Q&A: Caroline Winterer discusses the digital humanities

June 4, 2015, 12:23 p.m.

The “digital humanities” is an increasingly popular field of research within humanities departments at Stanford and beyond. Yet what exactly is the digital humanities? To gain a better understanding of this approach to scholarship, The Stanford Daily sat down with Caroline Winterer, professor of history and director of the Stanford Humanities Center, whose recent research focuses on digital analysis of Benjamin Franklin’s correspondences.


The Stanford Daily (TSD): First off, for those who might be a bit less acquainted, can you explain what exactly people are referring to when they talk about the digital humanities?

Caroline Winterer (CW): Well, this is a question a lot of people have, and I don’t think there’s one answer. But the answer I give is that it’s, at the most basic level, placing the whole corpus of human experience, which is what the humanities are, into digital form, so that they can be accessed universally anywhere, at any time, by anybody. So that means that a lot of things that used to be squirreled away in archives, like medieval manuscripts, for example, or bones in an ancient tomb — now we can get at them on our computers. So that’s level one.

Level two is that in their digitalized forms, we’re often able to run large-scale comparisons and get a bird’s-eye of things that, before, remained really discreet from one another. So we can get a big picture of things that are happening, in a way that we couldn’t before.

TSD: And so does that allow for a certain type of project to be done or certain types of questions to be answered that, with traditional scholarship, weren’t previously possible to answer?

[box type=”shadow” ] New digital methods and techniques have allowed historians to explore texts and primary documents in different ways. Above is a map of some of the many letters Ben Franklin sent during his lifetime. [/box]

CW: Even more than that, it allows for new kinds of questions to be asked, and that’s what’s revolutionary about digital humanities. One of the new questions that came out of the Ben Franklin project was when I put a geomap of Ben Franklin’s correspondence network onto the Atlantic Ocean and saw that many, many of his letters crossed the Atlantic, because he did. We did that with Voltaire, who is the subject of another person in the “Mapping the Republic of Letters” project, and we found that basically none of Voltaire’s letters crossed the Atlantic. We didn’t know that before, because we never thought to look, and now we suddenly wonder: Why isn’t Voltaire sending letters to the New World? We would not have known to ask that question before. So that’s what I love about digital humanities, not so much that it’s going to give us answers, but [more that] it’s going to help us ask new questions.

TSD: When you were going into that project, did you have an idea of what the goals were and what types of questions you were going to try a stab at?

CW: We really didn’t. We were some of the first people to be doing some of these kinds of projects, and we just were really excited to see what our maps were going to show. And we had to restrain ourselves to get to those points, because there’s a lot of hard work that comes before you do that. We wanted to find out certain things, like who’s in Ben Franklin’s network, so we had to code the recipients and senders of letters to Franklin by certain categories, like male/female, where are they writing from, what are they writing. But there was a lot of stuff that we couldn’t answer. Fifty percent of the time, we could not determine with 100-percent reliability where Franklin’s correspondents were born, for example.

So we didn’t really go in with any questions beyond the fact that we were convinced that by coding some of the data about his correspondence, new things were going to come up. And we were right.

TSD: So from building this virtual map or database, you get a better orientation to Benjamin Franklin as a person?

CW: Right. So Ben Franklin is one of the Americans people think that they know best. He’s on the 100-dollar bill, his portrait is everywhere, there’s a statue of him at Stanford in front of the oval. But what we discovered was, in fact, that there was a lot of Franklin that we didn’t know. So, for example, we discovered that there were very, very few women in his correspondence network. Now that wasn’t very surprising, although he is known as a man who very much enjoyed the company of women.

What we did find though is that even though, numerically, there were very few women in his network, the women who were in his network did really important work for him. They wrote a ton of letters to him, and they acted as helpful nodes for him. So his wife, Deborah Franklin, introduced a lot of young men to him, even though she never left the New World — when he was in London, she was basically his LinkedIn. And she would send letters to him through the young men traveling to London basically saying, “Help this young guy out, and help him make his way in the world.” So that was great — without Deborah, he wouldn’t have been able to do that.

Those were the kinds of things we were able to discover — what kinds of functions did the people in Ben Franklin’s world serve for him? — and that’s really the definition of a social network. It’s not just, who’s in your network, but [also], what are they doing for you?

TSD: Do you think that there is any degree of hype surrounding digital humanities, or are they here to stay?

CW: Well, digital humanities are definitely here to stay in the way that the book was here to stay after Gutenberg — the printing press allowed for a much more efficient dissemination of information, and that’s what digital humanities is doing at a really basic level. You can now go to your iPhone and as you’re walking back to your dorm room, you can start reading the letters of Ben Franklin. You don’t have to go to Yale University Library to do that. So there’s this radical democratization of knowledge that is going on in the same way that we saw after Gutenberg in the 15th century. In that sense, digital humanities is here to stay.

Is there hype? It’s like everything — it’s like evolution. Some life forms were dead ends, but that doesn’t mean that they weren’t legitimate life forms. They’re experiments. Everything is an experiment, so some ways of moving are, in the end, not going to lead us to the final point, but we have to let those life forms thrive anyway.

And the other thing is that it’s not for everybody. No one should feel like they have to read a text on a computer or that they have to mine a text in a digitized way. This is simply another tool — it’s not the only tool. It’s just an expanding toolbox, and I think we need to be a little more clear about saying that, so people don’t become hostile to the digital humanities, because they don’t have do it.

This transcript has been condensed and edited.

Contact Michael Gioia at mgioia2 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Michael Gioia was Managing Editor of Opinions from Vol. 250-251; he also previously led the News division. He is from Plano, Texas and studied History and Modern Languages at Stanford. When Michael is not working for The Daily, he can generally be found reading or drinking coffee.

Login or create an account