Amy Borsuk, Scripps College
I wasn’t surprised when my friend asked me, “How do you do research in the humanities; what is there to research?” I laughed; what else could I do? Humanities students could probably pay off their student loans if they were paid every time someone asked a question like this. With time, the issue for me hasn’t been the question, but how to answer it. To an English major/humanities student, there’s an unending amount of questions to delve into, and these questions are valuable and useful, but to those who don’t see the connection between the sciences and the humanities, the humanities serves no practical function.
So for her, the real questions are: how does research in the humanities serve a practical function? What product does humanities research produce? For me, the question is: what can I learn through the methodology of this particular kind of humanities research?
My friend and I operate under very different understandings of the value of research. It’s not to say that one is more valid than the other, but each one serves a very different function. Yet, the Counting the Dead digital archiving research project arguably responds to both perceptions of the value of research: we’re moving toward a product to be presented and used, but in order to get there, one must value the process.
We are working to design a digital archive of documents (varying in form from journal entries to diaries, newspaper articles, collections of letters, and Plague Bills) that document the plague outbreak in London in the 1660s. In this digital archive, we want certain kinds of information to be categorized and organized such as the mortality rate, names of cities and countries, names of people and characters involved in the outbreak, and so on. Enter the computer sciences, stage right. We’re using XML markup, a kind of tagging system that doesn’t influence the interface of a page, but how the information on the page is structured, categorized and organized. This system has required us to be very patient and flexible, because our methods don’t always work: we have an idea, we pursue it, the idea is complicated by contradictions, limitations in technology, etc., and we have to go back and revise. As I’m changing the revised tag for various elements in our documents, I’m reminded of my friends taking chemistry who lament that they messed up their titrations and have to start all over.
Even more excitingly, there are people in the sciences who acknowledge the value and logic of interdisciplinary application in literature. Two fellow friends and Scripps students, one majoring in Neuroscience and the other in Anthropology, were excited to hear about the use of XML and computer science in our archiving process. Both of them had used XML in their respective disciplines, and were fascinated by the translation of XML-usage for literature. As we talked, we felt a growing sense of satisfaction and unity: XML was a bridge connecting all of our disciplines and projects together through a shared tool.
So although some are determined to ask “So what?” about the value of humanities and literary research, others are connecting with us through familiar platforms in order to understand what’s so important about our work, and what’s exciting about it. I’m glad that this project has become a way for me to get involved in making these connections happen more frequently.