What Do You Do All Day?
“Oh: you work at UVic? What do you do up there?”
My reply is that I am a web developer in the ETCL (Electronic Textual Cultures Lab). The lab does digital humanities work. When I say that, what follows is a 10 minute explanation as to what “textual cultures” is. My partner likes to use the phrase “textual healing” as if she’s ready to hit play on some Marvin Gaye music. I have been mocked about the one time I got the de-abbreviation wrong-- it doesn’t roll off the tongue, but it is the most valid description for the lab. Likewise, digital humanities is a topic that leaves people scratching their heads even more so. I delve into what it looks like for scholarly works, fiction, old records to mash into with high analyses, big data and complex means of text processing. I cite the Z-Axis project (http://web.uvic.ca/~mvp1922/z-axis/) where fictional events from historical novels are applied to GIS to tease out where events took place to infer and build what parts of a given city looked like through the eyes of an author. Combine works set in the same city from a similar era and there are trends that emerge. The data can reveal a past built through commonalities. Big data can be used to give dry records, historical accounts, and fiction new life. This information can be cooked into a machine readable format. In those digital components, researchers can apply different theories and applications to the data to come out with surprising results.
What do I do? I’m the connector. As a web developer, I produce projects that take the cool work of others and expose that work to the web. A project like the Monacus project is an excellent example. During the Renaissance, communication between cities happened through letters sent by couriers. Those letters were gathered into volumes, but cryptic volumes of varying sizes with letters from different times in a way that held no rhyme or reason. A citizen researcher cataloged the to, the from, the dates of the letters, their origin cities and their destinations. By trapping all of this data for over 10,000 letters, it meant that the letters could be searched based on date ranges and other particulars. It seems like an “a doi” moment that the metadata would not be tracked and used, but that’s prevalent with this data and adding the dimension of metadata is key. For the uninitiated, metadata is data extrapolated from a digital object to describe it well for the sake of machine digestion. It’s the shorthand of what an object is all about. The Monacus project worked with documents from several hundred years ago and those were photographed in the 1950s, but still not organized until a researcher stepped forward to take on this massive task. Without the context of the metadata, the data cannot be cooked for its information and its relevance to researchers. As the web developer / connector, I get to work on the last mile of a project like this-- I put in place the piece of the puzzle that takes it out of its cloister. All of the records can be searched for and filtered by their metadata.
What else do I do? I am involved in the Iter Community project: a community website intended to gather information about the iter Community. Our goal is to collect news about conferences; store papers and presentations; launch pilot projects for Iter researchers; create discussion spaces; and create a membership directory of people in the field so that they can find each other and collaborate. While the Internet was invented to survive a nuclear attack, it really was intended to connect researchers and knowledge bases to proliferate knowledge and accelerate the pace of discoveries. In doing my work to connect the dots to deliver research to an audience in an accessible format, I feel like I’m helping the Internet do what it does best: spread knowledge.
My days at the ETCL involve moving these projects ahead in an incremental way every day. Having come off of years of working on every flavour of website in the private sector where content is sparse and knowledge proliferation is not on the agenda, I am really enjoying the change of pace. My digital humanities work is all about data and how to present it in a clear useful manner. That’s what I do all day.
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