MoEML that caught the imagination of those in attendance was its recent integration with Google Maps using geo-coordinates. Dr. Jenstad painted a picture of researchers, or members of the general public, walking around London, using the MoEML along with Google Maps to learn what places of Early Modern London they may be standing on or beside. The capacity of DH projects to integrate with other digital platforms, whether they be scholarly, corporate, public, or private explodes the possibilities for who academics might consider as partners, stakeholders, and users of their research products. Scholars of Early Modern London will no doubt have a use for the MoEML, in addition to residents and tourists of London, academics producing traditional or DH scholarship, or high school students producing book reports. With standardized encoding made available to any and all, digital humanities projects like the MoEML allowed Queen’s students and researchers to imagine how data crosswalks might be built to new users and partners of humanities research to new, and perhaps more democratic, ends.