Library Research Spotlight: Patrick J. Burns

By Patrick J. Burns

As the Assistant Research Scholar for Digital and Special Projects in the ISAW Library, I maintain a research agenda that covers a wide variety of digital topics. This summer I had the opportunity to present ongoing work in two areas: 1. digital philology via my development work for the Classical Language Toolkit (CLTK) at the DH2018 conference in Mexico City and the Digital Classics Seminar at the Institute of Classical Studies; and 2. digital preservation of scholarly social media activity at the Center for Hellenic Studies.

In June, I attended DH2018, the annual conference for Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations in Mexico City. I presented a paper on my research on building the next generation of text analysis tools for historical languages with the Classical Language Toolkit, entitled “Backoff Lemmatization as a Philological Method.” This paper describes my recent contributions to the Classical Language Toolkit, an open-source text analysis platform for historical languages, and it specifically discusses ways in which traditional philological thinking, rather than being made obsolescent by computational approaches, instead offers important insights into solving textual problems. (A full report on this conference can be found on the ISAW Library blog here.) This topic was expanded upon at the Digital Classics London seminar in a talk called “Backoff Lemmatization for Ancient Greek.” This talk traced the development of a new digital tool for Ancient Greek, highlighting the ways in which computer programming strategies can enrich our understanding of comparative philology. Both talks emphasized a core aspect of the ISAW Digital Programs mission, namely the importance of building infrastructure that “bridges gaps in content and function while handling the inherent diversity of languages, scripts, geography, chronology, methodology, and the like.”

My summer research travel ended with a different sort of presentation. I was invited to give a paper at the “5000 Years of Comments: The Development of Commentary from Ancient Mesopotamia to the Age of Information” conference at the Center for Hellenic Studies, a conference which brought together scholars representing a breadth of interests closely aligned those of ISAW, namely the “history of philology from the Ancient Near East (Mesopotamia through Biblical philology) through Classical Greece and Rome in antiquity, the middle ages, and reflecting on this history in light of the emergence of modern Digital Humanities.” My paper, “Carpe DM: The Rise of the Social-Media Scholiast” addressed a hot topic in library studies: the digital preservation of scholarly social media content. I looked at the ways in the which Twitter in particular has become a forum for scholarly commentary and debate in Classics, from the quotations-in-context posts of Joel Christensen and Erik Robinson’s SentAntiq account to Emily Wilson’s comments on her recent translation of Homer’s Odyssey I concluded that we must avoid the temptation to view social media postings as mere ephemera and put measures in place sooner rather than later to preserve the fruits of this intellectual effort.

These conference appearances represent two different sides of my research agenda, but both reflect broader trends in research at the ISAW Library and ISAW Digital Programs. On the one hand, Classical Language Toolkit development finds itself at the intersection of comparative philology and digital humanities, an approach of old-meets-new that pushes the envelope in ancient world research as seen in our Introduction to Digital Humanities seminar or this spring’s Future Philologies: Digital Approaches to Ancient World Text conference. On the other hand, the consideration of best practices for archiving digital scholarship found in my “5000 Years” paper aligns well with Sebastian Heath’s work on ISAW Papers and the future of scholarly publication (including recent contributions from ISAW Library intern, Fanny Mézard) as well as forward-thinking approaches to the presentation and preservation of archaeological data on display in last fall’s Digital Publication in Mediterranean Archaeology: Current Practice and Common Goals conference. ISAW continues to define and redefine digital work in ancient world study and it has been a wonderful opportunity to share my contributions to a wide variety of audiences this summer.