Week three: behind the interface

Week three. Since the module will require you to work with a wide range of online resources, I really wanted to make sure you could begin to understand how they work.

In preparation: reading a digital humanities project

Watch Miriam Posner’s video on the components of a DH project, and then explore one of the sites below and try to ‘reverse engineer’ one of these DH projects:

  • New York Times Humanities 2.0: Any of the projects mentioned in the article
  • Early Novels Database
  • Brain Pickings Any of the projects featured: Republic of Letters, London Lives, Biblion, Darwin’s Library, Salem Witch Trials, The Newton Project, Quixote Interactivo

Make sure you break down the ‘black box’ of your chosen digital project by identifying its

    • Sources (assets)
    • Processes (services)
    • Presentations (display)

You may need to poke around the About or FAQ sections of the page to figure out this information, but see how far you can get.

In-class task: making our own database!

Throughout the module we will be thinking about categorisation, so the aim of this task is to get an idea of what happens behind the scenes (a.k.a the ‘interface’): it’s really about how data is ordered and managed so it can be searched.

  1. I’ve given you a number of music CDs: select two each. For each individual CD assign a sheet of paper and write down a list of information about it, beginning with the obvious categories of artist/group name and title of CD. Then move to other categories of information: at this point I’ll leave these up to you (and no conferring at this point – you’ll see why later).
  1. Congratulations, you’ve built a database! Let’s try some searches and see what happens.
  1. Now get together and compare your categories. For each category assign a sheet of paper and list all the relevant data for that category (i.e. one sheet will have all the artists/group names; another sheet will have all the titles; and so on for each category). Well done, you’ve now built what’s called a ‘relational database’.
  1. To what extent did you each order data differently? Was some information difficult to represent or categorise? How did you solve these differences and difficulties?
  1. At this point, we’ll try some more searches using your data and see what comes up and, perhaps, what is missing.

You’ll note that we’ve built a database that describes objects, but does not actually give us the object itself: in many cases this is called ‘meta-data’.

Finally, we might put ourselves in the position of an archive (one might be a non-profit organisation, the other a profit-orientated one; each has to choose one item to digitise from two very different literary artfacts).