In his 2005 book, Franco Moretti aims to open “a new front of discussion” by calling for a “distant reading” of texts in the pursuit of literary history. Abstraction in the form of the Graphs, Maps and Trees of the book’s title, he argues, reduces the number of elements in focus, providing a “sharper sense of their overall interconnection.” Moretti’s call is being been taken up by scholars working in a digital milieu, though not without controversy.
With mass digitization of print culture the potential for new types of investigation into the human condition is enormous, but just as scholars have always required a network of libraries and archives to support their use of books, manuscripts and other textual resources, digital resources require an infrastructure for discovery, study, and maintenance. Partnerships between research libraries, IT departments, and digital humanities centers have developed to support digitally enhanced scholarship in the arts and humanities. Internationally, in recent years several large-scale projects have been funded within the humanities and social sciences, to provide infrastructure to support the new digital scholarship. The University of Maryland is currently partnering with 9 other universities on one such international effort: the Mellon-funded Project Bamboo , which is attempting to answer the question: “How can we advance arts and humanities research through the development of shared technology services?”
In this presentation and the ensuing discussion, we aim to present and contextualize our work on Project Bamboo in light of new modes of humanities digital scholarship and reading, including text mining and corpora analysis. Utilizing the high profile Google Books Ngram Viewer project and reactions to the “culturomics” approach as examples of the benefits and pitfalls of textual analysis at scale, we will argue for a scalable approach to humanities research, simultaneously distant and close, where for each step of abstraction away, the scholar can step back into the detail of the text.