Written by Heather Wacha
Documenting DH is a project from the Digital Humanities Research Network (DHRN). It consists of a series of audio interviews with various humanities scholars and students around the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. Each interviewee is given a chance to talk about how they view data, work with data, manage data, or teach data to others. Most recently, we interviewed Robin Rider, curator of the University of Wisconsin’s Special Collections, where she specializes in the history of science. She is a senior lecturer in the History Department and she regularly teaches in the iSchool. Her perspective on digital humanites has been shaped by decades of research, scholarship and her unique position as a Special Collections curator.
How do you manage the data you work with?
For the most part Rider uses spreadsheets and relational databases for the data she collects in her research. She is careful to note, however, that historians have always been using relational databases, be they in the format of notebooks or index cards – so gathering and managing data is not a new thing. It is only in the last couple decades that the concept and execution of relational databases has moved to a digital environmnent.
Rider’s most recent data is coming from a project examining and analyzing the look and feel of the pages found in early manuscripts and printed books that contain mathmatical equations and notations. She is interested in how the notations are embedded in the text, within a paragraph, and how to code that so that it can be replicated in digital format. This is a challenge for coding since she wants to code the page structure rather than just the text.
For Rider the biggest challenge of data management is actually in the process of figuring out which systems work best for her project. She has had multiple learning stages. First she has had to learn enough to be able to understand the path forward and choose systems that she needed for analyizing the mathmatical pages she is working with. What tools did she need? How could she make her work flow efficient? How could she apply measures to a series or sequence of pages, as opposed to one at a time? How could she eventually automate the process? Indeed, the process of finding and choosing data management tools that work for the project can itself be the data management challenge. Once she had systems in place, Rider had to learn how to use them all and how to use them well together.
What excites you about the data you’ve been working with recently?
For Rider, one of the most enjoyable parts is actually compiling data. Rider keeps meticulous notes as she compiles data and records both preliminary findings as well a new insights about her sources. Watching new information appear in new formats, including any anomalies, is a great feeling. From this, she is able to analyze the data from a more global perspective and reap the benefits of digital humanities research, i.e. seeing and asking new research questions about the data, as well as accessing trends that appear in the breadth of data.
What advice can you give humanists wanting to manage their data effectively?
Advice 1: First of all, Rider notes that all humanists have data, whether they think of it as data or not. Thus some of the concerns that researchers who practice traditional research methods confront, digital humanists also confront, but in different formats. Humanists need to manage data, whether it appears on a page or in a file.
Advice 2: For Rider, it is important to consider that managing data may involve multiple tools and multiple software packages. She herself often needs to adapt a suite of unrelated software packages in order to best manage and use her data. Part of discovering her data management system and workflow is part of the process.
Advice 3: Finally the storage and sustainability of one’s data must always be considered. Where will the data be stored? In which formats? On which sites? Will it be the raw data and/or compiled data? Who will have access? Indeed, multiple options for answering these questions can sometimes provide the most secure results.
If you are interested in hearing more, you can go to Robin Rider’s interview on the DHRN webpage where Rider describes her career and journey as a digital humanist in more detail.