Dr. Susan Brown enhances digital tools to harness the power of computers for critical literary and historical research.
Dr. Susan Brown
Professor, College of the Arts, University of Guelph
Member, Advisory Council on Research, Compute Canada
President (English), Canadian Society for Digital Humanities
Visiting professor, Department of English and Film Studies, University of Alberta
Dr. Brown is a literary historian who specializes in Victorian writing, women’s writing, feminist theory, and digital humanities. Her research is at the crossroads of several fields, including literary criticism, cultural history, digital text encoding, computer-assisted text analysis, visualization interfaces, data mining, and high performance computing.
One of Dr. Brown’s main research endeavours is the Orlando Project, an experiment in the integration of text and technology. Working with literary scholars, digital humanists and computing scientists, this collaborative and multidisciplinary project has designed and continues to enhance digital tools to harness the power of computers for critical literary and historical research. Scholarly reviews have heralded it as setting a new standard both in its scholarly area and in its digital delivery.
I imagine most Canadians would be at a loss to define “digital humanities”. I assume it’s much more than simply digitizing archived texts?
Most of our human knowledge generated over the centuries and millennia is still in print or manuscript form. Certainly there’s a big push within digital humanities to participate in the digitization of these works, which makes them more accessible. But the advent of powerful technologies like high-performance computing, data mining, visualization and computer assisted text analysis is opening new ways of studying this history to discover things we didn’t know before. Many of our current ideas or concepts are based on a limited sampling of the historical record. It’s also making us think much more carefully about the relationship between media and how knowledge is produced, circulated, and preserved.
What is the current focus on your research?
A new collaborative project, led by Andrew Piper out of McGill, partnered with Compute Canada and funded by SSHRC, is on text-mining the novel. We’ll be using computers to investigate tens of thousands of novels and related texts, to investigate connections between culture and society in new ways. I also received support from SHARCNET for the Orlando Project, which is an online history of women’s writing in the British Isles. It contains information on thousands of authors and people related to them, including their personal and professional relationships. It has been published online by Cambridge University Press since 2006, and because it’s digital we are able to keep extending it further, so it’s now a third larger then when we initially published.
You have 30,000 historical people represented in just the Orlando project. How do you make this massive amount of data easy for scholars to navigate?
We worked with Mike Bauer at Western University and SHARCNET experts at the University of Guelph to develop a user friendly tool called OViz that visualizes all the connections embedded in this data. For example, you can visualize the connections associated with a particular journal to see not only the literary relationships but also a whole host of social and political relationships. It’s providing new insights into our past.
Will Compute Canada play a role in making this data more widely available?
Having this data delivered through a web system is going to demand a lot of back-end processing and pre-processing. As we move into these bigger data sets we are going to be coming to Compute Canada for help. We’ve benefitted hugely from the prototype development, as well as from offsite backup storage for research data generated by the online research environment (cwrc.ca) that we’re building. I hope the digital humanities community can also turn to Compute Canada for the hosting of these web services that are going to be broadly used by the community and will need stable long-term homes through which the tools can be run.
Only 42 of the 8,200 researchers who used Compute Canada in the past year were from the humanities. Do you see that number growing?
No doubt. Compute Canada now has five experts specializing in the digital humanities and that’s going to be a big help in getting more scholars to use their computing resources. We’ll have access to experts who understand the kind of software and support we need. They will also be able to connect with humanities researchers who have not been aware of the availability of advanced computing resources. Not only will that be good for scholarly research, it will also train a lot of new students on these tools, and there is growing demand in a range of fields for employees who combine technical experience with the critical and analytical skills fostered by the humanities.