Professor Crystal Hall Receives Digital Fellowship

crystall-hall-bowdoinThis summer and next, Crystal Hall, a visiting assistant professor of digital and computational studies, will attend a new institute in North Carolina that’s been designed to teach humanities scholars about cutting-edge digital tools that can broaden and deepen their research.

The Digital Textual Studies workshop, to be offered for the first time this summer by the North Carolina-based National Humanities Center, will be run by two leaders in the emerging field of digital humanities — Willard McCarty and Matthew Jockers.

“They are framing the workshop as a chance to foster the digital imagination,” Hall said. Ten scholars from around the world have been selected to participate. “As humanists, we will see how computers can help us do our work better or modify it somehow, giving us new avenues to explore.” The workshop will include both discussion and hands-on work with tools, for example, with the R statistical programming language. Participants will learn skills such as how to classify documents using machine learning and modeling, which can show lexical similarities between texts.

At the institute, Hall, who is an Italian literature scholar, plans on focusing on a chapter in the book she is writing on Galileo’s library. For her book project, she is recreating Galileo’s library digitally, tracking books that, since Galileo’s death in 1642, have been dispersed throughout Italy and beyond. So far, 700 books have been found, mainly in archives, libraries and private collections. Hall personally has discovered more than 100 of these. To identify the books, she has had to scour Galileo’s correspondence, looking for mentions of particular volumes, and she has searched (with “close reading and computational distant reading techniques,” she said) the citations and embedded quotations in his own writing.

Each book in Galileo’s library has metadata associated with it, such as the publisher, publishing date and edition, as well as whatever notes Galileo may have scribbled into it. (There are only about 20 surviving copies of books with Galileo’s annotations.) With so much data to sift through, Hall said she had to turn to computational solutions to help her analyze her findings.

The digital library she is building helps her see what the specific books Galileo owned looked like. It also sometimes includes, for comparison purposes, copies of the other print runs or editions of those books. Sometimes these editions differ dramatically, from their cover to their contents, and comparing them can help reveal the decisions Galileo may have made when selecting a book. Hall’s digital archive not only provides insights into how Galileo approached different scholarly materials, but also gives a window onto the book culture of the early modern period.

At Bowdoin, Hall is helping to develop the college’s new Digital and Computational Studies Initiative across the liberal arts curriculum.

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