Digital Humanist Carl Stahmer Joins UC Davis Library

The way we describe, organize, and search for information has changed rapidly in the last twenty years. Carl Stahmer, as the new Director of Digital Scholarship at the University Library, has arrived to help with this transition and is prepared to meet the challenges ushered in by new kinds of data cataloguing and library management systems.

The primary focus of Stahmer’s position as Director of Digital Scholarship is to increase the volume and excellence of digital work at Davis, including assisting faculty who are or would like to be engaged in digital projects. This includes developing a digital research component, preserving works digitally, and creating data storage options in line with requirements from granting agencies.

“Everyone in the humanities is a digital humanist,” Stahmer said. “I don’t know anyone who writes in long-hand, publishes in long-hand, and then the information stays in that form.”

Stahmer means that because scholarly work ends up in a digital format through one means or another, we should all embrace the fact that “we are digital.”

The mass digitization efforts underway are resulting in huge troves of information about cultural history from the past. The problem is not about whether or not we are digital, but how we plan to keep pace with the scale and amount of digitization happening in our world.

“Trillions of gigabytes of data is a very, very, large haystack. Finding your needle is more difficult than it ever was,” Stahmer said. Digitized items are largely unfindable until we develop a searchable solution to make this huge body of work useable.

Stahmer explained that he and his team want to help faculty imagine digital options for their work, consider how best to approach them, and then to think through the implications of digital work, which “functions differently than other modes of publication.”

As part of the library’s service mission, Stahmer will assist in the long-term preservation and conservation of work so that it is accessible digitally, and complies with data management plans proposed by funding organizations.

The main imperative, Stahmer said, is to “preserve the work that is created on UC Davis and ensure that it remains visible, available, and findable by students, other researchers, and the public.”

New Library Initiatives

  • Digital office hours

Starting in January, Stahmer and others will be hosting “digital office hours” to assist faculty across the university who have projects where it would be appropriate for their students to do digital work as their work component for that class.

Stahmer described a digital office hours scenario: “A faculty member might not have the platform or technological expertise to allow students to do this [digital component] on their own, or to evaluate the completed work. So students can come to digital office hours and say ‘this is my class project’ and we will team mentor them, and provide tech support to enact their vision.”

  • Research portals project

The University Library Research Portals Project is an initiative designed to identify areas of particular focus and strength at the University. Stahmer and his team plan to create a common web portal for research areas where Davis is a leader. This would result in a “one-stop-shop” environment where a user can explore all the different components of the research.

In the world of the digital humanities, Stahmer explained how there might be “five different departments working on related projects and they don’t know about one another,” so “the idea is that this will allow locally and globally for researchers to know about research connections.”

  • Content Based Image Recognition project

Stahmer brings an exciting National Endowment for the Humanities-funded project to UC Davis. The Content Based Image Recognition project will develop the technology necessary to accurately perform image searches on books, paintings, and prints.

This technology is revolutionary, as Stahmer explained, because current image recognition algorithms work with a two-dimensional picture of a three-dimensional object. However, if you use a picture of a painting to search for related images, then you are using a two-dimensional representation of a two-dimensional object. For this reason, “these algorithms fail miserably when you apply them to historical archival materials,” Stahmer said.

Perfecting this technology will be “a huge boon to all kinds of library collections,” Stahmer explained. It will also be a revolutionary piece of technology happening right here at Davis.

Building Digital Infrastructure

Meeting the information challenges of the twenty-first century requires more than new digital research projects. It requires a tremendous amount of back-end structural work to ensure that digital work can be viewed and located.

To achieve these aims, Stahmer will continue projects already in place at the University Library, as well as research projects he brings to Davis. The first is BibFlow, a project Stahmer inherited from an IMLS grant brought to Davis by head librarian Mackenzie Smith. BibFlow is a process designed to analyze the impact of major categorization changes in libraries and create a roadmap for library workflows during the transition from older, card-catalog-based categorization systems to the new, dynamic Linked Data format.

Linked Data model is another way of talking about the “semantic web,” or “web 2.0,” Stahmer said. It is a very specific way of describing an approach to the World Wide Web and how we would describe things so that they are intelligible to machines. It extends Tim Berners-Lee’s conceptualization of the World Wide Web as a self-aware network of information.

BibFlow will convert the entire UC Davis catalog to an open Linked Data format. That project fits nicely with Stahmer’s other work as lead developer for the English Short Title Catalog (ESTC), a long-running catalog of ephemeral works from the beginning of print to the mid-1800s, and as the associate director of the Broadside Ballot Archive, a dense online digital archive of seventeenth-century ballads. The ESTC is a Mellon-funded project to convert those materials over to the new Linked Data model, and is one of the first major catalogs to make this shift.

“The long dream,” Stahmer explained, is to “allow all these things to talk to each other without humans having to put them together.”

This new descriptive model helps to close the gap between the catalog record of materials and the scholarship that happens around them. Stahmer described how a scholar might locate a seventeenth-century broadside ballad using a finding aid, find that item in a library archive, go look at it, and then separately publish research on that ballad.

“We should have the ability to allow any scholar working with the finding aid to even question the finding aid … to provide a more accurate date, or provenance,” Stahmer said. “This is all work that scholars do which happens separate from the catalog and the idea is to combine them.”

A Born Digital Humanist

Stahmer received his Ph.D. in English from University of California at Santa Barbara, but his passion for information began at an early age when Stahmer’s mother first taught him to program. Stahmer explained that his mother was a Fortran programmer (a general-purpose programming language developed by IBM) in the 1970s, which was extremely rare for a woman at that time.

“She taught me to code as a way of keeping me busy. We used to sit at home together with her Fortran punch cards and flow chart diagrams,” Stahmer continued. “In junior high she brought a computer to our house and taught me how to program.”

While Stahmer admits he grew up as a “computer geek,” his great love was literature. He took an “academic detour” with a stint in the Marine Corps and worked as a programmer on the ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), which was the predecessor of the internet developed by the Department of Defense.

When Stahmer left the Marine Corps to pursue his Ph.D. in English, the “ARPANET stuck with me, and I began to see strong connections between how people were talking about networks and exchange of information there and that people in English Departments were also talking about how information gets puts together.”

“I’ve been interdisciplinary ever since,” Stahmer said.


– Stephanie Maroney, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral candidate in Cultural Studies