As an associate professor of English in Stony Brook University’s College of Arts and Sciences, Andrew Newman specializes in American literature from the colonial period, but his current research has less to do with literature itself than how it’s been taught.
“I’m working on a history of high school literature instruction that ranges back into the mid-20th century or so,” Newman said. “I’m finding a lot of materials that are essentially old teaching editions that aren’t carried by libraries anymore. They’ve been judged to be redundant and unneeded, but I find really valuable insights into the way that canonical works of literature were taught in the 1950s and 60s.”
To get the most out of these older materials, though, Newman needs new tools.
“For these older materials that I’m collecting,” Newman said, “I want to scan them using optical character recognition, so that it can make them searchable documents.”
Soon, Newman may be able to do that at Stony Brook, thanks to a grant from the Gladys Brooks Foundation, a foundation dedicated to supporting libraries and educational organizations. A $125,000 gift from the Foundation will be used to establish the University’s Digital Humanities program, housed in the Frank Melville Jr. Memorial Library.
The gift is a natural extension of the Foundation’s longstanding goals, and a fitting response to the way in which digital techniques are transforming the study of the humanities, explained Kate Kasten, Head of Humanities and Social Sciences in Stony Brook Libraries, with Newman’s project as a natural example.
“Traditionally, we picture a humanities scholar who sits with a book,and takes notes on that book,” Kasten said. “One of the ways in which something like text mining can be really helpful is for a scholar who is looking to identify a certain phenomenon in a text, or even a specific keyword. For example, if I was looking to find occurrences of the word “mirror” across time, or in different kinds of textual discourse, I would be reading through hundreds and hundreds of texts to try to find those occurrences. The availability of text mining as a tool for supporting humanistic work eliminates that burden and helps scholars arrive at answers with exceptional speed and accuracy.”
Of course, digital humanities goes far beyond text mining, with a broad spectrum of research methodologies that also includes the revolution in data journalism and data visualization being led by news outlets like ABC News’s FiveThirtyEight, along with humanistic inquiries into artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies (an area of particular interest at Stony Brook, with the new Institute for AI-Driven Discovery and Innovation).
In recent years, Kasten has headed a working group on campus for digital humanities, leading workshops and advising faculty and students on incorporating the digital humanities into their work, but there was a constant obstacle: the lack of a central home on Stony Brook’s campus for the digital humanities.
“We envision it as a physical space where work and projects can be done,” Kasten said, “where consultations can happen, where people can come and have an established resource for doing digital humanities work.”
In that context, it makes perfect sense to establish the new program’s home in the library, where plans include large format and microfilm scanners, dedicated computing stations, and essential software for digital humanities work, with additional funds budgeted for workshops, professional development, and other programming.
“The digital humanities are a very collaborative enterprise,” Kasten said. “We see this as having really important implications for things like scholarly communication, how people put their research out there. It’s something that we think the library can have an important role in supporting, and we’re looking forward to working with a variety of researchers and students and other entities on campus.”
“A digital humanities program is a crucial component of a 21st century university,” added Dexter A. Bailey Jr., senior vice president for University Advancement. “We are grateful to the Gladys Brooks Foundation for their support, and we’re excited to see the difference it makes for our community of scholars.”