Digitization and Humanities: Navigating e-Text and Using Social Media as a Scholarly Database

My name is Sydney Lines, and as a member of the 19th Century Colloquium at Arizona State University, I’ve been given the honor of offering up this month’s blog post. I am a bit of a non-traditional member at the moment. I joined the Colloquium while I was completing my MA (English Literature) at ASU. Since graduating in spring 2013 and deciding to take a year off before applying to doctoral programs, the Colloquium has graciously allowed my continued participation and still offers support and mentorship in preparation for my looming doctoral applications and requisites. (Many thanks!)

Follow my research at https://asu.academia.edu/SydneyLines

My research interests include science and Romanticism, women writers, travel writing, the supernatural, and the gothic sublime. It is only very recently that I would also include the digital humanities in that list. In an effort to consider just one of the many varied possibilities the digital humanities offer, and to demonstrate its use as a potential tool for scholars, this post will detail my own experience using digital texts and social media as an organizational database for my research.

I am often met with combined levels of reservation and intrigue when I mention that I have turned social media into a digital humanities project that acts as a scholarly database. Admittedly, my foray into this sphere was largely experimental, and I had no real expectation about results or functionality. What I found is that it creates an alternative organization system that is represented visually and offers another mode of piecing my research together. It is also, in my case, publicized in a social media network where some non-scholars are interacting with my research and finding interest in areas they may not have considered prior to engaging with my Tumblr blog. In detailing my methodology, I hope to provide a glimpse of how a digital humanities project can operate and hopefully provide another resource for scholars who wish to organize their research in similar formats.

One of Blake’s illustrations of Gray’s “Descent of Odin.”

Originally, I was interested in supernatural women in Romantic texts from a folkloric perspective. Somewhere along the way, I came across some obscure references to Old Norse mythology in British texts and was delighted to find supernatural female figures[1]. Out of mere curiosity, I decided to look further. I wanted to see if women writers were using the same mythological figures, if they were portrayed in similar ways, and if there was a potential area of research within this space. Searches through the university library revealed that there has not been much scholarship at all in this field, and the majority of what I now refer to as “Norse Romantic” texts, have had little critical attention[2]. This newly discovered movement in Romanticism offered the benefit of being a niche space I could bring to light while conversely offering the challenge of trying to synthesize the scattered scholarship, the forgotten texts, and the historical references. But how was I going to pull all of this into one coherently organized system?

Thanks to digitization projects like Google Books, HathiTrust, and the increase in digital scholarly databases, I could do preliminary research without having to incur travel expenses and devote time and energy to a potential project I was not yet sure existed. I started with Adriana Cracun’s Women Romantic Era Writers (UC-Riverside) and the collection of British Women Romantic Poets (UC-Davis). I located the first woman writer in the databases and literally began by using the “Ctrl+F” command throughout her listed works, typing in some of the same words I found in other identified Norse Romantic texts that designated a Nordic association. I am still surprised at how much I was able to find with this simple technique. I noticed a few identifiable trends and started keeping a folder of all the works I located. I amassed quite a bit of information and was struggling to find a good organizational system that allowed me to access it from multiple locations.

The answer came in the form of social media.

A screenshot of my "Norse Romanticism" research Tumblr blog.
A screenshot of my “Norse Romanticism” research Tumblr blog.

And thus came the creation of http://norseromanticism.tumblr.com/. It acts as my own interdisciplinary database of artwork, literature, scholarship, and historical documents I encounter in my research and gives me the opportunity to post a multitude of media and text types—whether curated from other places on the web or self-created. Every submission template also comes with a “source” box, so my bibliographic information stays attached to each post.

Every post on the Tumblr page is added by me, and it is completely tailored to my research interests, following a set of guidelines I designed for my own specific use. My Tumblr is public, so everyone on the web can access it, and anyone with a Tumblr account can share or interact with any of the posts. If you prefer a private database that is seen strictly by you or a few others with whom you choose to share it, Tumblr allows a password-protected account.

One of the most useful features I’ve found is the tagging system. I have developed my own series of tags that help me categorize the posts in ways that will help me continue to access them for future use. For instance, if I want to look solely at artwork or artists, I will go to my “Tags” page, click the “art” tag, and Tumblr will populate all of my posts with that tag. I can use this similar function with any other tag. If I want to see only works by William Blake, I can click the “William Blake” tag or if I want to see only travel writing, I can click the “travel” tag and so on.

A screenshot of posts returned by clicking the "art" tag.
A screenshot of posts returned by clicking the “art” tag.

By using these tags, I can more quickly navigate the categories and begin answering questions like: How are the Norse figures and/or the Scandinavian North depicted in art? In literature? In travel writing? In women’s writing? What are the similarities and differences I see between each group? Is there an underlying theme that connects them all? Etc.

Though my MA thesis is completed, I continue to update the account with new information I find as I hope to create a larger project out of the research. The Tumblr account has assisted me largely in terms of identifying patterns more easily, allowing space for imagery, and offering quickly populated, categorized information without having to go through the process of paying for or creating my own personal database with the added benefit of simultaneously creating an interactive digital humanities project in its own right.



[1] See Thomas Gray’s “Fatal Sisters. An Ode” or “The Descent of Odin,” both illustrated by William Blake.

[2] Robert Rix and Margaret Clunies-Ross are two current scholars; Rix proposed the “Nordic Exchanges” panel at NASSR 2013.