Last week, I had the singular pleasure of seeing a prominent DH scholar comment favourably on an aspect of the TAPoR 2.5 portal I’m particularly proud of.
— Alan Liu (@alanyliu) July 16, 2014
Over the last few years, I’ve been getting deep into digital tools used by humanities scholars, both for the purpose of populating the TAPoR site with resources, and as part of the project’s Just What Do They Do? mandate to discover how scholars use and relate to them. About a year and a half ago, it expanded from just contemporary and well-know tools to include a whole range of historic tools stretching back to the 1950s.
The historic tools section of the site quickly became my biggest contribution to the project. It all comes back to a Digital Humanities journal called Computers and the Humanities (often called CHum), which was in publication from 1968 through 2004. Dr. Rockwell, the project lead, pointed me toward it in late 2012; at the time, much of my time was spent building up a corpus for content analysis on computer-based tool use and development, and this journal is a particularly rich source of information.
As these things happen, before long I was not only collecting articles, but adding tool after tool to the TAPoR portal. At this time, the site’s collection was still composed largely of the TAPoRware and Voyant toolsets, plus a growing number of well-known contemporary tools for text analysis, visualization, concordance and so on. With CHum as a resource, we all of a sudden had enough information to include older tools as well.
Soon, I had added dozens. Not just the famous ones, like TACT, the Oxford Concordance Program, and COCOA, but lesser-known tools like URICA! II. Many were developed in the 1960s or 1970s and passed out of use alongside the mainframes and punched card systems that ran them.
By the summer, I realized I had a chance to do more, one that went beyond just cataloguing tools. When I first started on TAPoR, I was writing tool reviews for the nascent collection, based on direct testing. It was pretty dry, formulaic stuff to write, though I have no doubt it’s helped some visitors decide whether the tools in question were worthwhile pursuing for their own work. For the historic tools, I could do something a bit more interesting. In place of direct testing, I had 40 years of scholars’ commentaries, reviews and development-based papers. As a literary scholar and historian by training, I found the prospect of digging into this trove information exciting and valuable.
Fortunately, Dr. Rockwell agreed. He gave me the go-ahead to start ‘reviewing’ the older tools.
I’ve completed and posted 34 to date (the full list is available here). In these historic tool overviews, I’ve presented as complete a picture as I can of each tool’s functions, reception and applications, each based on as much direct information I could get from their developers, reviewers and users. Sometimes it wasn’t much, depending on how well-documented the tool was, but my work has brought a wide range of tools back into focus for other scholars to explore.
Even if it had stopped there, I’d still be happy with what I’ve done. I managed to take it a step further, though. Over the winter, I proposed a network analysis of the entire CHum corpus, showing tool interconnections, influences and genealogies, going back to when all scholars had to work with was custom algorithms in programming languages like PL/1 and FORTRAN. It ended up being a major part of TAPoR’s research work up to the spring of 2014, made possible with Dr. Rockwell’s support and a great deal of scraping, statistical analysis and visualization work from my fellow Research Assistant Ryan Chartier. It’s already been presented at this year’s CSDH/SCHN conference, and it will eventually be a paper; exciting stuff for a Masters-level RA.
I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be able to stay on the project, but it’s a good note to end on. I’m proud to have been able to do as much as I have for it.
I doubt Alan Liu will ever see this, but just in case: Thank you for your kind words. It meant a lot to me that I’ve been able to make a notable contribution, however small, to a field I’ve grown to love.