Week 6 Readings

It would appear that like most other methodological innovations, the digital capacity to search and reorganize texts into visuals and statistics should be used in moderation. Or at least in conjunction with other tools.

The big data approach to any set of texts is fraught. It has innumerable benefits to expand exponentially the sources scholars are able to access and analyze. As Michel et al. pointed out, their study was only 4% of the world’s texts, but the real number of them was massive. It also allows nuanced shifts in language, methods, and priorities to become visible as in Jockers’ analysis of Irish literature. On the flip side, with the massive numbers of texts, what could be skewing the results? How are they filtered to apply to a specific question or argument? What is missing from the digital body. With the more nuanced shifts over time, do they make any sense so far abstracted from their context? Do frequencies and trends mean anything without additional information?

It is quite easy to condemn or valorize the use of macroanalysis tools. Like any other methodological intervention, they will undergo a period of adjustment. They will settle into the existing practices as well as change them – all to allow the best possible combination to result. Some scholars will make missteps, others will lag behind. In the end, being conscious of their limitations, flaws, and advantages is the most vital element of their use.

Possibly the biggest benefit of such tools is their ability to create interesting visuals and tidbits of knowledge that tap into the digital orientation of the current public. These tools can allow public history institutions a way to connect visitors into a larger, more complex narrative that draws from digital results as well as more traditional scholarship. Also, the burden of much of the grunt work of research can be off-put onto this software. This will potentially allow public institutions with meager funds the ability to process information and collections that they hold to enhance visitor experience.

Student in the World History M.A. program with interests in the intersections of imperialism and gender in the Atlantic World.

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