Solving Old Problems with New Technology: Carl Stahmer and the Computational Humanities

Carl Stahmer is almost visibly brimming with excitement over the possibilities opened up by the digital and computational humanities. Stahmer is the new Director of Digital Scholarship at the University Library here at Davis and presented on January 21 a talk entitled “Computational Humanities and the Early Modern Digital Archive.”

For him, computational methods can both help answer long-standing questions in the humanities as well as lead us to ask new ones. The examples that he included in the talk demonstrated how these methods could advance our understanding of literary studies, especially when dealing with the early modern period. The difficulty, for instance, in pinpointing the exact year of publication for early modern texts has meant that those who study the time period depend on ranges often thirty to fifty years long, uncertainty that would be impermissible in other fields of study.

The English Broadside Ballad Archive (EBBA), with Stahmer serving as Associate Director, has started to use Speeded Up Robust Features (SURF), an algorithm used in identification of features of visual images, in order to find instances of the same woodcut or image used anywhere in the archive. Stahmer argues that, using information such as the reuse of a woodcut, in combination with other data about the text, could be used to identify, with much greater specificity, the text’s date of publication.

“This is a game-changer,” Stahmer says. “We could get everything within a five year range.”

With greater accuracy in dating early modern texts, humanists could further explore how stories change; what people find funny, moving, boring; and how stories move across a culture and through time, among other things.

Stahmer is aware, however, that a new kind of scholarship such as he proposes would require new methods for legitimating and communicating this information. What he calls a “social bibliographic interface” would allow for a new system of peer review, “Peer Reviewed Social Curation.” In order to make a change to a bibliographic record, a scholar would build his or her case by attaching supporting documents, either previously published work or original writing; it would take three “yeses” in the review pool in order for the change to pass and get approved. The key, according to Stahmer, is that all of this peer review process would be visible to users.

The Department of Digital Scholarship hopes to offer opportunities in the digital humanities not available elsewhere on campus, from undergraduate internships, to graduate student researcher positions, to faculty fellowships. One of the first services the department is offering are office hours open to anyone interested in discussing the issues, problems, and opportunities offered by the digital and computational humanities. These office hours are held every Thursday, from 10-11 am in Shields 362A.

– Katja Jylkka, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral student in English