The Accidental Digital Scholar

A chart by Leah Tams that shows the changing proportion of one-off and serial guidebooks across the first half of the nineteenth century

A chart by Leah Tams that shows the changing proportion of one-off and serial guidebooks across the first half of the nineteenth century

Reading through the Weller piece for this weeks’ DoOO discussion, I realized that I have become something of a digital scholar without entirely intending it.  When I began to form my scholarly identity in my early graduate school years, “digital humanities” was not yet a blip on my radar, and as I approached mature independent scholarhood, I became acquainted with the term without much context, which led me to experience it more as a buzzword than as a rigorous way of working.  But thinking back over it, my scholarly work habits grew and shaped and shifted over the course the last five years of my career, to the point where digital methods inform much of what I do.

The digital world most quickly and thoroughly penetrated my scholarly practice in the realm of “discovery.”  Much of my work deals with the changing nature of print culture, and when I began my research, this work meant painstaking hours in the archive tracing the evolution of the genres I was interested in.  By the time I was finishing my dissertation, I was increasingly doing this work of tracing change over time using online collections of printed materials, including proprietary databases like Evans and Shaw-Shoemaker.  A big breakthrough happened when I realized that Google Books was actually an amazing resource for a nineteenth-century scholar like me; most of the works I’m interested in are common enough that they show up in multiple editions on Google Books, and since they’re nineteenth-century, they’re out of copyright and are usually available in full text and searchable.  These databases fundamentally changed the way I went about discovering new primary sources for my work and working with the ones I decided were important.

Only more recently have my processes of “combination” and “data visualization” undergone digital transformation.  I am currently working on a rewrite of a book chapter on the changing print culture of geographical knowledge in the early American republic, for which I am tracing the shifting publication patterns of gazetteers, geographical grammars, and tourist guidebooks between 1800 and 1860.  I have been working all year with a couple of extremely talented senior history majors, Leah Tams and Julia Wood, who have been collaboratively building a database of editions from WorldCat and applying their own skills in data visualization to help me think of new ways to understand and describe shifting patterns of publication.  Leah is a math minor, so she has used to Excel skills to develop a series of charts, graphs, and word clouds that show the changing nature of the geographical publishing industry.  Julia is a geography double major who is also pursuing a certificate in GIS, and she is currently working on developing ways to visualize the spatial patterns of publication.  We are going to present on our work at the end of this academic year, and if all goes well, their visualizations will make it into the book.

And now, this exercise has me thinking, we should figure out a way to present this work online, as well.



  1. Ryan says:

    Let me know if you want to talk through some options re: presenting this work online, Will. I’d be happy to help!

  2. jmcclurken says:

    Yes, absolutely, both here and at the department’s blog, and maybe even in your own soon to be created space at….

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