GBS: First Digital Humanities Grants Announced

Today, Google officially announced its first Digital Humanities Research Awards. It’s giving a total of $479,000 to fund twelve projects that will use the Google Books corpus for computational research projects in the humanities. Inside Higher Ed describes one:

One winning project, called “Reframing the Victorians,” seeks to test the anecdotal yet venerated thesis that well-heeled Britons living in the middle third of the 19th century were especially optimistic — a view advanced by the scholar Walter Houghton in an influential 1957 book, The Victorian Frame of Mind. Houghton had based his thesis on an observation of the recurrence of words such as “light,” “sunlight,” and “hope.” But his sample was limited by his ability to catalog these sunny allusions. Google’s robots, which will be able to cover a much broader range of authors in much less time, will be able to explore the hypothesis more thoroughly, say Dan Cohen and Fred Gibbs, the George Mason University professors who won the grant.

Cohen and Gibbs plan to test another anecdotal thesis — that the Victorian era marked a decline in religiosity in the United Kingdom — by writing a program that tracks references to Biblical themes and passages in Victorian literature at a scale that would be impossible for even the most patient human scholars to achieve.

“Because this Google research program can provide word frequencies by year and country, we can finally and truly test these and other fundamental claims that have been at the heart of Victorian studies for generations,” the researchers wrote in their proposal.

(1) Will these projects use any copyrighted books without permission? and (2) Personally, I’d have said the frequency of words like “light” and “sunlight” reflects as much on the level of air pollution as on that of optimism. But then, I also feel human beings are better at doing historic research than software doing word counts.

“Will these projects use any copyrighted books without permission?”

Interesting point. Google’s planning to do a lot of analysis of these texts for its own commercial ends. If academics are already doing the same thing, would that help them argue fair use defence down the line?

So, how to find out whether copyrighted books are being used for these projects without permission of the copyright holders?

The projects sound riveting. I look forward to Titles like- “The songs of Byzantine border guards during the time of Basil the first”. And while we are at it…. the world needs more papers on Jane Austin.

As for the algorithm about religion. Publication dos not equal reading and quotes are often used ironically. Few of those who have ever used the words ” sweetness and light” actually mean “honey and wax” .

The biggest selling book, reprinted several times, written by Edgar Allan Poe, in his own life time, was a book on the taxonomy of sea shells.