Tapping the Potential of Digital Scholarship

“We have inherited a cyber-infrastructure of systems, data, and services that arose from and is optimized for research in science and engineering. As a result, humanists have access to technology but are in search of questions: What scholarship becomes possible when, from their desktops, scholars can access vast stores of admittedly highly heterogeneous data together with powerful capabilities for analysis and presentation?” This is the question that Amy Friedlander, Senior Advisor in the Office of the Assistant Director of the Directorate for Social, Behavioral & Economic Sciences at the US National Science Foundation, raised in a 2008 paper, “Asking Questions and Building a Research Agenda for Digital Scholarship.”

It’s a great question, and gets at the heart of what has been called the “digital humanities,” or, more recently, “digital scholarship.” Digital scholarship, if I had to summarize it in one sentence, is about directing the massive computational power we now have at the mountains of data that have been digitized in recent years (texts, artifacts, images, sounds, etc.) to ask questions that have previously been inconceivable and to generate insights that can be truly astounding. The potential of digital scholarship to unearth new knowledge is breathtaking. I first became aware of what I would call the “low-hanging fruit” of digital scholarship — database searching — some years ago when, in the midst of another project, I came across a curious early 19th century neuroscientist (at least, that’s how I began to think of him). Alexander Walker studied the brain and the nervous system in Scotland and practiced medicine in England in the early decades of the 19th century. But he barely creased the historical record there. Quite by accident, after I had come upon a newly digitized collection of 19th century U.S. newspapers, I popped his name into the search box and discovered that he actually had quite a following in the U.S. South. (He seems to have been adopted by those seeking to advance a “scientific” authority for racism.) In any case, searchable databases opened potentials for research that would have been inconceivable previously. And this was just the beginning of the data and text mining possibilities of digital scholarship.

From searching digital sources, the field of digital scholarship has expanded widely, suggesting yet another way that liberal arts colleges can leverage its strengths to produce new knowledge and draw students into significant research projects, especially in the humanities, arts, and social sciences. By linking our computational scientists and information specialists with colleagues from other field (and other colleges), we are perfectly situated to take advantage of this potential.What can be done? Among the what I assume to be thousands of on-going projects in the U.S. and elsewhere, here are just a few examples drawn from Oberlin as well as other colleges and universities.

* Historians of science who specialize on the Iberian world have long explored the nature of scientific inquiry in Spain and the Americas, in the 17th and 18th century. A critical study on the topic was published in Barcelona in 1983 (Diccionario Historico de la ciencia moderna en España, 2 vols.). The dictionary provided information on 360 individuals active in scientific fields in Spain during this period, and was quite useful when any of these individuals crossed your radar screen. But what if you wanted to see how all of them interacted, how their interests changed over time, where and when they were active? A project out of Stanford (Mapping the Republic of Letters) has produced a remarkable database, “An Intellectual Map of Science in the Spanish Empire, 1600-1810.”  Scholars working on this project created a database with 18 different entry points which, when examined, disclosed that, as just one example, Jesuits dominated the mathematical and geographical sciences in the seventeenth century, but naval officers took that position in the eighteenth century.

* The end of slavery in the U.S. Civil War came not simply through presidential or legislative decree but through the actions of enslaved people and soldiers in the field as well.  These interactions and policies developed unevenly over time and space.  By examining the maps in Visualizing Emancipation and the primary sources found there, scholars have uncovered (and students can examine) the factors that enabled men and women to escape slavery and the geographic patterns that marked emancipation.

Fugutive Slaves, Runaway; Freedman's Colony, NY, 1864

* During the summer of 1919, a delegation under the leadership of Oberlin College President Henry Churchill King and Chicago businessman Charles R. Crane traveled to areas of the former Ottoman territories. Even as the fate of these lands was being decided at the Paris Peace Conference, The King-Crane Commission, as it became known, met delegations and invited written petitions from various religious and political groups in order to find out what their wishes were in this regard. A digital collection of the records of the King-Crane commission was recently compiled under the direction of Oberlin Archivist Ken Grossi, Visiting Assistant Professor of Politics, Maren Milligan, and Ted Waddelow ’12.

Group portrait of the King-Crane Commission and other persons unknown, in Damascus, 1919

* The Grinnell Beowulf is a translation and teaching edition of the Old English poem. Six students worked with a faculty member to translate Beowulf into readable and poetic modern English. Planned as what Grinnell calls a MAP (Mentored Advanced Project), Beowulf provided an opportunity for the students to produce an edition designed for an undergraduate audience, which includes 165 annotations as well as introductions to the poem and the translation process.

Some Digital Scholarship Research and Projects

Here are just a few sources on digital scholarship to give you a greater sense of its potential. There are many, many more.

Council on Library and Information Resources, Promoting Digital Scholarship, “Formulating Research Challenges in the Humanities, Social Sciences and Computation.”


Edward L. Ayers, “Does Digital Scholarship Have a Future?” EDUCAUSE Review, Aug. 5, 2013.

Lisa Spiro, “Doing Things with Text,” 2013 and “Creating Timelines”.

Digital Scholarship at Oberlin and the Ohio 5

The field of digital scholarship is rapidly emerging as can be seen by its institutional emergence in many colleges and universities. At Oberlin, we are fortunate to share the expertise of Jacob Heil, the Mellon Digital Scholar shared by the Ohio 5 Colleges. You can read more about the digital collections  at Ohio 5 schools here, and the on-going digital scholarship projects here.

Digital Scholarship Workshop at Oberlin: Wednesday, Feb. 12 (4:30-6:30), CTIE

Jacob Heil will be join a workshop on digital scholarship co-sponsored by the library and CTIE on Wednesday, Feb. 12. The purpose of the workshop is to introduce those less familiar with digital scholarship to full potential, to help faculty and staff begin to formulate their own DS projects, and to acquaint those who have been formulating DS projects to the resources we have to advance those projects. The workshop will also showcase DS projects by Oberlin faculty.

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