On my spring break I took a one-day “staycation” to Day 1 of a local gathering of digital humanities scholars, hosted by the smart folks at Northeastern University’s NULab for Texts, Maps and Networks (http://nulab.neu.edu/, tweeting at @NUlabTMN). It was one of the best conferences I’ve been to – seemed like mainly literary scholars but also historians, librarians, and coders, and it involved a good blend of showcasing completely awesome ongoing initiatives, asking big existential questions about knowledge production, and teaching hands-on skills. Myself, I learned a bit about network analysis using Gephi (no relation to Nephi) and how to georeference a high-resolution historical map image using ArcGIS. I felt like a boss (as my students would say) by the day’s end.
And it got me thinking. Suppose a group of smart someones were applying these tools to Mormon Studies. (For one thing, they probably are, and I just don’t know about it – I hope you will proliferate the comments with examples). What’s so cool about the kinds of projects that are emerging in the digital humanities now is that they can apply to pretty much anything that can be…
related to something else
located in space and/or time
Which offers lots of possibilities for studying the Mormon past, Mormon texts, and the Mormon people.
For example –
One of NULab’s projects is looking at reprinting networks in the 19th century. Newspapers in antebellum America were notorious for borrowing material from other newspapers and reprinting it, and the NULab scholars are interested in which texts “went viral” and how those networks actually worked – how fast, how interconnected, how spatially dispersed were they. Currently they’re using papers from the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America collection. Another network, created by Jean Bauer at Brown, analyzes early American diplomatic correspondence – who’s writing to whom and how often, over what kinds of questions, and so on.
One could easily envision this kind of approach applied to the emerging Mormon movement, analyzing networks of missionization, immigration, marriage, friendship and kinship, schism, correspondence, publications, sermons, hymnody, and a zillion other things we might want to know (and might actually have decent data on). We might think we already know who the most influential or important early Mormons were, but data analysis might yield some surprising patterns. Whose texts are Mormons reading, borrowing from, and citing? Who’s reading, borrowing from, and citing them in return? Where are the “nodes” of this network – are they where we would expect (Kirtland, Independence, Quincy, Salt Lake, London), or are there some outliers?
Or for example –
Adding onto the work of historians who look at the built landscape (I’m thinking of not only Jared Farmer and Thomas Carter, but even about Arrington and Reisner), could GIS and geolocation help us better understand how Mormons literally reshaped the American West? What if we were mapping settlements, irrigation, quarrying and construction, housing patterns, meetinghouses, Relief Society buildings, orchards, trading posts, railroads, and cemeteries? What might we learn that we didn’t already know, by seeing data mapped either geographically or chronologically?
While we’re at it, can we leverage “big data” to do more to uncover the lives of “unexceptional” Mormon women and men? This came from a comment I jotted in my notes from last summer’s “Women and the LDS Church” conference — we just don’t know enough about members (especially, but not exclusively women) who weren’t powerful, connected, literate, educated, white, or long-lived. Perhaps a sustained digital initiative could help. A tracking project? Data mining? Census records? Personal papers database? Other ideas? I’m thinking how to move from the anecdotal and biographical approaches (e.g. the fine Women of Faith series) to something more granular.
Or for example –
The keynote of the conference was a structured — and incredibly engaging — dialogue between “big data” Matthew Jockers and “small data” Julia Flanders. In the end, their conversation circled around the idea that “close reading” might be not so much a conflict between scales as an approach that might work at any scale by iterating between texts and the questions we choose to ask of them.
And Mormons are nothing if not text-producers, much of it banal. One of the promising avenues that Flanders mentioned was to begin to see anew the text that “disappears” as utterly ordinary, and to re-introduce it as an object of scholarly inquiry. Not sure what that might mean exactly for Mormon Studies, but it got me thinking. Patriarchal blessings. General Conference talks. Scripture marginalia, if it could somehow be captured. Mommy blogs. Missionary letters. Recipes. Then there’s Mormon linguistics: like the Google N-gram or the Popular Science Archive Explorer, one could envision a tool like a Mormon M-gram that charts frequency of words and thus helps us get at their changing meaning & use over our history.
As a scholar of radio and audio files, one direction I’d love to see the digital humanities move is toward better markup and annotation for sound files without having to convert them all to text. Then we could start in on the massive Mormon soundscape archive: Music and the Spoken Word, General Conference, films & filmstrips, recordings, oral histories, you name it. We have a huge untapped potential database there, don’t we?
Then there’s metahistory, too – imagine a huge CSV file of all the dissertations, journal articles, monographs and conference papers dealing with Mormon history. Run it through some algorithms, and what questions, themes, concerns are overrepresented and where might the gaps be?
I guess what my trip downtown Boston got me thinking about is – what do we, the emerging generation of digital humanists working in religious history, wish we knew about this collective past? And could digital humanities tools help get us there? I think the answer is a resounding yes. Here’s dreaming.