Introduction: Bridging Communities

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Nelson, B. (2009). Introduction: Bridging Communities. Digital Studies/le Champ Numérique, 1(3). DOI:


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The theme of the 2007 Canadian Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences was Bridging Communities: Making Public Knowledge–Making Knowledge Public, a theme that resonates with significance in digital humanities. It is instructive to contemplate the metaphors of this theme in this context. The presence of a bridge implies a barrier that needs to be crossed, a gap that needs to be overcome. As principally a problem-motivated enterprise, the digital humanities are unique to many of the traditional disciplines with which they are involved. Scholars in the humanities typically look to computers when they are faced with practical or logistical challenges to the work they want to accomplish. Or put another way, digital humanities are often about building or improving the means to enable progress that is otherwise prevented, or to speed progress that is impeded by entanglements and obstacles. Most commonly, these are constraints of time and resources, but they can also be limitations in human faculties, availability and accessibility of materials, and so on. The digital humanities are in the business of building bridges.

Another key term in the Congress 2007 theme, community, might not at first seem to be a metaphor, but in its modern usage well into the early twentieth century, community commonly signified a group of individuals united in some common and special interest, sharing a common ground, both figuratively and literally, so that community implied a closeness of both interest and location. As the term is often applied today — in international politics for example — its new usage stretches this sense of common space and cause significantly. This transposition of meaning (i.e. metaphor) from the local to the global was made explicit when Marshall McLuhan adopted the phrase “global village” (a community in the old acceptation of the word) to name the social effect of the revolution brought on by new media. Despite the oft-belied claims of “international community” made by politicians and pundits in a geopolitical world that remains largely fractured, in the digital age community has indeed become scalable: even large groups can be made to feel that they occupy a common space in pursuit of common interests.1 This new sense of community that is not determined by geographical locality would not be possible without the bridgework of electronic media, specifically Internet technology. In this respect it is notable that cultural historians writing at the close of the twentieth century placed the development of digital technology in the context of advances in modern infrastructure, citing “[t]he proliferation of widespread networks of cheap and efficient transportation and communication facilities” that developed through the twentieth century and helped to extend community across vast distances (Wellman 6).2 Chief among these communication networks, of course, was the Internet. By the end of the previous century, emerging Web 2.0 applications had introduced new platforms and opportunities for social networking, and on-line communities began to proliferate.

If there is one cardinal virtue of digital humanities, it is access. Digital tools enable richer and more powerful access to information and, specifically in the humanities, to cultural materials. As a publication medium, the Internet makes scholarly material widely available to regions that don’t have immediate access to a research library. It makes this material readily available to scholars where they need it most: in their own work spaces. And it makes specialized knowledge freely accessible to the public as the sub-title of the Congress theme suggests. Peter Stoicheff presents one such case in his essay “Putting Humpty Together Again: Otto Ege’s Scattered Leaves.” In this version of his keynote address at the Symposium on Reassembling the Disassembled Book, Stoicheff describes the use of the digital medium to do what would otherwise be impossible, to reassemble a thirteenth-century missal that was cut-up and dispersed by Cleveland book collector Otto Ege and whose leaves are now in the possession of book collectors and libraries all over the world. Media coverage of the Ege story and the project to locate the scattered leaves of the missal brought owners and interested parties into contact, spilling beyond concerned academics and book collectors to catch a surprising amount of public attention and interest. The project to reconstruct the missal will not only re-assemble in digital form an object that would be otherwise impossible to view, but it will also make that object available to a comparatively small but engaged public readership that might not have immediate access to the types of places where such materials are held.

Digital media not only make material readily available, but also richly available, linked to related content and enriched with complementary media in forms that are importable and manipulable. Tools for analysis enable new and powerful access to the material being studied, but first this material must be remediated into electronic form, into a structure of bits and bytes that can be read by computer processors. [3] In this digital medium, various barriers can be overcome. Large amounts of data can be quickly processed and presented in a form that is conducive to human attention, revealing patterns, for example, that might otherwise be detected only through hours of laborious reading of hundreds or even thousands of pages of text or data. But as Jean-Guy Meunier points out in is essay, “CARAT–Computer-Assisted Reading and Analysis of Texts: The Implementation of a Technology,” this technological bridge must be well conceived and effectively engineered if it is going to reward users with better and richer access to the object of study, that is, if in the process of transcending barriers or impediments to study it doesn’t inadvertently create new ones. In this essay, based on his 2007 keynote address in acceptance of the SDH/SEMI award for career accomplishment in research, Meunier outlines a 3-level rationale for a well-conceived design for computer assisted-reading and analysis of text (CARAT).

A potential pitfall in the analysis of aesthetic textual objects is the unavoidable subjective element in one’s response to a verbal artefact. The methodology described in Marc Plamondon’s essay, “Poetic Waveforms, Discrete Fourier Transform Analysis of Phonemic Accumulations, and Love in the Garden of Tennyson’s Maud,” builds an empirical bridge between the ocular and the oral, between what the eye sees on the page and what the ear hears in the mind of the reader. What Marc Plamondon presents here is not a substitute for the intimacy of interpretation between the reader and the text, but rather a tool to enable analysis of how this aesthetic response comes about. Using the techniques of phonostylistics (the stylistic analysis of the phonetic content of texts) in combination with a digital tool for text processing that he developed for this purpose (MetrePhone), Plamondon has developed a method for marking and analyzing the phonemic structure of a poem. The method presented here produces calculations of a poem’s phonemic content and interprets instances of intense phonemic accumulations and variations to show how these moments correspond to important developments in the content of the poem and to chart the poem’s “peculiar sound shape,” in this case Lord Alfred Tennyson’s “Come into the garden, Maud.” These techniques do not replace the intellectual work of the scholar; they simply help the scholar locate the points in the text where significant phonemic changes occur in order to see how the phonemic data square with what the scholarly tradition has to say about the lyricism of Tennyson’s poetry.

The connection between subject and object, reader and semiotic content, is in many ways and to varying degrees strengthened by digital media, though other elements of connectivity, most notably the tactile and olfactory, are sacrificed. Richard Cunningham’s essay, “dis-Covering the Early Modern Book: An Experiment in Humanities Computing,” anticipates a time when the book will be as strange to “digital-born” generations as the Internet was to most of us only one generation ago and speculates how digital tools might be used to bridge this cultural-generational distance. In such times, digital representations of the material book might be a reader’s first acquaintance with a print technology. The project he describes was undertaken together with Ray Siemens, Claire Warwick, Alan Galey, Paul Dyck and Brent Nelson to see how much could be accomplished in a single day by a group of scholars with a few digital tools and an early modern printed book. The goal of this pedagogically-minded group of scholars was not simply to substitute but also to enable and enhance the first approach of a twenty-first century Internet user to a five-hundred year-old communication technology. The result described here is a set of digital tools that enable the user to examine the material processes involved in the construction of a gathering from an eighteenth-century printed book.

As Cunningham’s paper suggests, the emergence of digital media has forced a reconsideration of the relationship between the sensible subject and the object of observation. The “interface” is a new metaphor for cultural engagements across a divide, connecting the viewing subject and object in ways that are both complicating and empowering. In their work on “Visualizing Repetition in Text,” Stan Ruecker, Milena Radzikowska, Piotr Michura, Carlos Fiorentino, and Tanya Clement are developing visualization tools that enable a new relationship between readers/analysts and large, complex texts, illustrated in this case by Gertrude Stein’s novel The Making of Americans. While current text analysis tools can enable a user to locate and isolate patterns across vast bodies of text, these results can often be so voluminous and diffuse that the user cannot view them within the constraints of the computer screen in a form that makes them usefully accessible, and not just accessible, but pleasurable as a new aesthetic experience in their own right. This essay proposes three designs for visualizing patterns of repetition gleaned through text-mining: one (called “dialR”) which reduces results to a form that can be conveniently accessed and accommodated within a standard monitor screen; a second (“Repetition Graph”) which models various configurations for representing common elements in repeated forms, both within a standard two-dimensional interface and, speculatively, in a 3-dimensional interface; and a third which makes use of large format displays to represent repetition patterns in the context of complete microtexts. The visualization tools modelled here will enable navigation through patterns of repetition across vast textual distances.

Finally, in their essay titled “Searching with Sathan: The English Witch's Familiar as Interface Model,” Kirsten C. Uszkalo and Susan Liepert’s thinking about the human-computer interface emerges out of notions of inclusion and exclusion from community. In the context of early modern witchcraft, communication technology was used to build a virtual community in quite a different sense. In seventeenth-century tracts that recount tales of witches and their exploits while celebrating the successes of witch-hunters that exposed them, a network of witches began to emerge that was in fact a product of public discourse and that belied the fact that the accused were typically isolated and marginalized from community of any kind. The Witches in Early Modern England (WEME) project uses the digital medium to present new ways to identify these individuals and the communities that defined them and prosecuted them. The interface that is described here takes the shape-shifting witch’s familiar as a metaphor of an interface that must be flexible enough to represent the slippery, flexible, and ambiguous relationships between witch and familiar, while at the same time enabling users to manage large sets of results and to track these dynamic, fluid, and often ambiguous relationships through large amounts of data.

The papers in this issue were all presented at the Society for Digital Humanities/Société pour l'étude des médias interactifs held 28-30 May 2007 as part of the Canadian Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Saskatchewan. Two of these papers (Stoicheff and Cunningham) were part of a symposium on Reassembling the Disassembled Book and were previously published in a collection by the same name in CH Working Papers, as was another (Reucker et. al.) that was part of the main SDH/SEMI program. The Cunningham essay has been revised for this publication, but the other two remain unchanged. The remaining four essays are published here for the first time.

The editor presents this collection of essays for this the new society journal in recognition of the spirit of community and bridge-building that so characterizes the Society for Digital Humanities/Société pour l'étude des médias interactifs. In the same spirit, I would like to acknowledge the efforts of Leslie Howsam, president of the Canadian Association for the Study of Book Culture/l'Association canadienne pour l'étude de l'histoire du livre (CASBC/ACÉHL), for initiating the joint symposium on Reassembling the Disassembled Book, in association with the Canadian Society of Medievalists/Société canadienne des médiévistes (CSM/SCM). I would also like to acknowledge the support of our sponsors at Congress 2007: Electronic Text Research at the University of Saskatchewan (ETRUS) and Classical, Medieval and Renaissance Studies (CMRS) at the University of Saskatchewan, as well as financial assistance from the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences (CFHSS).

Works Cited

McCarty, Willard . “What’s Going On?” Literary & Linguistics Computing 23 (2008): 253-261. Print.

McLuhan, Marshall . The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1962. Print.

Menzies, Heather . Canada in the Global Village. Ottawa, ON: Carleton UP, 1997. Print.

Wellman, Barry . “The Network Community: An Introduction.” Networks in the Global Village: Life in Contemporary Communities. Ed. Barry Wellman. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1999. 1-47. Print.

─── and Milena Gulia . “Net-Surfers Don’t Ride Alone: Virtual Communities as Communities.” Networks in the Global Village: Life in Contemporary Communities. Ed. Barry Wellman. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1999. 331-366. Print.


[1] For an early assessment of the prospects of on-line communities, see Barry Wellman and Milena Gulia, “Net-Surfers Don’t Ride Alone: Virtual Communities as Communities”, 331-366.

[2] In a course textbook on technology and Canada in the global village, Canada in the Global Village, Heather Menzies traces the roots of the global village through the history of transportation and communication infrastructure, from the canoe routes of the fur trade, to the development of the railroad in the early formation of communities across Canada, and finally to the emergence of mass printing and new media.

[3] Willard McCarthy argues that the digital medium closes some of the distance between the humanities and the sciences: in “reduc[ing] our objects of study to digital proxies” we produce data that can be subjected “to scientific reasoning as any other data” and thus “acquire access to a bridge (already under construction by historians and philosophers of science) into the scientific heartland”. McCarthy is quick to qualify that the object here is not to conform to a scientific model of inquiry but to tap into “the computational ability to implement the conjectural, that is, to construct possible worlds and explore them (McCarty 2008, 259).



Brent Nelson (University of Saskatchewan)





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