Reading Genres

Benjamin MacDonald Schmidt

Visiting Fellow, Cultural Observatory @ Harvard

Ph.D. Candidate in History, Princeton University

Someday, all humanists will be digital humanists?

  • Maybe: but...

  • We only have some big data

  • Some humanists should be more digital than others.

  • What questions can Big Data help answer?

  • Can we do better than authorship attribution?

  • Whatever vision of the digital humanities is proclaimed, it will have little place for the likes of me and for the kind of criticism I practice: a criticism that narrows meaning to the significances designed by an author, a criticism that generalizes from a text as small as half a line, a criticism that insists on the distinction between the true and the false, between what is relevant and what is noise, between what is serious and what is mere play.

    Stanley Fish

    Big data in the humanities is already here

  • Scientists

  • Big data in the humanities is already here

    Traditional Humanists

  • Search Engines

  • Grand Narratives

  • Big Data as just another source

  • Digital sources contribute knowledge beyond individuals.

  • Metadata lets us look at social structures.

  • Once we know how to read it, we can accept its biases like any other source.

    (OCR is not so important!)

  • Google Ngrams


    (almost) 1 million books

    80 billion words

    Library metadata via Open Library



    (almost) 1 million books

    80 billion words

    Library metadata via Open Library



    Bookworm without books

    The ArXiv

    600,000 Scientific Articles

    Bookworm ChronAm: 4 million newspaper pages

    Bookworm API: Data in all shapes

    The History of Attention

    What places do newspapers mention?

    Using Cities for robustness

    Using Individual Newspapers for robustness

    Rate of mentions of Topeka (each dot is one newspaper)

    States and Regions are both as important as distance

    Does race change imagined geographies?

    Big Data: Humanists' problem, humanists' opportunity

  • Interactions of social forces are humanistic questions

    Methods shouldn't hold us back

  • The hardest challenges are knowing the sources

  • /