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Digital Humanities 2017: Post-Conference Debriefing

Gabriel Mckee, ISAW Librarian for Collections and Services, and I presented at DH2017, the annual conference of the international Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations, held this year from August 7-12 at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. We participated in the Poster Session with a presentation co-written with Head Librarian David Ratzan and Associate Director for Digital Programs Tom Elliott, entitled “Mapping Linked Data Subject Headings in the Library Catalog.” The poster presented ongoing development at the ISAW Library of a map-based browser of our holdings, a geographic representation of our catalog that serves as an alternative mode of discovery for our research community. Thanks to ISAW’s IT Support Administrator Kristen Soule, we also had working demonstrations of the browser available on iPads, which enabled us to show people how to get from the mapped collection to catalog entries and gazetteer references for ancient places. The poster was well received: not only is it useful now, but it shows the promise of developing linked data applications in the context of a library catalog. The demo is available here.

The poster brought together many threads of digital work at ISAW. Gabriel has been mapping our monthly lists of New Titles for several months now, and one of my recent projects has been figuring out how to scale this new approach to library catalog discovery to the entire collection. The project also makes extensive use of linked open data by embedding unique identifiers from the Pleiades ancient world gazetteer, a project for which Tom is a managing editor. As we reported in October 2016, the Library of Congress approved the Pleiades gazetteer as a source for authoritative information about the names of ancient places. The base map used in the browser was developed by our partners at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Ancient World Mapping Center.

The theme of DH2017 was “access/accès,” and our library matching project was an excellent fit for that topic. The entire purpose of our project is to enhance our users’ access to the materials in our collection, through a new, non-text-based method of discovering the information in our library--one particularly suited to ISAW, since we study such a wide array of places.

Our poster presentation was the primary reason for attending the conference. That said, DH2017 is a massive, multifaceted event. Gabriel and I unsurprisingly found several sessions, panels, and events relevant both to our own research interests and the scholarly interests of ISAW in general. Here are a few noteworthy examples.

Gabriel attended a number of sessions on both libraries and DH projects related to the study of antiquity. The first full day of the conference began with a panel session on libraries, digital publishing, and critical cataloging, and continued with a meeting of the DH+Lib special interest group. The following day included another all-libraries paper session, with presentations on shepherding DH research projects, the library's role in digital publishing, and what libraries can learn from "shadow libraries" of pirated scholarly publications. Gabriel also attended presentations on a project that traces the spread of Egyptian cults in the Aegean through an interdisciplinary set of models, an Oxford University project to develop an artificial intelligence for reading demotic papyri, and a Coptic OCR system developed by the KELLIA project.

Given my research interests, it is perhaps no surprise that I was attracted to the numerous panels at DH2017 that dealt with text analysis and natural language processing. The only text analysis paper that I saw which was specifically on an ancient world topic was Evan Brubaker’s paper on computational approaches to detecting bilingual puns in Latin literature. That said, Greta Franzini’s paper on the reception of the Roman historiography in the Late Antique historian Orosius also dealt with methods I use in my own work, such as text mining the Latin Library and measuring intertextuality. But the conference’s true strength lies in bringing together a variety of disciplines working with overlapping methods. With this in mind, I watched Ryan Heuser’s fascinating (and award-winning) paper on text classification on 18th-century texts and Emily Franzini’s paper on readability studies and text adaptation of Jane Austen’s novels with an eye towards how I could apply these methods to ancient world texts.

One of the more impressive events at DH2017 was the DH+Lib meeting mentioned above. There were easily a hundred librarians and digital humanists in the room. The organizers Zoe Borovsky and Glen Worthey asked everyone in the room to introduce themselves. Though it took up a significant portion of the allotted meeting time, this actually proved to be an excellent networking tool, enabling the attendees to briefly present their projects and interests and meet up with others working on similar topics, and also revealing the incredibly diverse backgrounds of those interested in the intersection of libraries and the digital humanities.

The DH2017 poster is an exciting development for the ISAW Library. Tom has presented on Pleiades and ancient world mapping at DH2009 and DH2011, and Sebastian Heath represented ISAW with a paper on digital materiality at DH2011, but this is the ISAW Library’s first foray into the conference circuit. In fact, it is the Library’s first research presentation outside of ISAW and NYU Libraries. The presentation is already bearing fruit in the form of networking: we are now in touch with several other libraries that are using similar methods to enhance their collections’ metadata. It is our hope that by presenting our work on this mapping project, we can inspire other libraries to enact similar approaches for their own collections.

A key part of the ISAW Library's mission is to implement digital projects that improve access to and increase the discoverability of scholarship on the ancient world. We plan to present more of the work we do here to the larger scholarly world of academic librarians and related researchers, standing as representatives of the innovative digital work being done at ISAW.

(This is an expanded version of a news post that originally appeared here on the ISAW News Blog.)