What Digital Humanists Also Do

This post originally appeared on the Software Carpentry website.

Following up on an earlier post, here are two more user stories from digital humanists to help us figure out what they need and how we can help.


Gamma is a senior scholar working on two projects. The first looks at communities of workers and architects in the Medieval and Renaissance eras, and relies on records of specific buildings, diaries of artisans, sketches, and building plans (some of which are very large: the width of a sidewalk, and the length of a city block). The end goal is to learn about the people who created the buildings, who they did the work with, the processes they used, what they were paid, and so on, and more broadly to understand the social network of people involved in creating the great buildings of the time.

Gamma spends a lot of time in archives, copying and studying various original manuscripts (many of which have never been digitized). Since many of the buildings are still standing, they can also take photographs (which they have to do for mason’s marks, which can’t be represented in any existing font). There’s a lot of textual description to keep track of, and a lot of linkages between items as well.


Delta studies metalwork objects used to store religious relics. The research questions center around the designs, which can be used to identify regions and creators. Who saw the objects? Who used them? What was their sphere of influence (i.e., how far did they travel)? What influence did they have on the design of other things (like buildings)?

This work also involves storing and managing lots of images and the relationships between them. There’s also a lot of map work: with 4000 objects in one collection and 5000 in another, finding out what was where, when, can help determine what might have influenced what. There are a few useful databases for this, but mostly Gamma has documents (containing text, images, and citations) in various folders on a hard drive.


Epsilon started the interview by saying, “I am hopeless with technology,” and like many people, has stuck to out-of-date versions of software rather than risk breaking anything. Their dissertation topic is the pictorial tradition for illustraing the late Medieval story “The Three Living and the Three Dead”, which was recorded in a number of languages by different poets. Their goal was not a comprehensive catalog of every image, but to characterize how the image was understood in continental Europe, and when and why differences arose between northern and southern Europe. 13th and 14th Century images tend to come with a copy of the poem; by the 15th Century the images took on religious meanings of their own.

A growing number of these images available in Google search, and smaller libraries are also beginning to digitize their collections, but collecting images was still hard work, and costly (so much so that Epsilon eventually restricted the search to France, Germany, and the Low Countries). It was also hit and miss: institutions might commission more detailed descriptions of items in their collections, and even digital reproductions, but if no textual description from an archive or museum said “three living and three dead”, those images might never turn up.

At the same time, while it’s easy enough now to take pictures with a phone, managing those is difficult, since there’s no easy way to add annotations directly on the phone. There is FADIS (the Fine Arts Digital Imaging System), but it can’t use it for personal research on a personal computer.

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