Opening the creaky binding of a 400-year-old book or straining to make out 18th-century handwriting might never lose its allure to some. But other scholars are putting aside the magnifying glasses and book cradles and turning to computers to help them better understand old texts and objects. And in this process, they're revealing new insights into history.
For researchers ready to dive into data with the help of a computer, Bowdoin's Special Collections & Archives is a treasure trove. Among the many collections in the archives is the personal library of James Bowdoin III, consisting of more than 2,000 volumes and thousands more pamphlets, which the philanthropist and statesman bequeathed to the College in 1811. He collected these publications during his lifetime to give to a liberal arts college.
There is also the collection from botanist and artist Kate Furbish, who lived most of her life — 1834 to 1934 — in Brunswick, Maine. Furbish spent decades traveling through Maine to collect plant specimens which she used as inspiration for delicately beautiful scientific illustrations. She donated approximately 1,300 of her wildflower drawings to Bowdoin in 1908.
Bowdoin's library also holds the papers of Civil War hero and Reconstruction figure Gen. Oliver Otis Howard, and those of his two brothers, including thousands of their letters. All three men were Bowdoin graduates. The Howard papers offer a broad and yet intimate portrait of a family in the second half of the 19th century.
The importance of metadata (data about data)
No digital humanities project would be possible without metadata. Kat Stefko, director of the George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives at Bowdoin, said that her team balances being good caretakers of old and fragile things with making those materials as accessible as possible to the public. They do this in part by creating metadata to catalogue, label, and describe every object they hold. This metadata, recorded ands stored in a systematic order, can be easily searched and sorted.
"Library catalogers are the unsung heroes of digital humanities," Stefko said. "Because our librarians have done such a good job of describing the library collections over the years, digital humanists now have the ability to work with these robust metadata sets."
In addition, each time students work with a collection, they can add to the objects' metadata. "Metadata is never done," Stefko pointed out. "The more researchers work with collections, they more they understand it and can contribute to its description."
Indeed, as more digital humanists work with the library's collections, Stefko has observed a new kind of archive opening up — that of metadata itself. "It's no longer just metadata, but also a collection in its own right," she said.
In Clare Congdon's class, From Data to Visualization: Designing Interactive Approaches to Understanding Information, students design interactive, easy-to-use tools for large data sets, with the goal of aiding future researchers, or "helping people answer questions about their data," as Congdon puts it. "Vision is one of our most powerful senses," she continued. "Perception and cognition are related, so if we can present the data well, we're accessing our powerful vision systems to do a lot of work for us to understand it."
Data visualization tools can create pictures from data — like interactive bar charts, pie charts, and scatter plots that users can manipulate. "In making data visualization tools interactive, the viewer is enabled to look at the data from different perspectives, for example, turning on or off different features of the data, or looking at particular date ranges," Congdon said.
Last fall, the data visualization class broke into small groups, with one set focused on metadata from the Furbish collection. When Congdon and her students set their gazes on an archive like Furbish's, they don't just see the botanist's gorgeous flower illustrations. They also focus on the the thousands of "data points," associated with the drawings — like the plant's common and scientific names, and where and when the specimens were collected.
James Bowdoin III built his library not just to satisfy a strong thirst for knowledge but also to fulfill his mission to launch an excellent academic institution. "Bowdoin was collecting books to donate to the college to be a foundational piece of a liberal arts college at the turn of the 19th century," Professor Crystal Hall said.
After Bowdoin died in 1811, Bowdoin College received not only Bowdoin's library of 783 titles bound in 2,048 volumes, but also his mineral collection, scientific devices, and art collection. With this gift, the College library likely became the third largest academic library in New England at the time. "His gift to the College really changed the character of the school, making it a much more consequential and serious place of study," Stefko said.
Based on early research Hall has done with the library's metadata she's been struck by the diversity of concepts the library represents. "There are many ideas here that aren't connected," she said. "When the pamphlets are included we get a sense of just how broad that conceptualization of a liberal arts college would have been."
With a couple of students, Hall has begun exploring the collection, and along the way adding metadata tags to the material they encounter. "We're conveying information to a future scholar," she said.
While we know a lot about James Bowdoin, his personal library presents some unanswered questions. For instance, what was his methodology? How did he know what to look for, and where to find it? What did he consider to be essential knowledge for a liberal arts education?
A future researcher might begin answering this last question by comparing James Bowdoin's library with the personal libraries collected by some of his peers to glean insights into how Bowdoin conceived of a liberal arts college, and whether his approach reflected current intellectual thinking or perhaps was more progressive.
Textual Analysis Tools
Researchers can use various tools to search, sort, or otherwise analyze texts. One can start by simply looking up the most frequently used words, for instance. Creating word clouds lets one see how prominent certain words were in a specific amount of time.
Papers, books, and other texts can also be quickly sorted into categories, such as by date or whether they were written by women or men, or say were written by people residing in Washington DC, Philadelphia or somewhere else. This data is all part of a book's metadata.
In addition, topic modeling programs can scan lots of text to find groupings of words — or words commonly used in proximity to one another. This helps researchers gain a sense of recurring themes in texts, and how those themes change from year to year, or over decades.
In this way, students can ask an almost infinite number of questions of the collections — and start to pile up answers. This sort of work is now being done with the letters of Civil War general Oliver Otis Howard and his brothers. "Interested students will have their own encounters with these letters and discover what aspects they want to look at," Karl Fattig said.
Meagan Doyle, the library's digital archivist, oversaw the National Historical Publications and Records Commission’s digitization of the 80,000 or so letters, photographs and diaries in the Oliver Otis Howard collection. Most of the letters were written by O.O. Howard or sent to him, but the project also includes the collected letters of his two brothers: Charles Henry Howard and Rowland Bailey Howard.
For each of the 80,000 items there is associated metadata: including the date, recipient, writer, and place from which it was sent. Because there are so many letters written and received by the Howard family across a century, there are thousands and thousands of data points. The scale of the metadata set alone supports projects to discover patterns, trends, and changes over time within the collection.
Bowdoin College's collections of James Bowdoin III's library, Furbish drawings, and Howard family papers present a unique invitation for students to engage with history.
“Data can be dry and boring, but when it relates to a person important to the history of the college, it can make the data more accessible and interesting to a student," Stefko said. “Data, in the hands of digital humanists, has transformative possibilities—it can open up a new window on our history, it can allow us to imagine and understand our past in new and more nuanced ways, and it can tell us new things about distant historical figures. In my mind, one of the most powerful aspects of digital humanities is the possibilities it brings for humanizing data.”
"The students are glimpsing lives of people caught in a moment," she added.