“Hamilton” and Digital Humanities

“Hamilton” and Digital Humanities

Posted by: on June 24, 2016   |Comments (0)|Digital Humanities

The musical Hamilton, winner of a slew of awards including (most recently) 11 Tonys, has gained notice as a vehicle for educating children and teens about the early history of the United States. Public interest in the Founding Fathers’ lives and views is high — at the moment, Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton is at the top of the NYT’s paperback nonfiction bestseller list, where it has resided for 35 weeks, and also appears on the e-book nonfiction bestseller list, while Nathaniel Philbrick’s new book on George Washington has a place on the hardcover list. Some die-hard musical fans have moved beyond the Chernow biography into primary sources like Aaron Burr’s journals and John Laurens’s letters.

It’s not only the musical’s content that’s gained a spot in the public eye, though — its critical acclaim and widespread popularity have meant that DH-esque projects relating to its lyrics have attracted mainstream attention of a kind that similar projects on other subjects rarely get. Raplyzer, Eric Malmi’s 2015 program analyzing assonance and other rhymes in rap lyrics, was covered in a handful of sources as a light “computers, whatever will they do next” story — the non-specialist sources largely focused on the aspect of the project where the computer generated raps of its own, rather than on its analysis. (It goes without saying that rhyme analysis tools developed by literature scholars for poetry, like this one by Elise Thorsen and David J. Birnbaum, don’t even get that media attention.) Meanwhile, in 2016, Hamilton’s reputation led the Wall Street Journal itself to develop an algorithm similar to Malmi’s to use on the show’s lyrics; due to the show’s broad appeal, this was widely shared online.

Although the website Genius, a database of rap lyrics and other content with crowdsourced annotations, had been widely covered before its association with Hamilton, observers took particular note of the speed and thoroughness with which the site’s users marked up the show’s libretto. Genius’s strength, as it related to Hamilton specifically, lay in the breadth of knowledge of its crowdsourcing crowd: hip-hop aficionados picked up the references to Grandmaster Flash, Notorious B.I.G. and Jay-Z, fans coming from a musical theatre background noticed the shout-outs to South Pacific and The Last Five Years, and history buffs provided more context for details that are elided or come up only in passing, like the Battle of Fort Necessity, the Whiskey Rebellion, Hercules Mulligan’s slave Cato, or New York’s prominence in the 1770s. These annotations help a reader understand the musical both as a 21st-century document and as a narrative of the 18th-19th century.

Crowdsourced digital humanities projects frequently deal with much larger corpora than this, which need to be put into indexable form before they can be used by researchers. Such projects are therefore less subjective and less demanding of subject area knowledge. A selection of crowdsourced DH projects:

Hamilton fans who would like to read the title character’s writings can find them at Founders Online. A few that may be of interest:

  • “The Farmer Refuted”, actually far more eloquently insulting than its paraphrase in the musical
  • First preserved letter from Hamilton to Eliza Schuyler, his future wife, apologizing for having offered to drive her and a friend to a party before remembering that he was not a good enough driver to do so
  • Draft of an Opinion on the Constitutionality of an Act to Establish a Bank, one of Hamilton’s most noted political successes. This draft, with cross-outs and additions, is an interesting look at Hamilton’s thought process!
  • Letters between Hamilton and Aaron Burr (1, 2, 3, 4) leading up to their duel, signed — indeed — “I have the honor to be your obedient servant, A. Hamilton/A. Burr”
  • And many more!

The musical Hamilton, winner of a slew of awards including (most recently) 11 Tonys, has gained notice as a vehicle... MORE

Digital Futures of Indigenous Studies

Posted by: on March 18, 2016   |Comments (0)|Digital Humanities

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a fantastic roundtable on Digital Futures of Indigenous Studies in the Digital Scholarship Lab at Brown University’s John D. Rockefeller Library. The event was “part of an ongoing initiative at the JCB to encourage and support a new generation of scholars and community members as they build consciousness about Indigenous issues not only in New England, but also in the United States and internationally”. The discussion centered on “the use of digital media to foster education, research, and outreach within Indigenous communities and studies.” There was a focus on how digital media and tools can help to create connections between people and materials, as well as the importance of relationship-building with Native communities, the ethics surrounding these projects, and project management issues of resource allocation, stewardship, and sustainability.

I was particularly impressed with Tobias Glaza and Paul Grant-Costa’s Yale Indian Papers Project. They focused on the importance of Indigenous communities as stakeholders in the project and collaborating with community members right from the beginning to answer questions like – What’s most important to the community? How do they tell their stories? What information should remain private? How do they want to access and use their digital history? With this approach, they published the New England Indian Papers Series – “a scholarly critical edition of New England Native American primary source materials gathered into one robust virtual collection.” Built on Yale’s Ladybird software and using a Blacklight front-end, the platform is clean and easy-to-use, and includes a document reader, scholarly transcription, and extensive metadata.

An eye-opening takeaway from Alyssa Mt. Pleasant’s presentation on the American Indian Studies (AIS) resources portal that she built at Yale, is the importance of maintaining a project’s stewardship to ensure its longevity. Unfortunately, the AIS portal, which took 3 years to build, wasn’t taken on by anyone else when she left Yale, and consequently, is no longer accessible.

Lisa Brooks from Amherst College gave a fantastic talk on the problem of trying to understand the history of Native spaces when the main existing reference points are colonial maps. She’s worked extensively on creating new historical maps of Indigenous spaces to support her research and is also engaged in the idea of maps as storytelling, often combining her maps with present-day photos of the locations to bring them to life. Her work is included in Amherst’s digital map collection, which was created using Esri’s ArcGIS platform, and is definitely worth checking out.

Another standout was Dana Leibsohn’s project, Vistas, which “seeks to bring an understanding of the visual culture of Spanish America to a broad audience.” Vistas was designed as a non-linear platform, in an effort to encourage multiple pathways between content that would support research in a variety of scholarly disciplines, as well as less formal modes of education and learning. Launched in the late 90’s, Vistas has undergone three major evolutions, from a website hosted by Smith College, to a DVD, and now back to an online version hosted by Fordham University. Dr. Leibsohn’s stewardship of the project over the years has clearly been integral to its longevity, which includes her commitment to tackling the challenges of migrating the platform to keep up with ever-evolving technologies.

There were also a couple of great discussions surrounding endangered Native languages, including a conversation on the power of digital activism to increase online, and particularly social media usage of these languages, as a way of preserving them.

Obviously all of these projects are contributing to content-collection, digital preservation, and scholarship needs, but it was great to hear that so many are focused on supporting Indigenous communities by facilitating access to their histories, preserving them, and ultimately, helping to amplify the voices of these communities.

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a fantastic roundtable on Digital Futures of Indigenous Studies in the Digital Scholarship Lab at... MORE

NERCOMP “Doing Digital Humanities on a Shoestring Budget”

Posted by: on June 9, 2014   |Comments (0)|Digital Humanities


Yesterday, several members of Digital Publishing Services attended a NERCOMP (NorthEast Regional Computing Program) event on inexpensively creating and managing digital humanities projects. The event featured several speakers from a range of Northeastern higher ed institutions to discuss their projects and the motives, tools, and strategies behind them. Of the subjects covered, some highlights were: introducing gaming elements into a Classics course via collaborative online annotation; digital storytelling with iPads; virtual history narratives; publishing and analysis tools; and data preservation methods. The variety of the projects and methods served as a strong indication that digital humanities can be a feasible pursuit for many institutions, even those with a limited budget.

Information and downloadable materials are available at the NERCOMP event site. For an archive of live commentary on the event, you can search #NERCOMP on Twitter.

Yesterday, several members of Digital Publishing Services attended a NERCOMP (NorthEast Regional Computing Program) event on inexpensively creating and managing... MORE