Wednesday, September 17, 2014

2014-09-17: NEH ODH Project Directors' Meeting

On Monday (Sep 15), Michael and I attended the NEH Office of Digital Humanities Project Directors' Meeting at their new location in the Constitution Center in Washington, DC. We were invited based on our "Archive What I See Now" project being funded as a Digital Humanities Implementation Grant.

There were two main goals of the meeting: 1) provide administrative information and advice to project directors and 2) allow project directors to give a 3 minute overview of their project to the general public.

The morning was devoted the first goal.  One highlight for me was ODH Director Brett Bobley's welcome in which he talked a bit about the history of the NEH (NEH's 50th anniversary is coming up in 2015).  The agency is currently in the process of digitizing their historical documents, including records of all of the grants that have been awarded (originally stored on McBee Key Sort cards). He also mentioned the recent article "The Rise of the Machines" that describes the history of NEH and digital humanities. Bottom line, digital humanities is not a new thing.

The public afternoon session was kicked off with a welcome from the new NEH Chairman, Bro Adams.

The keynote address was given by Michael Whitmore, Director of the Folger Shakespeare Library.  He talked about adjacency in libraries allows people to easily find books with similar subjects ("virtuous adjacency").  But, if you look deeper into a book and are looking for items similar to a specific part of the book (his example was the use of the word "ape"), then the adjacent books in the stacks probably aren't relevant ("vicious adjacency"). In a physical library, it's not easy to rearrange the stacks, but in a digital library, you can have the "bookshelf rearrange itself". 

His work uses Docuscope to analyze types of words in Shakespeare's plays.  The algorithm classifies words according to what type of word it is (imperative, dialogue, anger, abstract nouns, ...) and then uses PCA analysis to cluster plays according to these descriptors. One of the things learned through this visual analysis is that Shakespeare used more sentence-starting imperatives than his peers. Another project mentioned was Visualizing English Print, 1530-1799.  The project visualized topics in 1080 texts with 40 texts from each decade. The visualization tool, Serendip, will be presented at IEEE VAST 2014 in Paris (30-second video).

After the keynote, it was time for the lightning rounds.  Each project director was allowed 3 slides and 3 minutes to present an overview of their newly funded work.  There were 33 projects presented, so I'll just mention and give links to a few here.  (2015-07-24 update: links to videos of all lightning talks are available at and

Lightning Round 1 - Special Projects and Start-Up Grants
Lightning Round 2 - Implementation Grants
  • Pop Up Archive, PRX, Inc. - archiving, tagging, transcribing audio
  • Bookworm, Illinois at Urbana-Champaign - uses HathiTrust Corpus and is essentially an open-source version of Google n-gram viewer
The program ended with a panel on how to move projects beyond the start-up phase.

Thanks to the ODH staff (Brett Bobley, Perry Collins, Jason Rhody, Jen Serventi, and Ann Sneesby-Koch) for organizing a great meeting!

For another take on the meeting, see the article "Something Old, Something New" at Inside Higher Ed. Also, the community has some active tweeters, so there's more commentary at #ODH2014.

The lightning presentations were recorded, so I expect to see a set of videos available in the future, as was done with the 2011 meeting.

One great side thing I learned from the trip is that mussels and fries (or, moules-frites) is a traditional Belgian dish (and is quite yummy).

2014-10-01 Edit:

Links to the tools from our Archive What I See Now project (work still in progress, we welcome feedback)

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