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The University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab

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Screenshot of American Panorama website.

In November, 2016, staff from the Library of Congress’s National Digital Initiatives division visited the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab as part of NDI’s efforts to explore data librarianship, computational research and digital scholarship at other libraries and cultural institutions.

Like many university digital labs, the DSL is based in the library, which DSL Director Robert Nelson said is “…a logical, conventional place to put a Digital Humanities center.”

The DSL takes up a small physical space and it has a small staff. Nelson, a historian, produces content and writes the JavaScript code for DSL’s projects. Nathanial Ayers creates the visualizations and web designs and Justin Madron oversees the GIS encoding. Other contributors include Edward Ayers, former University of Richmond president, senior research fellow and professor of history (and co-host of the Back Story history podcast) and Lauren Tilton, visiting assistant professor of Digital Humanities. The DSL hires students to help perform such labor-intensive tasks as scanning documents and data entry.

Despite the small space and staff, DSL’s content-rich projects make a large impact. The Lab’s specialty is interactive maps and timeline-based visualizations of historic events, using public-domain maps and data, much of it from the U.S. National Archives.

Screenshot of the Virginia Secession Convention
Screenshot of the Virginia Secession Convention

A sample of DSL’s projects includes:

Screenshot from "Mining the Dispatch" displaying a graph mapping ads for runaway slave and job openings
Screenshot from “Mining the Dispatch.”

The open-source software that DSL uses to build its projects includes:

For years, Nelson has been using data computation in his own research. In a May 29, 2011, New York Time Op Ed piece, Nelson wrote about using Topic Modelling to research vast amounts of newspaper text published during the Civil War. He wrote, “No historian has yet to display the patience and attention to detail to read through the more than 100,000 articles and nearly 24 million words of the wartime (Richmond Daily) Dispatch, let alone conduct the sophisticated statistical analysis necessary to draw conclusions from the data…Topic modeling is a probabilistic, statistical method that can uncover themes and categories in amounts of text so large that they cannot be read by any individual human being. Applied to the Dispatch for the entirety of the war, topic modeling enables us to see both broad and subtle patterns in the Civil War news that we would otherwise be unable to detect. It also helps historians quickly detect the larger themes addressed in individual articles and then trace those themes in other documents…”

The current Digital Scholarship Lab projects are self-contained, browse-and-click multimedia scholarly resources, but they demonstrate only a fraction of the Lab’s potential. DSL staff are pondering ways to make the Lab more service oriented, to address the needs and expectations of the students, researchers and scholars that use the University of Richmond library. Nelson pointed to the Scholars’ Lab at the University of Virginia Library and the Hunt Library at North Carolina State as inspirational models.

Whatever direction the Digital Scholars Lab grows in, partnerships and teamwork will always be essential to its progress. Whether the contributions come from in-house or from visiting scholars or colleagues at other universities, the DSL’s multimedia scholarly projects are evidence that collaboration benefits everyone.

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