Assistant professor of English Edward Whitley
is using digital technology to understand the dynamic workings of literary communities. His latest project, entitled The Crowded Page
, is funded by a $50,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities as part of its new Digital Initiative granting program.
For the project, Whitley has teamed up with Andrew Jewell
of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities
The two are collaborating with Jeff Heflin
, associate professor of computer science at Lehigh to develop a suite of tools that will allow scholars to trace the networks of connection between the members of literary communities. Users will be able to map relationships within specific geographic and temporal locations. The team hopes to broaden people’s understanding of how groups of writers and artists function.
“One of the challenges of researching a literary community is that the amount of data you have to keep track of can become unwieldy when you're dealing with 100-plus writers, so being able to sort and manage things online really helps to keep you organized,” says Whitley.
Whitley and his colleagues hope the site will help literature scholars make discoveries they might not make if sifting through data by hand. They also believe teachers and students at both the college and high-school level will benefit from it as well.
“No one expects that a computer will do a researchers' job for them, but if we can use Jeff Heflin's Semantic Web search technologies to intelligently work with a large corpus of texts we can aid researchers in making connections between texts and revealing knowledge that might otherwise stay hidden in the data,” he adds.
The project is an extension of The Vault at Pfaff’s
, a digital archive of art and literature by New York City’s 19th Century bohemians which was funded in part by the Gladys Kreible Delmas Foundation. The archive, created by Whitley and the Lehigh Digital Library team
, includes biographical sketches of over 150 individuals who were part of the bohemian literary movement at Pfaff's beer hall—an establishment frequented by some of New York’s most creative literary figures. It maintains the annotated bibliographies of about 4,000 of writers’ works.
If that site’s success is any indication, The Crowded Page
will find a receptive audience—The Vault at Pfaff’s
received 39,000 unique visitors in 2008.
The Crowded Page
team is currently in the testing phase and has started to apply the tools that Heflin created using data collected from The Vault at Pfaff’s
. It will initially focus on two communities—the 1850s bohemians who frequented Pfaff’s and the Greenwich Village community from the early twentieth century.
“The hope is that The Crowded Page
will have a longstanding presence on the Web as scholars continue to use it make discoveries about literary communities,” says Whitley. “We think of it as functioning like an academic journal in that every year we can study new literary communities and publish our findings about how those communities operate.”