Making History Accessible: A Digital Humanities Initiative

Prof. Nikolaus Wasmoen guiding students through the coding process.

Prof. Nikolaus Wasmoen guides students through the coding process.

Students of many different majors and backgrounds gathered in early October to participate in the “Folger Shakespeare Library Codathon,” a unique event that is just one piece of the growing digital humanities initiative here at UB. As co-organizer of the codathon, visiting professor of English Nikolaus Wasmoen, explained, the digital humanities can be viewed as using humanities data for quantitative algorithmic analyses, or as taking a humanistic approach to digital methodology.

Meaghan Brown, digital production editor of the Folger Shakespeare Library, working with students during the event

Meaghan Brown, digital production editor of the Folger Shakespeare Library, working with students during the event.

There are different approaches to the digital humanities and many ways to contribute to the field since it doesn’t fit into any traditional disciplinary structures. “It’s all about new combinations,” Nikolaus said, “and it’s also about trying to harness things that are going on in multiple fields.” For instance, the Folger Codathon held here at UB married computer science, theatre and history for a day-long, interactive event. To make the codathon a reality, Nikolaus teamed up with Danielle Rosvally, clinical assistant professor of theatre and dance at UB. Danielle also works as a Digital Project Coordinator with the Folger Shakespeare Library and has targeted a few of her Folger projects as potential opportunities for student collaboration. In this vein, the team brought in Meaghan Brown, Digital Production Editor of the Folger Shakespeare Library, to help lead the codathon. Over the course of the day, students learned how to use a specially designed coding system and then went to work tagging people, places, events and more in a textual record of Queen Elizabeth’s court.

Students from many different disciplines joined together to code Elizabethan history.

Students from many different disciplines joined together to code Elizabethan history. 

As freshman theatre and psychology double major Irem Ersan described, “Basically someone wrote down everything that Queen Elizabeth did throughout her life, every single day, and we’re coding it so it’s easier to break down, since no one wants to read a 2,000-page document.” In its current PDF format, the Elizabethan Court Day by Day data set isn’t very user-friendly, but the coding the students did will help the data become searchable and accessible in a way that will allow anyone to use the data for research and to discover stories that are hidden inside. “There’s something really exciting about making this scholarly work accessible. Students can come in and start to contribute to something that is real, professional, quality scholarship,” said Nikolaus.

Because of the success of the codathon and the clear interest displayed on campus, Nikolaus hopes to keep expanding collaborations with the Folger Shakespeare Library and Dr. Rosvally as part of the larger digital humanities initiative here at UB. They are considering developing internships, which could involve working with the Folger Shakespeare Library on projects like coding the Elizabethan Court Day by Day and Early Modern Manuscripts Online, the focus of another ELN-sponsored event on campus last spring. The great thing about opportunities like these and the digital humanities field in general is that anyone can get involved, from those in traditional humanities fields like literature, languages and history, to those in more technical fields like computer science and engineering. Nikolaus believes there is great potential for the digital humanities here at UB: “We have a lot of the ingredients in place, so now we’re just trying to put them together.”

Interested in the digital humanities? Find out more or get involved by contacting Nikolaus Wasmoen, or consider participating in the free New York Digital Humanities Symposium being hosted by UB on Dec. 1. 

Written by Amanda Hellwig ‘19