Visualization for Literary History

workshop / tutorial
  1. 1. Susan Brown

    Department of English - University of Alberta, Humanities Computing - University of Alberta, University of Guelph

  2. 2. Stan Ruecker

    Department of English - University of Alberta, Humanities Computing - University of Alberta

  3. 3. Geoffrey Rockwell

    Humanities Computing - University of Alberta, Philosophy - University of Alberta

  4. 4. Stéfan Sinclair

    Communications and Multimedia - McMaster University

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Visualization for Literary History
Brown, Susan, English and Humanities Computing, University of Alberta/University of Guelph,
Ruecker, Stan, English and Humanities Computing, University of Alberta,
Rockwell, Geoffrey, Philosophy and Humanities Computing, University of Alberta,
Sinclair, Stéfan, Communications and Multimedia, McMaster University,
This workshop will present, demonstrate, and provide participants with the opportunity to test and discuss prototypes of several experimental visualization tools for literary studies. The tools will provide a range of approaches to visualizing the Orlando Project’s textbase. Some but not all will allow for input of other data. Although the workshop is focused on literary studies in English, we welcome participants from other related disciplines such as history, philosophy, the history of science, media studies, or library and information science, as well as those with an interest in text visualization generally, and those interested in corpuses in languages other than English.

The Orlando Project’s fifteen-year experiment in literary history explores the potential of computers to support new modes of humanities research, particularly the potential of digital technologies to enable interpretive and critical scholarship. The major result of that endeavour, the online Orlando: Women’s Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present (Brown et al 2006;, constitutes the single most extensive and detailed resource in the area, hailed by the Modern Language Association’s Guide to Literary Research as “a model for similar databases that will supplant printed literary dictionaries, encyclopedias, and handbooks” (Harner). Though Orlando resembles a reference work, its electronic structure embeds an entire critical and theoretical framework to support advanced literary historical enquiry. The workshop proposed here will present and allow participants to experiment with prototypes based on emergent methods in text mining and visualization that leverage that embedded structure to enable new discovery paths in literary history.

The Orlando textbase—about 80 print volumes’ worth of born-digital scholarship encoded with an XML tagset of more than 250 tags covering the production, characteristics, and reception of texts)—constitutes a rare testbed for investigating the mining of structured text. Its online interface and search system were developed according to W3C standards to exploit the underlying markup, and designed to meet the expectation of text-oriented users of conventional online tools. This existing interface is very search-oriented and entirely textual in its delivery of results.

Current research in humanities computing and human-computer interaction is increasingly expanding beyond the text-oriented information retrieval paradigm, to explore instead the many opportunities offered by new, more flexible, more visually-oriented platforms for web delivery (e.g. Ahlberg and Shneiderman 1994; Bederson 2000, 2001; Harris 2006, 2007; Greengrass and Hughes, 2008). In this period of transformation, the scholarly interface requires not only experimentation but also careful assessment to see what works to make digital materials of real value to humanities scholars. As argued by Ramsay (2003), Unsworth (2006), and others, using computers to do literary research can contribute to hermeneutic or interpretive inquiry. Digital humanities research has inherited from computational science a leaning towards systematic knowledge representation. This has proved serviceable in some humanities activities, such as editing, but digital methods have far more to offer the humanities than this. As Drucker and Nowviskie have argued, “The computational processes that serve speculative inquiry must be dynamic and constitutive in their operation, not merely procedural and mechanistic” (431).

Our goal for this workshop is to provide those interested in literary studies and the digital humanities with an introduction to some of the tools being developed to support interactive speculative inquiry through text mining and visualization. In the process, we hope to garner insight into users’ reactions to these tools to inform further design and development activities. The prototypes presented at this workshop are being developed as possible interfaces to complement Orlando’s current, more conventional one.

The prototypes presented at the workshop will include the following:

Mandala Browser: this browser allows users to create “magnets” based on free text or XML search that attract to them items in a text collection, and to visualize the relationships between different sets. It can be used with the Orlando data or with other textual datasets. (Sinclair and Ruecker)
Fig. 1: Mandala Browser

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Orlando Degrees of Separation tool: this tool shows the connections between individuals in the Orlando data by way of other people, places, organizations, or titles. The challenge is in organizing the visualization of the paths when there are multiple ones, as there frequently are in this highly interlinked set of data
Fig. 2: Orlando Degrees of Separation tool

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OrlandoVision, a network graph visualization tool: creates a social network graph in which individuals’ names are nodes and links between them are edges, which are color-coded according to the semantic context of the link as represented in the markup
Fig. 3: OrlandoVision graphing tool

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Breadboard interface for tracing links between individuals and entities: a more textually-oriented interface for browsing links between individuals and entities within the Orlando data
Fig. 4: Orlando Breadboard Interface

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Voyeur: a general-purpose web-based text analysis environment designed for large-scale corpora; includes experimental visualization modules for exploring word trends, named entities, and other textual features
this tools shows the connections between individuals in the Orlando data by way of other people, places, organizations, or titles. The challenge is in organizing the visualization of the paths when there are multiple ones, as there frequently are in this highly interlinked set of data
Fig. 5: Voyeur text analysis environment

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possibly other visualization tools emergent from current research: we are experimenting with other mining and visualization tools between now and DH2011 and may pull ones that seem to have potential into the workshop program
This workshop emerges from ongoing research on visualization for literary research, and participants will be asked, but not required, to participate in the study through surveys, interviews, and recording of user sessions in accordance with the ethics protocols approved by our respective universities.

Ahlberg, C. Shneiderman, B. “The Alphaslider: A compact and rapid selector, ” Conference proceedings on human factors in computing systems: “celebrating interdependence", 1994 365–371

Bederson, B. PhotoMesa: A zoomable image browser using quantum treemaps and bubblemaps Proceedings of the 14th annual ACM symposium on user interface software and technology 2001 71–80 (link)

Brown, Susan Orlando: Women's Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present Clements, Patricia Grundy, Isobel 2006a (link)

Drucker, J. Nowviskie, B. Speculative computing: Aesthetic provocations in humanities computing A Companion to Digital Humanities, Schreibman, S. Siemens, Ray Unsworth, John 2004

Greengrass, Mark Hughes, Lorna The Virtual Representation of the Past December 2008

Harner, James L. Literary Research Guide: An Annotated Listing of Reference Sources in English Literary Studies, 5th edition, 2008

Harris, J. “10 by 10: 100 words and pictures that define the time, ” (link) 2006

Ramsay, Stephen “Toward an Algorithmic Criticism, ” Literary and Linguistic Computing, 18.2 2003

Sinclair, Stéfan Ruecker, Stan “Mandala Rich Prospect Browser, ” (link) 2008

Unsworth, John “New methods for Hmanities Research, ” (link) 2006

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2011
"Big Tent Digital Humanities"

Hosted at Stanford University

Stanford, California, United States

June 19, 2011 - June 22, 2011

151 works by 361 authors indexed

XML available from (still needs to be added)

Conference website:

Series: ADHO (6)

Organizers: ADHO

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None