Popular != Valuable

I am a strong believer in the digital humanities as a practical discipline. Theory is fine, but at some point praxis is necessary to exercise and apply those models. This allows digital humanists to actively create new knowledge, or restructure existing knowledge and present it in a new way. Thankfully, there is no shortage of application-based “building” projects in DH!

The best way to learn something is to practice doing it or teaching someone else to do it. This is why websites such as codecademy.com are useful and powerful: they allow students to dynamically and immediately apply what they are learning. However, studying excellent examples of completed work allows a broader view that focuses less on the minutiae and more on possible results.

All of the digital archives we examined in class had different aims and addressed problems in novel ways. Some of the archives tried to answer questions that I’m not sure were ever really asked. In its “About” page, the Digital Public Archive of America claims to be “a portal . . . a platform . . . and an advocate for strong public opinion.” The DPLA is one of the largest, most well-funded sites I surveyed. It was well-designed with a modern UI, and even boasts an API to help other sites integrate its vast databases into their own work. That is an excellent example of the collaborative spirit that drives DH scholarship. However, I can’t ever see myself turning to the DPLA for research purposes; because of how diverse the site’s offerings are, it fails to shine in any one area. While the DPLA might be a great site for sharing information (it boasts a Historical Cats app that grabs a random exhibit or item and tweets it for you), the lack of focus makes the website less usable than sites that are less user-friendly.

Example of topic modeling chart plotting fugitive slave and for hire ads against time and frequency on "Mining the Dispatch"
Example of topic modeling chart plotting fugitive slave and for hire ads against time and frequency on “Mining the Dispatch”

My favorite archive was Mining the Dispatch, a product of the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab. While the website isn’t flashy, it is clean and focuses on answering specific questions through the application of topic modeling to the text of the Richmond Dispatch. By tracing the popularity of different topics from 1861 to 1865 in a clearly defined corpus of texts, users can see how trends matched real-world events. The site doesn’t present much new information; we could have looked at military enrollment logs to confirm that most men joining the Confederacy as soldiers did so in early 1861. However, it provides substantiating evidence and allows us to see the newspaper in a new way. This is just as insightful as creating new work, and is far more useful to its specific audience than the DPLA site is to a much larger group of people. While the DPLA site may be more popular, that doesn’t make it more valuable; as Melissa Terras points out, the most frequently accessed items of many internet archives are usually those that go viral via social media rather than those with the most cultural significance or those presented in the most innovative ways. This lesson can obviously be applied to entire archives as well as specific webpages.