Using software that corporations use to understand organizations, we can establish relationships among magazines, contributors, literary genres, and concepts over time. In fact, we can involve a much more complex set of parameters for more meaningful mining of the data in ways that potentially open up even newer vistas within the field of modernist periodical studies. We should create a central database — my vote would be to locate it at the Modernist Journals Project (MJP) — on which modernism scholars can collaborate.
Social network analysis (SNA) software combines a variety of methods commonly used in digital humanities research, such as text mining, visualization, and modeling. Since modernist periodical studies has since its inception been driven by an archival need to restore information to our knowledge network, SNA software has the capability of synthesizing and analyzing the new information we find as we move forward in our research. Applications like ORA, which I have used to create visualizations in this post, run on spreadsheets that are easy to fill out. So the work of adding information to the archive would not be difficult or time consuming.
There are pitfalls, of course. The accuracy of any analytic tool depends on the quality of the data it operates upon. We must always be aware that tools like these, powerful and impressive though they are, always represent a state of the information realm. This is no different from traditional, print-based scholarship, but it bears consideration given the sometimes exaggerated hype of digital humanities at the time of this writing.
As an instance of information gaps, we can look at the visualization of the author, genre, and concept network for Blast at the top of this post. I recently (as in yesterday) started playing around with ORA in order to gain a sense of the possibilities of SNA for literary research. Since ORA runs on CSV files (among other formats), I decided to use the spreadsheet that students compiled in my modernist magazines course of 2009. They developed an interactive timeline of content in the MJP, broken down by author, genre, magazine, and topical tags such as WWI, race, or gender. The timeline runs on Exhibit and Simile scripts, which are powered by a Google Docs spreadsheet. I saved this spreadsheet to my computer as a CSV file and ran it through ORA.
This shows us two things: that the possibilities both for collaboration (from undergraduates all the way to librarians, archivists, and senior faculty) and for error are very real. The timeline project was useful as a teaching exercise for helping students develop skills in textual and bibliographic criticism, and for gaining a sense of the connection between materiality and discourses in modernist print culture. But the students entered data only for the items they might wish to discuss in their essays. For that reason, the vast majority of the overall print culture is not represented in this course archive. It is an archive of the state of information known by this particular group of students.
To be a disciplinarily useful tool, an SNA application would need to know everything that we do. The MJP is a great place to start. SNA software (it doesn’t have to be ORA; in fact, it probably wouldn’t be) can pour over the data and metadata in the MJP’s XML files and generate a network of nodes. It could be trained to recognize and normalize names, or even pseudonyms, and the metadata would tell it whether a given item is a poem, an article, a story, an advertisement, etc. If it had a qualitative analysis component it could even recognize concepts. And of course there would need to be the capability for scholars to add and tag information about the documents in the archive. This is a daunting task, but eminently possible with the aid of text and data mining software.
SNA presents tremendous possibilities for enhancing our understanding of the development of modernism in print culture. With a data set like the Modernist Journals Project, we can create network models to show an author’s contributions to various periodicals and in, say, particular literary genres over time. Or the building up and breakdown of relationships in avant-garde publishing networks over time. Wonder what the British or British-American networks would look like, say, before, during, and after WWI? Or at the advent of WWII and after — a new way to understand the shift from modernism to postmodernism?
At this year’s MSA seminar “Modernist Digital Networks: An Infrastructure for Digitizing Modernist Print Culture,” I would like to discuss writing a grant to develop an SNA (or similar) application for digital modernist print culture. I think it would best be housed at the MJP, in order to centralize the research and pedagogical benefits of that very important archive. At any rate, I will leave at this for further discussion.
— Jeff Drouin