The Human in the Digital Humanities (8 January 2016)

The digital humanities (or as the cool kids call it, DH) have been in my peripheral vision since my first year in grad school: something that looks useful and fun; but for someone who dreads calculating grades, working with data is intimidating. Last September, a series of DH events in a symposium on the future of the humanities inspired me to reconsider how the digital humanities fit into the humanities generally. This month, I’ll be looking at the human in the digital humanities in order to think about where the human is located in the humanities. To do this, I’m going to introduce to you some of my research on the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits, a missionary order of Catholic priests founded in Spain by Ignatius Loyola at the time of the Reformation. This focus is partly self-serving: I’m a dork and I love studying Jesuit literature even beyond my Early Modern period. But the connection between the Jesuits and the issues I’ll tackle is a lot closer than just my research. Ignatian philosophy on education, public service, and the relationship of the material to the ideal has greatly informed my appreciation of the digital and public humanities.

A cartoon of Ignatius Loyola, wearing sunglasses and holding a to-go cup of coffee.

Time to get Iggy with it.

The first event I was able to attend in the DH series this past September was a workshop with Daniel Shore and Chris Warren on the new DH project they’ve launched, Six Degrees of Francis Bacon (or SDFB).* If you’re familiar with cinema’s (Kevin) Bacon Number, the principle is similar: the database maps degrees of separation between major and minor figures in Early Modern England based on the different kinds of relationships they had with each other. Francis Bacon’s network of relationships greets visitors on the home page: he is one degree of separation from Anne Bacon (“parent of” Francis), Elizabeth Hatton (“attracted to” Francis), and William Fulbecke (“collaborated with” Francis); and he’s two degrees of separation from the Archbishop William Laud (via Thomas Coventry) and Sir Edwin Sandys (via Sir Thomas Coke). Francis Bacon also belongs to the groups “Virginia Company” and “Company of Mineral and Battery Works,” and you can search just for members of a single group or for members of two groups (turns out Bacon is the only one in the database who belonged to both those companies). While the foundational information for SDFB was imported from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, new information is crowd-sourced: anyone can add a new person, add a person to a group, add a new relationship, or assign a new relationship type (for admin approval, of course).

A very busy map of Francis Bacon’s first- and second-degree relationships.

Two degrees of Francis Bacon. I can only hope to be so socially well-connected.

Before I started playing with SDFB the night before the workshop, I hadn’t really understood how any DH methodologies, outside of simple word frequency analyses, would be useful to my research. But as I clicked around the website, looking up individual English Jesuits whose writings I’d read, I began to appreciate the power of visual representation of the connections between these priests and the social circles they moved in during their work in England.

Some historical context about the sixteenth-century English Jesuit mission is helpful here. With the replacement of all Roman Catholic bishops with conforming Church of England bishops, and with the institution of the 1584 “act against Jesuits, seminary priests, and such other like disobedient persons,” English Catholics could no longer ordain their own priests to serve their communities. Politically, England was reduced to the same status as an Aztec, Chinese, or any other historically non-Catholic kingdom: it became a mission field served by foreign-trained priests, mainly from the expat community in Douai, France. Indeed, it could even be more hostile than other foreign mission fields: the 1584 act made it high treason to be a Catholic priest, and a felony to aid one; even suspicion of either crime could subject a person to any number of gruesome tortures.

Protestant-era England did have two advantages over other mission fields, however. First, most of the Jesuit missionaries serving in England were born there or descended from English families. And second, Catholicism was still fairly widespread in its underground status, with some families even managing to retain considerable wealth. English Jesuits had something of a home turf advantage, and these connections were crucial to carrying out their work in often hostile territory.

Printed engravings of Edmund Campion (with a dagger in his heart, a noose around his neck, and gallows and stretchers in the background); Robert Southwell (with a dagger in his heart, a tiny noose around his neck, and a cherub waving a crown of laurels over his head); and Alexander Briant (with a dagger in his heart, a noose around his neck, and holding a handful of reeds while a cherub waves a laurel crown over his head)

Some of the English Jesuit martyrs: Edmund Campion, Robert Southwell, and Alexander Briant (whose good looks were legendary).


When I came to the SDFB workshop the next morning, my goal was to help map the English Jesuits’ human networks of supporters, and I was thrilled to find that this was something in which I had the expertise to contribute and that it was something that was useful to my research. Because of SDFB, I could begin to really see just how tightly connected many of the Jesuit missionaries and their English supporters were, something I hadn’t recognized in the disparate texts I had read before. And I was very pleased to convince Drs. Shore and Warren to add “Jesuits” as a standalone group in addition to “Jesuit missionaries to England,” in order to account for expats who never returned to England.

The database is in beta testing, so there are still some quirks and bugs and inefficiencies. There is a terrible shortage of women in the database, as a consequence of how only 6% of the entries in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, from which the vast majority of SDFB is drawn, are for women.1 This is particularly problematic for my research, as recusant Catholic women were better able to fly under the English government’s radar (so to speak), especially if their husbands conformed, and thus were essential to Jesuit ministry: hiding priests, offering financial support, and granting access to printing presses. (If you want to help boost the number of women in SDFB, check out the Networking Early Modern Women event on January 23 at the Carnegie Mellon and Folger libraries and live online.)

Some features of the current design can also be shortcomings. A sometimes-limiting selection of terms used to categorize and group relationships can flatten their contours and conceal the dynamics. In some ways, broad strokes are necessary to even begin to sort relationships. For instance, “collaborated with” or “attracted to” mean different things to different people, but a general sense of what they could mean enables the first step of investigation. On the other hand, it was rather chilling to see Robert Southwell’s visualized relationships to Robert Persons (a Jesuit) and Anne Howard (a recusant and priest-harborer) given equal weight as his relationship to Richard Topcliffe — his torturer.


Robert Southwell’s first-degree relationships.


But these are the problems that are resolved by the humanities side of digital humanities. As I often remind my students, data does not an argument make. It doesn’t tell us anything — it must be interpreted. Thanks to SDFB, we can see the names, or the dates, or the likelihood of the relationships between people and the extent of their networks. But we need to read their texts and contexts not only to understand the difference between an ally and an enemy, but also to fully appreciate the contributions these figures made to literary history.

*Full disclosure: To my surprise and delight, I was made a curator for SDFB between writing this post and its publication. Opinions are very much my own.

Next week: EEBO and public-access literature

  1. networkingwomen.sixdegreesoffrancisbacon.com

Ashley O’Mara (@ashleymomara | ORCID 0000-0003-0540-5376) is a PhD student and teaching assistant in the Syracuse University English program. She studies how Ignatian imagination and Catholic iconology shape representations of sacred femininity in Early Modern devotional writings. In her down time, she writes creative nonfiction and snuggles her bunny Toffee.


The Dust-Heap of the Database and the Specters of the Spectator

In 2014, networks launched some 1,715 new television series, a staggering number that prompted many articles to declare variations on the theme “there are too many shows to watch.” Same story, different medium, I say. Franco Moretti, a contemporary literary scholar, writes that while twenty-first century Victorianists may (may) read around two-hundred Victorian titles, that barely counts as a drop in the bucket of the 40,000 titles published in the nineteenth century. And the other 39,800 novels? The short version: gone. The longer version: maybe not.

The plethora of “lost” Victorian novels challenges any sweeping claims about Victorian society based on the fourteen or so (depends on how you count) full-length novels of Charles Dickens. But it becomes even more daunting if one’s studies include explorations of Victorian popular magazines and journals. The Waterloo Directory of English Newspapers and Periodicals 1800-1900 lists 50,000 titles. If each of those titles published a single, twenty-page issue—and certainly they published more—that alone would amount to 1,000,000 pages to read.

The imbalance between what we read, what we could read, and what we can’t read makes Victorian studies (and, I suspect, other historical studies) a strange beast. Any decent Victorianist monograph will address the familiar tunes (Dickens, the Brontës, Eliot, etc.), but it will probably do so through ephemera and periodicals that maybe only the author has read thanks to hours of archival digging. The internet makes the strange Victorian studies beast even stranger. The internet not only changes how I do history because I can do most of my archival work from the back corner of Mello Velo (the local coffee shop, to which I owe my doctorate, whenever I finally defend). Historical research online changes academic reading practices, the kinds of arguments we can make, and finally, how we teach historical reading in the classroom. Internet archives make available texts virtually nobody has read. Electronic archives offer the chance to reinvigorate the dust-heap of forgotten novels—although with the change in what we can read, there comes an inevitable and sometimes ineffable change in how we read. It also makes it possible to discover a text nobody has read, without leaving the comfort of your favorite coffee shop table.

And yet, when I say a text nobody has read, this isn’t quite true. These texts do not simply appear on one’s screen. These historical documents already bear the marks of their nineteenth-century readers, but they now bear the marks of my search terms, the database algorithms and tags, scanners, computer processing, and somewhere in a basement, other people who plugged this material into the database. These extra, mostly ineffable hands mark the text like the fingerprint of electronic ghosts—and these spectral hands can sometimes offer us bizarre, fortuitous accidents.

I’m sorry, Peter. I’m afraid I you can’t read that.

Here’s an example. My dissertation is in part about Charles Dickens, because of course it is. I’m also heavily invested in Victorian literary criticism; that is, as opposed to Victorianist literary criticism of the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries, I gravitate toward the theories and ideas the Victorians themselves used to analyze their own work.  I’m specifically interested in Dickens’s serial publications (stories told in installments, like a modern television show), and I wanted to see what the Victorians thought about serialization.

So, off I go to sundry databases and metadatabases, where I search terms like “serial,” “part,” “periodical,” “novel,” and “publication.” As part of my search, I examined the Spectator Archives (1.5 million pages, by the way), where I found this priceless artefact: “Doe’s Oliver Twist.”

Wait, didn’t Dickens write Oliver Twist? you ask. Who on earth is “Doe”?

Welcome, Dear Reader, to the dust-heap of the archival database. Archives like the Spectator Archive use something called Optical Character Recognition (OCR), which is the process by which a computer converts scanned images of pages from something like an 1838 edition of a magazine into searchable text. It’s built in part by programs like reCAPTCHA, the obnoxious text you have to enter before buying or registering at some websites to prove that you’re a human, because only humans scream obscenities at their computers after the thirtieth failed entry.  It’s pretty incredible, when you think about it.

And it’s also terrible, as proven by the title: the Spectator Archive’s OCR rendered “Boz” as “Doe.” Wait, didn’t Dickens—

Yes, Dickens wrote Oliver Twist. But before that, he published Sketches by Boz, a series of wonderfully liberal musings on life in London. And so, when Dickens began to serialize Oliver in Bentley’s Miscellany in 1837, the author’s name was “Boz.” But the Spectator Archive doesn’t know that. In fact, it doesn’t know anything. It’s a scanner, and a computer that runs OCR software, tags its garbled production, and then throws it into the ether for some random grad student to stumble across. And behind that, someone—probably a random grad student or intern—in the basement of the Spectator building on Old Queen Street—could have read this article. Because someone had to put the page on the scanner and press “go.” Behind the Spectator is a series of spectral readers: the Victorians who may have read the article in 1838, the person who scanned the article, the scanner, the computer, the series of algorithms and programs that brought me from Google to the Archive and to that article.

“Doe’s Oliver Twist” is a gold-mine for Victorian theories of reading, serial publication, and distinctions between common readers and academic readers. But in order to find it, one has to enter the right search terms, and—here’s the real punchline—those search terms may abound in a document and not show up in the algorithm because the OCR is wrong. But there’s one final twist, and it isn’t Oliver.


No, it’s not that, either.

In fact, “Doe’s” showed up in my search results because something was OCR’d incorrectly. While it thought it recognized one of my terms, in fact, that term does not appear in the document.

Internet archives allow scholars to dive into the dust-heap of history. In their clunky, unintuitive ways, they cough up garbage and leave us to sort the mess. And as I will argue in future posts, they fundamentally alter the ways we perform these readings. Welcome to twenty-first century history: a tangled heap of trashed treasures and treasured trash.


Cover image: Stone, Marcus and Dalziel. The Bibliomania of the Golden Dustman. Scanned by Phillip V. Allingham. Victorian Web.

Peter Katz is a fifth-year Ph.D. student in Victorian Literature and Culture. His dissertation focuses on sensation fiction, the history of science, and the history of the novel.