Brain Pickings

Digital Humanities Spotlight: 7 Important Digitization Projects

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From Darwin’s marginalia to Voltaire’s correspondence, or what Dalí’s controversial World’s Fair pavilion has to do with digital myopia.

Despite our remarkable technological progress in the past century and the growth of digital culture in the past decade, a large portion of humanity’s richest cultural heritage remains buried in analog archives. Bridging the disconnect is a fledgling discipline known as the Digital Humanities, bringing online historical materials and using technologies like infrared scans, geolocation mapping, and optical character recognition to enrich these resources with related information or make entirely new discoveries about them. As Europe’s digital libraries open up their APIs, techno-dystopian pundits lament that these efforts diminish “the mystery of history,” but such views are myopic and plagued by unnecessary nostalgia for a time when knowledge was confined to the privileged cultural elite. Instead, here are seven fantastic digitization projects that democratize access to and understanding of some of our civilization’s most valuable cultural assets.

MAPPING THE REPUBLIC OF LETTERS

Long before there was Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn, there was the Republic of Letters — a vast and intricate network of intellectuals, linking the finest “philosophes” of the Enlightenment across national borders and language barriers. This self-defined community of writers, scholars, philosophers and other thinkers included greats like Voltaire, Leibniz, Rousseau, Linnaeus, Franklin, Newton, Diderot and many others we’ve come to see as linchpins of cultural history. Mapping the Republic of Letters, which we first looked at last year, is a fascinating project by a team of students and professors at Stanford, visualizing the famous intellectual correspondence of the Enlightenment, how they traveled, and how the network evolved over time, bridging humanitarian scholarship and computer science.

The project pulls data from the Electronic Enlightenment database, an archive of more than 55,000 letters and documents exchanged between 6,400 correspondents, and maps the geographic origin and destination of the correspondence — something we’ve come to take for granted in the age of real-time GPS tracking, but an incredibly ambitious task for 300-year-old letters.

For more on the Republic of Letters, its cultural legacy and the networking model it provided, you won’t go wrong with Dena Goodman’s The Republic of Letters : A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment — a book controversial for its feminist undertones but nonetheless fascinating in its bold reframing of the Enlightenment not as a set of ideas that gave rise to “masculine self-governance” but as a rhetoric that borrowed heavily from female thought.

LONDON LIVES

London Lives offers a fascinating record of crime, poverty and social policy in one of the world’s greatest cities between the years of 1690 and 1800 through 240,000 fully digitized manuscript and printed pages from 8 London archives, supplemented by 15 datasets. The nonprofit project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and implemented by the Humanities Research Institute at the University of Sheffield and the Higher Education Digitisation Service at the University of Hertfordshire, provides access to historical records containing over 3.35 million names, allowing you to link together records relating to the same individual and to even extract entire biographies of the best-documented individuals.

A wiki invites users to contribute to biographies of 18th-century Londoners, track corrections and monitor activity on pages to which they’ve contributed.

BIBLION

From the New York Public Library comes Biblion — an ambitious iPad app putting NYPL’s 1939-40 New York World’s Fair collection at your fingertips. Though the app is free, its documents, images, films, audio, and texts make it a priceless piece of historical fascination.

From essays by beloved writers like Karen Abbott, William Grimes and Henry Jenkins to the wild restaurant ideas that never made the cut at the Fair to the extravaganza’s designs, uniforms and buildings — including Salvador Dalí’s controversial Dream of Venus surrealist pavilion — the app takes you on an extraordinary journey of wonder and curiosity, not only making previously exclusive artifacts and knowledge available to the world at large, but also presenting them through the kind of rich, immersive storytelling never possible while strolling through the aisles of the physical library. How’s that for the mystery of history, Tristram Hunt?

(In that vein, Alexis Madrigal over at The Atlantic recently wrote a fantastic, must-read article on what big media can learn from NYPL.)

CHARLES DARWIN’S LIBRARY

Charles Darwin is easily one of the most influential scientists who ever lived — so much so that entire collaborative albums have been written about him — and now, thanks to The Biodiversity Heritage Library, the intellectual fuel for his work is accessible to the rest of us. Charles Darwin’s Library is a digital reconstruction of the surviving books Darwin owned, complete with full transcriptions of his annotations and marks — the kind of marginalia essential to fleshing out our thoughts as we ingest ideas. (More voyeurism of great thinkers’ notebooks here.)

The initial release, launched earlier this year, features 330 of the 1480 titles in his library, focusing on the most heavily annotated books, with an ongoing effort aiming to further digitize his book collection.

SALEM WITCH TRIALS PROJECT

Though decidedly unsexy and anything but sleek, the Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project from the University of Virginia offers a rich online archive of materials relating to the Salem witch trials of 1692 — court records, books, notable people, and images of the original court documents, indexed according to various archival collections.

A regional accusations map displays the geographic chronology of the accusations, a Salem Village accusations map shows the day-by-day accusations in the month of March, 1692, and a complete alphabetical list catalogs every person mentioned in the court documents.

THE NEWTON PROJECT

Thanks to The Newton Project, 4.2 million published and unpublished words by Isaac Newton are now online as interactive diplomatic transcriptions that show every addition, change or revision the great scholar made to his texts, browsable by subject.

From Newton as a historian to his character and personal habits, the database spans materials as diverse as Newton’s gum water recipe and a list he made of 47 sins he could remember having committed in his lifetime. (More on the love of famous creators’ lists here.)

QUIJOTE INTERACTIVO

From the National Library of Spain comes Quijote Interactivo, a project we first examined last fall — an impressive interactive digitization of the original edition of Miguel de Cervantes’ cult 1605-1615 novel, Don Quixote. Though the site is entirely in Spanish, the sleek interface, rich multimedia galleries and thoughtful sound design make it a joy to explore whatever your linguistic heritage.

A social widget even makes each of the 668 pages from the book shareable via email or on Facebook, and a transcription overlay makes the original 17th-century manuscript legible in Times New Roman.

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On Loving Animals: A Visual Study of Affection and Its Extremes

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What in-bred pugs and retired show cats have to do with the human capacity for selflessness and solipsism.

A few weeks ago, we contemplated the secret emotional lives of animals in the wild, but what about the emotional lives of domesticated animals and their human companions? Whether or not those frequent humorous allegations of physical resemblance between pets and their owners are true, one thing is certain — there’s undeniable emotional synchronicity between human and animal that comes with owning and loving a pet. That’s exactly what Dutch photographer Isabella Rozendaal explores in On Loving Animals — a visual chronicle of what Rozendaal calls “the Dutch and their obsessive, sentimental and sometimes inconsiderate love of animals.” From retired show animals to post-op cats to long-haired dogs with braids and barrettes, these portraits are sometimes tender, sometimes traumatic, and always unabashedly intimate, capturing the rich nuances of what it means to share a life with another being.

[The project's] aim is to show how the animals are part of our lives, and how we project our own needs onto these beasts.” ~ Isabella Rozendaal

Many of the photographs capture the tragicomic disconnect between the owner’s intention and the pet’s felt experience, as in the case of this clearly not bemused retriever undergoing a doggie spa treatment:

Or the more systemic issues of humans projecting their superficial preferences on nature, as with pugs — dogs once bred to resemble adorable puppies, a “design” that has resulted in troubled breathing due to their compact snouts (which is why you often hear pugs snort), in addition to a host of other health issues stemming from inbreeding.

Visually simple and conceptually rich, the project is as much a voyeuristic tour of other people’s lives as it is a reflection on universal human needs and fault lines on the edges of love and its mutations.

But, ultimately, On Loving Animals is more a portrait of human psychology, with all its capacity for selflessness and propensity for solipsism, spanning the full spectrum of affection and its obsessive extremes.

Images courtesy of Isabella Rozendaal

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Library of Dust: Reflections on Life Through the Unclaimed Dead

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Psychiatry’s ghosts, the poetry of the metaphysical, or what tree bark has to do with chemical corrosion.

I’m spending some time in Bulgaria this month, keeping my grandfather company as he wanes through the final stages of cancer. So death and mortality are on my mind a lot, underpinned by the inevitable question of what remains of us after we breathe our final breath. I was reminded of the work of photographer David Maisel, who explores the subject from an unusual, almost surreal angle in Library of Dust — an artful depiction of copper canisters containing the cremated remains of individual patients from the Oregon State Insane Asylum, a state-run psychiatric hospital, who died there between 1883 and the 1970s, their bodies never claimed by their families. Maisel photographed many of the 3,500 canisters with incredible detail, their multicolor blooming corrosion reminiscent of nature’s wonders like vibrant sunset skies or rich bedrock textures or the aurora borealis.

Among my concerns with Library of Dust are the crises of representation that derive from attempts to index or archive the evidence of trauma; the uncanny ability of objects to portray such trauma; and the revelatory possibilities inherent in images of such traumatic disturbances. While there are certainly physical and chemical explanations for the ways these canisters have transformed over time, the canisters also encourage us to consider what happens to our own bodies when we die, and to the souls that occupy them.” ~ David Maisel

Asylum 16, Oregon State Hospital, Salem, OR

Asylum 4, Lounge/Meeting Room, Ward 66, abandoned portion of J Building, Oregon State Hospital, Salem, OR

Asylum 2, Doctor's Office, Ward 66, abandoned portion of J Building, Oregon State Hospital, Salem, OR

A closer look at the canister details brings to mind Cedric Pollet’s incredible photos of tree bark:

Poignant, poetic and just the right amount of unsettling, Library of Dust is the kind of project that will give you pause as you find in its physical splendor an existential meditation on the metaphysical.

Images courtesy of David Maisel

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