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.”
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.
A sample of DSL’s projects includes:
- Visualizing Emancipation: maps slavery’s end during the American Civil War
- American Panorama: interactive maps built on themes of “Redlining in New Deal America,” “The Forced Migration of Enslaved People,” “The Overland Trails,” “Foreign-Born Population” and “Canals”
- Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States: a cartographic history of the United States with 18 topics ranging from “Boundaries, 1607-1927” to “States, Territories, and Cities, 1790-1930.”
- The History Engine: student-written episodes that describe snippets of daily life throughout history
- Redlining Richmond: reveals the centrality of race in the politics — and on the landscape — of Richmond, VA, in the late 1930s. DSL built Redlining Richmond in collaboration with Richard Marciano, Professor and Director of the Digital Curation Innovation Center at the University of Maryland. Marciano and his team created a similar project titled Mapping Inequality: Redlining in the U.S.
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.