How to Build a Digital-Humanities Tool in a Week

Twelve scholars convened at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University this week to build a Web application for the digital humanities as part of the One Week | One Tool challenge, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The participants, who included Web developers, faculty members, museum professionals, undergraduate and graduate students, and a high-school librarian, spent five days brainstorming, designing, and developing their tool, said Brian Croxall, a project manager for the team and lecturer in English at Emory University.

“We had less than five days to build something totally new and at the same time learn each other’s names,” Mr. Croxall said.

After throwing around various ideas for digital tools that would be useful in the humanities and then reaching out to the public for input on a Web site set up for public voting and comment, the team ultimately decided to create Serendip-o-matic, a “serendipitous” discovery tool. Users input a text, such as a bibliography or article, and receive results on related papers or pictures that they might not have seen otherwise. Serendip-o-matic extracts results from the online collections of the Digital Public Library of America, the Europeana digital library, and Flickr Commons, Mr. Croxall said.

The app allows users to submit work and “shuffle” results. Every search will return different content. Mr. Croxall said Serendip-o-matic’s design is meant to “recreate browsing in the stacks and finding a book perhaps in a special collection or in an archive that you didn’t know existed but is related to what you’re doing.”

Brett Bobley, director of the NEH’s Office of Digital Humanities, called One Week | One Tool “one of the most unique and innovative summer institutes” the humanities endowment has ever supported. “Rather than focusing on Dante, it’s focused on finding new research tools to study Dante,” Mr. Bobley said. One Week | One Tool will “train scholars on new research methods and tools and techniques for conducting humanities research.”

Mr. Bobley said the seminar had been based on the hackathons that are popular in the computer and software-development community. He said that Tom Scheinfeldt, director at large of the Center for History and New Media and the brains behind the seminar, had made the case to him that the field of humanities was increasingly working with new tools and software systems, yet many humanists have no knowledge of the workings behind the apps they use, unlike many of their counterparts in the hard sciences. The weeklong institute is a chance to learn by doing, Mr. Bobley said, even if the final product isn’t perfect.

This is the second time One Week | One Tool has brought together scholars from across the nation to create an application for the digital humanities. In 2010 participants created Anthologize, a plugin that converts WordPress blogs into a platform for publishing electronic texts. Mr. Bobley said that while the point of the seminar wasn’t that the final project would actually be used, to his surprise Anthologize has turned out to be a very popular tool.

Mr. Croxall also said that while this year’s participants had come together with the goal of creating a useful application for digital humanists, the weeklong seminar wasn’t so much about the final product as about the process. The hope is that team members will work to bring their experiences from the past week back to their home institutions and further contribute to the discussion around humanities in the digital age.

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