Use & understand: A DPLA beta-sprint proposal

This essay describes, illustrates, and demonstrates how the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) can build on the good work of others who support the creation and maintenance of collections and provide value-added services against texts — a concept we call “use & understand”.

This document is available in a three of formats: 1) HTML – for viewing on a desktop Web browser, 2) PDF – for printing, the suggested format, and 3) ePub – for reading on your portable device.

Eric Lease Morgan <>
University of Notre Dame

September 1, 2011

Table of Contents

Executive summary

This Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) beta-sprint proposal “stands on the shoulders of giants” who have successfully implemented the processes of find & get — the traditional functions of libraries. We are sure the DPLA will implement the services of find & get very well. To supplement, enhance, and distinguish the DPLA from other digital libraries, we propose the implementation of “services against text” in an effort to support use & understand.

Globally networked computers combined with an abundance of full text, born-digital materials has made the search engines of Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft a reality. Advances in information retrieval have made relevancy ranking the norm as opposed to the exception. All of these things have made the problems of find & get less acute than they used to be. The problems of find & get will never be completely resolved, but they seem adequately addressed for the majority of people. Enter a few words into a search box. Click go. And select items of interest.

Use & understand is an evolutionary step in the processes and functions of a library. These processes and functions enable the reader to ask and answer questions of large and small sets of documents relatively easily. Through the use of various text mining techniques, the reader can grasp quickly the content of documents, extract some of their meaning, and evaluate them more thoroughly when compared to the traditional application of metadata. Some of these processes and functions include: word/phrase frequency lists, concordances, histograms illustrating the location of words/phrases in a text, network diagrams illustrating what author say “in the same breath” when they mention a given word, plotting publication dates on a timeline, measuring the weight of a concept in a text, evaluating texts based on parts-of-speech, supplementing texts with Wikipedia articles, and plotting place names on a world maps.

We do not advocate the use of these services as replacements for “close” reading. Instead we advocate them as tools to supplement learning, teaching, and scholarship – functions of any library.

Use & understand: A video introduction

Introduction and assumptions

Libraries are almost always a part of a larger organization, and their main functions can be divided into collection building, conservation & preservation, organization & classification, and public service. These functions are very much analogous to the elements of the DPLA articulated by John Palfrey: community, content, metadata, code, and tools & services.

This beta-Sprint proposal is mostly about tools & services, but in order to provide the proposed tools & services, we make some assumptions about and build upon the good work of people working on community, content, metadata, and code. These assumptions follow.

First, the community the DPLA encompasses is just about everybody in the United States. It is not only about the K-12 population. It is not only about students, teachers, and scholars in academia. It is not only about life-long learners, the businessperson, or municipal employees. It is about all of these communities at once and at the same time because we believe all of these communities have more things in common than they have differences. The tools & services described in this proposal can be useful to anybody who is able to read.

Second, the content of the DPLA is not licensed, much of it is accessible in full-text, and freely available for downloading and manipulation. More specifically, this proposal assumes the collections of the DPLA include things like but not necessarily limited to: digitized versions of public domain works, the full-text of open access scholarly journals and/or trade magazines, scholarly and governmental data sets, theses & dissertations, a substantial portion of the existing United States government documents, the archives of selected mailing lists, and maybe even the archives of blog postings and Twitter feeds. Moreover, we assume the DPLA is not merely a metadata repository, but also makes immediately available plain text versions of much of its collection.

Third, this proposal does not assume very many things regarding metadata beyond the need for the most basic of bibliographic information such as unique identifiers, titles, authors, subject/keyword terms, and location codes such as URLs. It does not matter to this proposal how the bibliographic metadata is encoded (MARC, XML, linked data, etc.). On the other hand, this proposal will advocate for additional bibliographic metadata, specifically, metadata that is quantitative in nature. These additions are not necessary for the fulfillment of the proposal, but rather side benefits because of it.

Finally, this proposal assumes the code & infrastructure of the DPLA supports the traditional characteristics of a library. In other words, it is assumed the code & infrastructure of the DPLA provide the means for the creation of collections and the discovery of said items. As described later, this proposal is not centered on the processes of find & get. Instead this proposal assumes the services of find & get are already well-established. This proposal is designed to build on the good work of others who have already spent time and effort in this area. We hope to “stand on the shoulders of giants” in this regard.

Given these assumptions about community, content, metadata, and infrastructure, we will now describe how the DPLA can exploit the current technological environment to provide increasingly useful services to its clientele. Through the process we hope to demonstrate how libraries could evolve and continue to play a meaningful role in our society.

Find & get

While it comes across as trite, with the advent of ubiquitous and globally networked computers, the characteristics of data and information have fundamentally changed. More specifically, since things like books and journals — the traditional meat and potatoes of libraries — no longer need to be manifested in analog forms, their digital manifestations lend themselves to new functionality. For example, digital versions of books and journals can be duplicated exactly, and they are much less limited to distinct locations in space and time. Similarly, advances in information retrieval have made strict Boolean logic applied to against relational databases less desirable to the reader than relevancy ranking algorithms and the application of term frequency/inverse document frequency models against indexes. Combined together these things have made the search engines of Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft a reality. Compared to twenty years ago, this has made the problem of find & get much less acute.

While the problem of find & get will never completely be resolved, many readers (not necessarily librarians) feel the problem is addressed simply enough. Enter a few words into a search box, click Go, and select items of interest. We don’t know about you, but we can find plenty of data & information. The problem now is what to do with it once it is identified.

We are sure any implementation of the DPLA will include superb functionality for find & get. In fact, our proposal assumes such functionality will exist. Some infrastructure will be created allowing for the identification of relevant content. At the very least this content will be described using metadata and/or the full-text will be mirrored locally. This metadata and/or full-text will be indexed and a search interface applied against it. Search results will probably be returned in any number of ordered lists: relevancy, date, author, title, etc. The interface may very well support functionality based on facets. The results of these searches will never be perfect, but in the eyes of most readers, the results will probably be good enough. This being the case, our proposal is intended to build on this good work and enable the reader to do things with content they identify. Thus we propose to build on the process of find & get to support a process we call use & understand.

Use & understand

The problem of find & get is always a means to an end, and very rarely the end itself. People want to do things with the content they find. We call these things “services against texts”, and they are denoted by action verbs including but not limited to:

* analyze * annotate * cite * compare & contrast * confirm * count & tabulate words, phrases, and ideas * delete * discuss * evaluate * find opposite * find similar * graph & visualize * learn from * plot on a map * plot on a timeline * purchase * rate * read * review * save * share * summarize * tag * trace idea * transform

We ask ourselves, “What services can be provisioned to make the sense of all the content one finds on the Internet or in a library? How can the content of a digital work be ‘read’ in such a way that key facts and concepts become readily apparent? And can this process be applied to an entire corpus and/or a reader’s personal search results?” Thus, we see the problem of find & get evolving into the problem of use & understand.

In our opinion, the answers to these questions lie in the combination of traditional library principles with the application of computer science. Because libraries are expected to know the particular information needs of their constituents, libraries are uniquely positioned to address the problem of use & understand. What do people do with the data and information they find & get from libraries, or for that matter, any other place? In high school and college settings, students are expected to read literature and evaluate it. They are expected to compare & contrast it with similar pieces of literature, extract themes, and observe how authors use language. In a more academic setting scholars and researchers are expected to absorb massive amounts of non-fiction in order to keep abreast of developments in their fields. Each disciplinary corpus is whittled down by peer-review. It is reduced through specialization. Now-a-days the corpus is reduced even further through the recommendation processes of social networking. The resulting volume of content is still considered overwhelming by many. Use & understand is a next step in the information flow. It comes after find & get, and it is a process enabling the reader to better ask and answer questions of an entire collection, subcollection, or individual work. By applying digital humanities computing process, specifically text mining and natural language processing, the process of use & understand can be supported by the DPLA. The examples in the following sections demonstrate and illustrate how this can be done.

Again, libraries are almost always a part of a larger organization, and there is an expectation libraries serve their constituents. Libraries do this in any number ways, one of which is attempting to understanding the “information needs” of the broader organization to provide both just-in-time as well as just-in-case collections and services. We are living, working, and learning in an environment of information abundance, not scarsity. Our production economy has all but migrated to a service economy. One of the fuels of service economies is data and information. As non-profit organizations, libraries are unable to compete when it comes to data provision. Consequently libraries may need to refocus and evolve. By combining its knowledge of the reader with the content of collections, libraries can fill a growing need. Because libraries are expected to understand the partiular needs of their particular clientele, libraries are uniquely positioned to fill this niche. Not Google. Not Yahoo. Not Microsoft.


Measure size

One of the simplest and most rudimentary services against texts the DPLA could provide in order to promote use & understand is to measure the size of documents in terms of word counts in addition to page counts.

Knowing the size of a document is important to the reader because it helps them determine the time necessary to consume the document’s content as well as implies the document’s depth of elaboration. In general, shorter books require less time to read, and longer books go into greater detail. But denoting the sizes of books in terms of page counts is too ambiguous to denote length. For any given book, a large print addition will contain more pages than the same book in paperback form, which will be different again from its first edition hard cover manifestation.

Not only can much of the ambiguity of document lengths be eliminated if they were denoted with word counts, but if bibliographic descriptions were augmented with word counts then meaningful comparisons between texts could easily be brought to light.

Suppose the DPLA has a collection of one million full-text items. Suppose the number of words in each item were counted and saved in bibliographic records. Thus, search results could then be sorted by length. Once bibliographic records were supplemented with word counts it would be possible to calculate the average length of a book in the collection. Similarly, the range of lengths could be associated with a relative scale such as: tiny books, short books, average length books, long books, and tome-like books. Bibliographic displays could then be augmented with gauge-like graphics to illustrate lengths.

Such was done against the Alex Catalogue of Electronic Texts. There are (only) 14,000 full-text documents in the collection, but after counting all the words in all the documents it was determined that the average length of a document is about 150,000 words. A search was then done against the Catalogue for Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist and David Copperfield, and the lengths of the resulting documents were compared using gauge-like graphics, as illustrated below:

A Christmas Carol
Oliver Twist
David Copperfield

At least a couple of conclusions can be quickly drawn from this comparison. A Christmas Carol is much shorter than David Copperfield, and Oliver Twist is an average length document.

There will certainly be difficulties counting the number of words in documents. Things will need to be considered in order to increase accuracy, things like: whether or not the document in question has been processed with optical character recognition, whether or not things like chapter headers are included, whether or not back-of-the-book indexes are included, whether nor not introductory materials are included. All of this also assumes a parsing program can be written which accurately extracts “words” from a document. The later is, in fact, fodder for an entire computer science project.

Despite these inherent difficulties, denoting the number of words in a document and placing the result in bibliographic records can help foster use & understand. We believe counting the number of words in a document will result in a greater number of benefits when compared to costs.

Measure difficulty

Measuring the inherent difficulty — readability score — of texts enables the reader to make judgements about those texts, and in turn, fosters use & understand. By including such measurements in the bibliographic records and search results, the DPLA will demonstrate ways it can “save the time of the reader”.

In the last century J. Peter Kincaid, Rudolf Flesch, and Robert Gunning worked both independently as well as collaboratively to create models of readability. Based on a set of factors (such as but not limited to: lengths of documents measured in words, the number of paragraphs in documents, the number of sentences in paragraphs, the number of words in sentences, the complexity of words, etc.) numeric values were calculated to determined the reading levels of documents. Using these models things like Dr. Seuss books are consistently determined to be easy to read while things like insurance policies are difficult. Given the full-text of a document in plain text form, it is almost trivial to compute any number of readability scores. The resulting values could be saved in bibliographic records, and these values could be communicated to the reader with the use of gauge-like graphics.

In a rudimentary way, the Alex Catalogue of Electronic texts has implemented this idea. For each item in the Catalogue the Fog, Flesch, and Kincaid readability scores have been calculated and saved to the underlying MyLibrary database. Searches were done against the Catalogue for Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, and Immanual Kant’s Fundamental Principles Of The Metaphysics Of Morals. The following graphics illustrate the readability scores of each. We believe the results are not surprising, but they are illustrative of this technique’s utility:

David Cooperfield
Metaphysics of Morals

If readability scores were integrated into bibliographic search engines (“catalogs”), then it would be possible to limit search results by reading level or even sort search results by them. Imagine being able to search a library catalog for all items dealing with Neo-Platonism, asking for shorter items as opposed to longer items, and limiting things further by readability score.

Readability scores are not intended to be absolute. Instead they are intended to be used as guidelines. If the reader is a novice when it comes to particular topic, and the reader is of high school age, that does not mean they are unable to read college level material. Instead, the readability scores would be used to set the expectations of the reader and help them make judgements before they begin reading a book.

Side bar on quantitative bibliographic data

Bibliographic systems are notoriously qualitative in nature making the process of compare & contrast between bibliographic items very subjective. If there were more quantitative data associated with bibliographic records, then mathematical processes could be applied against collections as a whole, subsets of the collection, or even individual items.

Library catalogs are essentially inventory lists denoting what a library owns (or licenses). For the most part, catalogs are used to describe the physical nature of a library collection: authors, titles, publication dates, pagination and size, notes (such as “Includes index.”), and subject terms. Through things like controlled vocabularies and authority lists, the nature of a collection can be posited, and some interesting questions can be answered. Examples include: what is the average age of the items in the collection, what are the collection’s major subject areas, who are the predominate authors of the works in the collection. These are questions whose answers are manifested now-a-days through faceted browse interfaces, but they are questions of the collection as a whole or subsets of the collection, not individual works. They are questions librarians find interesting, not necessarily readers who want to evaluate the significance of a given work.

If the bibliographic systems were to contain quantitative data, then the bibliographic information systems would be more meaningful and more useful. Dates are a very good example. The dates (years) in a library catalog denote when the item in hand (a book) was published, not when the idea in the book was manifested. Consequently, if Plato’s Dialogs were published today, then its library catalog record would have a value of 2011. While such a thing is certainly true, it is misleading. Plato did not write the Dialogs this year. They were written more than 2,500 years ago. Given our current environment, why can’t a library catalog include this sort of information?

Suppose the reader wanted to read all the works of Henry David Thoreau. Suppose the library catalog had accurately denoted the all the items in its collection by this author with the authority term, “Thoreau, Henry David”. Suppose the reader did an author search for “Thoreau, Henry David” and a list of twenty-five items was returned. Finally, suppose the reader wanted to begin by reading Thoreau’s oldest work first and progress to his latest. Using a library catalog, such a thing would not be possible because the dates in bibliographic records denote the date of publication, not the date of first conception or manifestation.

Suppose the reader wanted to plot on a timeline when Thoreau’s works were published, and the reader wanted to compare this with the complete works of Longfellow or Walt Whitman. Again, such a thing would not be possible because the dates in a library catalog denote publication dates, not when ideas were originally manifested. Why shouldn’t a library catalog enable the reader to easily create timelines?

To make things even more complicated, publication dates are regularly denoted as strings, not integers. Examples include: [1701], 186?, 19–, etc. These types of values are ambiguous. Their meaning and interpretation is bound to irregularly implemented “syntactical sugar”. Consequently, without all but heroic efforts, it is not easy to do any sort of compare & contrast evaluation when it comes to dates.

The DPLA has the incredible opportunity to make a fresh start when it comes to the definition of library catalogs. We know the DPLA will not want to reinvent the wheel. At the same time we believe the DPLA will want to exploit the current milieu, re-evaluate the possibilities of computer technology, and consequently refine and evolve the meaning of “catalog”. Traditional library catalogs were born in an era of relative information scarcity. Today we are dealing with problems of abundance. Library catalogs need to do many things differently in order to satisfy the needs/desires of the current reader. “Next-generation library catalogs” can do so much more than provide access to local collections. Facilitating ways to evaluate collections, sub-collections, or individual items through the use of quantitative analysis is just one example.

Measure concept

By turning a relevancy ranking algorithm on its head, it is be possible to measure the existence of concepts of a given work. If this were done for many works, then new comparisons between works would be possible, and again, making it possible for the reader to easily compare & contrast items in a corpus or search results. Of all the services against texts examples in this proposal, we know this one is the most avant-garde.

Term frequency/inverse document frequency (TFIDF) is a model at the heart of many relevancy ranking algorithms. Mathematically stated, TFIDF equals:

( c / t ) * log( d / f )


  • c = number of times the query terms appear in a document
  • t = total number of words in a document
  • d = total number of documents in a corpus
  • f = total number of documents containing the query terms

In other words, TFIDF calculates relevancy (“aboutness”) by multiplying the ratio of query words and document sizes to the ratio of number of documents in a corpus and total frequency of query terms. Thus, if there are three documents each containing the word “music” three times, but one of them is 100 words long and the other two are 200 words long, then the first document is considered more relevant than the other two.

Written language — which is at the very heart of library content — is ambiguous, nuanced, and dynamic. Few, if any, concepts can be completely denoted by a single word or phrase. Instead, a single concept may be better described using a set of words or phrases. For example, music might be denoted thusly:

art, Bach, Baroque, beat, beauty, blues, composition, concert, dance, expression, guitar, harmony, instrumentation, key, keyboard, melody, Mozart, music, opera, percussion, performance, pitch, recording, rhythm, scale, score, song, sound, time, violin

If any document used some or all of these words with any degree of frequency, then it would probably be safe to say the document was about music. This “aboutness” could then be calculated by summing the TFIDF scores of all the music terms in a given document — a thing called the “document overlap measure”. Thus, one document might have a total music “aboutness” measure of 105 whereas another document might have a measure of 55.

We used a process very similar to the one outlined above in an effort to measure the “greatness” of the set of books called The Great Books Of The Western World. Each book in the set was evaluated in terms of it use of the 102 “great ideas” enumerated in the set’s introduction. We summed the computed TFIDF values of each great idea in each book, a value we call the Great Ideas Coefficient. Through this process we determined the “greatest” book in the set was Aristotleʼs Politics because it alluded to the totality of “great ideas” more than the others. Furthermore, we determined that Shakespeare wrote seven of the top ten books when it comes to the idea of love. The following figure illustrates the result of these comparisons. The bars above the line represent books greater than the hypothetical average great book, and the bars below the line are less great than the others.

Measuring the “greatness” of The Great Books of the Western World

The DPLA could implement very similar services against texts in one and/or two ways. First, it could denote any number of themes (like music or “great ideas”) and calculate coefficients denoting the aboutness of those themes for every book in the collection. Readers could then limit their searches by these coefficients or sort their search results accordingly. Find all books with subjects equal to philosophy. Sort the result by the philosophy coefficient.

Second, and possibly better, the DPLA could enable readers to denote their own more specialized and personalized themes. These themes and their aboutness coefficients could then be applied, on-the-fly, to search results. For example, find all books with subject terms equal to gardening, and sort the result by the reader’s personal definition of biology.

As stated earlier, written language is ambiguous and nuanced, but at the same time it is, to some degree, predicable. If it were not predicable, then no one would be able to understand another. Because of this predicability, language, to some degree, can be quantified. Once quantified, it can be measured. Once measured it can be sorted and graphed, and thus new meanings can be expressed and evaluated. The coefficients described in this section, like the measurements of length and readability, are to be taken with a grain of salt, but they can help the reader use & understand library collections, sub-collections, and individual items.

Plot on a timeline

Plotting things on a timeline is an excellent way to put events into perspective, and when written works are described with dates, then they are amenable to visualizations.

The DPLA could put this idea into practice by applying it against search results. The reader could do a search in the “catalog”, and the resulting screen could have a link labeled something like “Plot on a timeline”. By clicking the link the dates of search results could be extracted from the underlying metadata, plotted on a timeline, and displayed. At the very least such a function would enable the reader to visualize when things were published and answer rudimentary questions such as: are there clusters of publications, do the publications span a large swath of time, did one particular author publishing things on regular basis?

The dates in traditional bibliographic metadata denote the publication of an item, as mentioned previously. Consequently the mapping of monographs may not be useful as desired. On the other hand, the dates associated with things of a serial nature (blog postings, twitter feeds, journal articles, etc.) are more akin to dates of conception. We imagine the DPLA systematically harvesting, preserving, and indexing freely available and open access serial literature. This content is much more amenable to plotting on a timeline as illustrated below:

Timeline illustrating when serial literature was published

The timeline was created by aggregating selected RSS feeds, parsing out the dates, and plotting them accordingly. Different colored items represent different feeds. Each item in the timeline is hot providing the means to read the items’ abstracts and optionally viewing the items’ full text.

Plotting things on a timeline is another way the DPLA can build on the good work of find & get and help the reader use & understand.

Count word and phrase frequencies

Akin to traditional back-of-the-book indexes, word and phrase frequency tabulations are one of the simplest and most expedient ways of providing access to and overviews of a text. Like tables of contents and indexes, word and phrase frequecies increase a text’s utility and make texts easier to understand.

Back-of-the-book indexes are expensive to create and the product of an individual’s perspective. Moreover, back-of-the-book indexes are not created for fiction. Why not? Given the full-text of a work any number of back-of-the-book index-like displays could be created to enhance the reader’s experience. For example, by simply tabulating the occurrences of every word in a text (sans, maybe, stop words), and then displaying the resulting list alphabetically, the reader can have a more complete back-of-the-book index generated for them without the help of a subjective indexer. The same tabulation could be done again but instead of displaying the content alphabetically, the results could be ordered by frequency as in a word cloud. In either case each entry in the “index” could be associated with an integer denoting the number of times the word (or phrase) occurs in the text. The word (or phrase) could then be linked to a concordance (see below) in order to display how the word (or phrase) was used in context.

Take for example, Henry David Thoreaus’s Walden. This is a piece of non-fiction about a man who lives alone in the woods by a pond for just about two years. In the book’s introduction Ralph Waldo Emerson describes Thoreau as a man with a keen sense of physical space and an uncanny ability for measurement. The book itself describes one person’s vision of what it means to be human. Upon the creation and display of the 100 most frequently used two-word phrases (bigrams), these statements about the book are born out. Notice the high frequency of quantitative references as well as reference to men:

Compare Walden to James Joyce’s Ulysses, a fictional work describing a day in the life of Leopold Bloom as he walks through Dublin. Notice how almost every single bigram is associated with the name of a person

Interesting? Some people may react to these illustrations and say, “So what? I already knew that.” To which we reply, “Yes, but what about those people who haven’t read these texts?” Imagine being able to tabulate the word frequencies against any given set of texts — a novel, a journal article, a piece of non-fiction, all of the works by a given author or in a given genre. The results are able to tell the reader things about the works. For example, it might alert the reader to the central importance of a person named Bloom. When Bloom is mentioned in the text, then maybe the reader ought to be extra attention to what is being said. Frequency tabulations and word cloud can also alert the reader to what is not said in a text. Apparently religion is not a overarching theme in either of the above examples.

frequency walden
The 100 most frequent two-word phrases in Walden
frequency ulysses
The 100 most frequent two-word phrases in Ulysses

It is possible to tabulate word frequencies across texts. Again, using A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist, and David Copperfield as examples, we discover the 6-word phrase “taken with a violent fit of” appears in both David Copperfield and A Christmas Carol. Moreover, the bigram “violent fit” appears on all three works. Specifically, characters in these three Dickens stories have violent fits of laughter, crying, trembling, and coughing. By concatenating the stories together and applying concordancing methods to them (described below) we see there are quite a number of violent things in the three stories:

  n such breathless haste and violent agitation, as seemed to betoken so
  ood-night, good-night!' The violent agitation of the girl, and the app
  sberne) entered the room in violent agitation. 'The man will be taken,
  o understand that, from the violent and sanguinary onset of Oliver Twi
  one and all, to entertain a violent and deeply-rooted antipathy to goi
  eep a little register of my violent attachments, with the date, durati
  cal laugh, which threatened violent consequences. 'But, my dear,' said
  in general, into a state of violent consternation. I came into the roo
  artly to keep pace with the violent current of her own thoughts: soon
  ts and wiles have brought a violent death upon the head of one worth m
   There were twenty score of violent deaths in one long minute of that
  id the woman, making a more violent effort than before; 'the mother, w
   as it were, by making some violent effort to save himself from fallin
  behind. This was rather too violent exercise to last long. When they w
   getting my chin by dint of violent exertion above the rusty nails on
  en who seem to have taken a violent fancy to him, whether he will or n
  peared, he was taken with a violent fit of trembling. Five minutes, te
  , when she was taken with a violent fit of laughter; and after two or
  he immediate precursor of a violent fit of crying. Under this impressi
  and immediately fell into a violent fit of coughing: which delighted T
  of such repose, fell into a violent flurry, tossing their wild arms ab
   and accompanying them with violent gesticulation, the boy actually th
  ght I really must have laid violent hands upon myself, when Miss Mills
   arm tied up, these men lay violent hands upon him -- by doing which,
   every aggravation that her violent hate -- I love her for it now -- c
   work himself into the most violent heats, and deliver the most wither
  terics were usually of that violent kind which the patient fights and
   me against the donkey in a violent manner, as if there were any affin
   to keep down by force some violent outbreak. 'Let me go, will you,--t
  hands with me - which was a violent proceeding for him, his usual cour
  en.' 'Well, sir, there were violent quarrels at first, I assure you,'
  revent the escape of such a violent roar, that the abused Mr. Chitling
  t gradually resolved into a violent run. After completely exhausting h
  , on which he ever showed a violent temper or swore an oath, was this
  ullen, rebellious spirit; a violent temper; and an untoward, intractab
  fe of Oliver Twist had this violent termination or no. CHAPTER III REL
  in, and seemed to presage a violent thunder-storm, when Mr. and Mrs. B
  f the theatre, are blind to violent transitions and abrupt impulses of
  ming into my house, in this violent way? Do you want to rob me, or to

These observations simply beg other questions. Is violence a common theme in Dickens’ works? What other adjectives are used to a greater or lesser degree in Dickens’ works? How do the use of these adjectives differ from other authors of the same time period or within the canon of English literature?

While works of fiction are the basis of most of the examples, there is no reason why similar processes couldn’t be applied to non-fiction as well. We also understand that the general reader will not be interested in these sorts of services against texts. Instead we see these sorts of services more applicable to students in high school and college. We also see these sorts of services being applicable to the scholar or researcher who needs to “read” large numbers of journal article. Finally, we do not advocate the use of these sorts of tools as a replacement for traditional “close” reading. These tools are supplements and additions to the reading process just as tables of contents and back-of-the-book indexes are today.

Display in context

Concordances — one of the oldest literary tools in existence — have got to be some of the more useful services against texts a library could provide because they systematically display words and concepts within the context of the larger written work making it very easy to compare & contrast usage. Originally implemented by Catholic priests as early as 1250 to study religious texts, concordances (sometimes called “key word in context” or KWIC indexes) trivialize the process of seeing how a concept is expressed in a work.

As an example of how concordances can be used to analyze texts, we asked ourselves, “How do Plato, Aristotle, and Shakespeare differ in their definition of man?” To answer this question we amassed all the works of the authors, searched each for the phrase “man is”, and displayed the results in a concordance-like fashion. From the results the reader can see how the definitions of Plato and Aristotle are very similar but much different from Shakespeare’s:

Plato’s definitions

  stice, he is met by the fact that man is a social being, and he tries to harmoni
  ption of Not-being to difference. Man is a rational animal, and is not -- as man
  ss them. Or, as others have said: Man is man because he has the gift of speech;
  wise man who happens to be a good man is more than human (daimonion) both in lif
  ied with the Protagorean saying, 'Man is the measure of all things;' and of this

Aristotle’s definitions

  ronounced by the judgement 'every man is unjust', the same must needs hold good
  ts are formed from a residue that man is the most naked in body of all animals a
  ated piece at draughts. Now, that man is more of a political animal than bees or
  hese vices later. The magnificent man is like an artist; for he can see what is
  lement in the essential nature of man is knowledge; the apprehension of animal a

Shakespeare’s definitions

   what I have said against it; for man is a giddy thing, and this is my conclusio
   of man to say what dream it was: man is but an ass, if he go about to expound t
  e a raven for a dove? The will of man is by his reason sway'd; And reason says y
  n you: let me ask you a question. Man is enemy to virginity; how may we barricad
  er, let us dine and never fret: A man is master of his liberty: Time is their ma

We do not advocate the use of concordances as the be-all and end-all of literary analysis but rather a pointer to bigger questions. Think how much time and energy would have been required if the digitized texts of each of these authors was not available, and if computers could not be applied against them. Concordances, as well as the other services against texts outlined in this proposal, make it easier to ask questions of collections, sub-collections, and individual works. This ease-of-use empowers the reader to absorb, observe, and learn from texts in ways that was not possible previously. We do not advocate these sort of services against texts as replacements for traditional reading processes, but rather we advocate them as alternative and supplemental tools for understanding the human condition or physical environment as manifested in written works.

Herein lies one of the main points of our proposal. By creatively exploiting the current environment where full-text abounds and computing horsepower is literally at everybody’s fingertips, libraries can assist the reader to “read” texts in new and different ways — ways that make it easier to absorb larger amounts of information and ways to understand it from new and additional perspectives. Concordances are just one example.

Display the proximity of a given word to other words

Visualizing the words frequently occurring near a given word is often descriptive and revealing. With the availability of full-text content, creating such visualization is almost trivial and have the potencial for greatly enhancing the reader’s experience. This enhanced reading process is all but impossible when the written word is solely accessible in analog forms, but in a digital form the process is almost easy.

For example, first take the word woodchuck as found in Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Upon reading the book the reader learns of his literal distaste for the woodchuck. They eat is beans, and he wants to skin them. Compare the same author’s allusions to woodchucks in his work Two Weeks On The Concord And Merrimack Rivers. In this work, when woodchucks are mentioned he also alludes to other small animals such as foxes, minks, muskrats, and squirrels. In other words, the connotations surrounding woodchucks and between the two books are different as illustrated by the following network diagrams:

frequency walden
“woodchuck” in Walden
frequency walden
“woodchuck” in Rivers

The given word — woodchuck — is in the center. Each of the words connected to the given word are the words appearing most frequently near the given word. This same process is then applied to the connected words. Put another way, these network diagrams literally illustrate what an author says, “in the same breath” when they use a given word. Such visualizations are simply not possible through the process of traditional reading without spending a whole lot of effort. The DPLA could implement the sort of functionality described in this section and make the reader’s experience richer. It demonstrates how libraries can go beyond access (a problem that is increasingly not a problem) and move towards use & understand.

We do not advocate the use of this technology to replace traditional analysis, but rather to improve upon it. This technology, like all of the examples in the proposal, makes it easier to find interesting patterns for further investigation.

Display location of word in a text

Sometimes displaying where in a text, percentage-wise, a word or phrase exists can raise interesting questions, and by providing tools to do such visualizations the DPLA will foster the ability to more easily ask interesting questions.

For example, what comes to mind when you think of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Curose? Do you think of a man shipwrecked on an island and the cannibal named Friday? Ask yourself, when in the story is the man shipwrecked and when does he meet Friday? Early in the story? In the middle? Towards the end? If you guessed early in the story, then you would be wrong because most of the story takes place on a boat, and only three-quarters of the way through the book does Friday appear, as illustrated by the following histogram:

We all know that Herman Melville’s book Moby Dick is about a sailor hunting a great white whale. Looking at a histogram of where the word “white” appears in the story, we see a preponderance of its occurrence forty percent the way through the book. Why? Upon looking at the book more closely we see that one of the chapters is entitled “The Whiteness of the Whale”, and it is almost entirely about the word “white”. This chapter appears about forty percent through the text. Who ever heard of an entire book chapter whose theme was a color?

“friday” in Crusoe
moby dick
“white” in Moby Dick

In a Catholic pamphlet entitled Letters of an Irish Catholic Layman the word “catholic” is one of the more common and appears frequently in the text towards the beginning as well as the end

“catholic” in Layman
lake erie
“lake erie” in Layman
“niagara falls” in Layman

After listing the most common two-word phrases in the book we see that there are many references to places in upper New York state:

two word phrases
The 100 most frequently used two-word phrases in Letters of an Irish Catholic Layman

Looking more closely at the locations of “Lake Erie” and “Niagra Falls” in the text, we see that these things are referenced in the places where the word “catholic” is not mentioned

Does the author go off on a tangent? Are there no catholics in these areas? The answers to the questions, and the question of why are left up to the reader, but the important point is the ability to quickly “read” the texts in ways that were not feasible when the books were solely in analog form. Displaying where in a text words or phrases occur literally illustrates new ways to view the content of libraries. These are examples of how the DPLA can build on find & get and increase use & understand.

Elaborate upon and visualize parts-of-speech analysis

Written works can be characterized through parts-of-speech analysis. This analysis can be applied to the whole of a library collection, subsets of the collection, or individual works. The DPLA has the opportunity to increase the functionality of a library by enabling the reader to elaborate upon and visualize parts-of-speech analysis. Such a process will facilitate greater use of the collection and improve understanding of it.

Because the English language follows sets of loosely defined rules, it is possible to systematically classify the words and phrases of written works into parts-of-speech. These include but are not limited to: nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, punctuation, etc. Once classified, these parts-of-speech can be tabulated and quantitative analysis can begin.

Our own foray’s into parts-of-speech analysis, where the relative percentage use of parts-of-speech were compared, proved fruitless. But the investigation inspired other questions whose answers may be more broadly applied. More specifically, students and scholars are often times more interested in what an author says as opposed to how they say it. Such investigations can gleaned not so much from gross parts-of-speech measurements but rather the words used to denote each parts-of-speech. For example, the following table lists the 10 most frequently used pronouns and the number of times they occur in four works. Notice the differences:

Walden Rivers Northanger Sense
I (1,809) it (1,314) her (1,554) her (2,500)
it (1,507) we (1,101) I (1,240) I (1,917)
my (725) his (834) she (1,089) it (1,711)
he (698) I (756) it (1,081) she (1,553)
his (666) our (677) you (906) you (1,158)
they (614) he (649) he (539) he (1,068)
their (452) their (632) his (524) his (1,007)
we (447) they (632) they (379) him (628)
its (351) its (487) my (342) my (598)
who (340) who (352) him (278) they (509)

While the lists are similar, they are characteristic of work from which they came. The first — Walden — is about an individual who lives on a lake. Notice the prominence of the word “I” and “my”. The second — Rivers — is written by the same author as the first but is about brothers who canoe down a river. Notice the higher occurrence of the word “we” and “our”. The later two works, both written by Jane Austin, are works with females as central characters. Notice how the words “her” and “she” appear in these lists but not in the former two. It looks as if there are patterns or trends to be measured here.

If the implementation of the DPLA were to enable the reader to do this sort of parts-of-speech analysis against search results, then the search results may prove to be more useful.

Nouns and pronouns play a special role in libraries because they are the foundation of controlled vocabularies, authority lists, and many other reference tools. Imagine being able to extract and tabulate all the nouns (things, names, and places) from a text. A word cloud like display would convey a lot of meaning about the text. On the other hand, a simple alphabetical list of the result could very much function like a back-of-the-book index. Each noun or noun phrase could be associated with any number of functions such as but not limited to:

  • look-up in a controlled vocabulary list in order to find more
  • look-up in an authority list in order to find more
  • show in context of the given work (concordance)
  • elaborate upon using a dictionary, thesaurus, encyclopedia, etc.
  • plot on a map

We demonstrated the beginnings of the look-up functions in a Code4Lib Journal article called “Querying OCLC Web Services for Name, Subject, and ISBN“. The concordance functionality is described above. The elaboration service is common place in today’s ebook readers. Through an interface designed for mobile devices, we implemented a combination of the elaborate and plot on a map services as a prototype. In this implementation the reader is presented with a tiny collection of classic works. The reader is then given the opportunity to browse the names or places index. After the reader selects a specific name or place the application displays a descriptive paragraph of the selection, an image of the selection, and finally, hypertext links to a Wikipedia article or a Google Maps display.

name place name place name place name place name place
Screen shots of services against texts on a mobile device

Given the amount of full text content that is expected to be in or linked from the DPLA’s collection, there is so much more potential functionality for the reader. The idea of a library being a storehouse of books and journals is rapidly become antiquated. Because content is so readily available on the ‘Net, there is a need for libraries to evolve beyond its stereotypical function. By combining a knowledge of what readers do with information with the possibilities for full text analysis, the DPLA will empower the reader to more easily ask and answer questions of texts. And in turn, make it easier for the reader to use & understand what they are reading.


People may believe the techiques described herein run contrary to the traditional processes of “close” reading. From our point of view, nothing could be further from the truth. We sincerely believe the techniques described in this proposal suppliment and enhance the reading process.

We are living in an age where we feel like we are drowning in data and information. But according to Ann Blair this is not a new problem. In her book, Too Much to Know, Blair chronicles in great detail the ways scholars since the 3rd Century have dealt with information overload. While they seem obvious in today’s world, they were innovations in their time. They included but were not limited to: copying texts (St. Jerome in the 3rd Century), creating concordances (Hugh St. Cher in the 13th Century), and filing wooden “cards” in a “catalog” (Athanasius Kircher 17th Century).

St. Jerome
hugh st cher
Hugh St. Cher
Athanasius Kircher

Think of all the apparatus associated with a printed book. Books have covers, and sometimes there are dust jackets complete with a description of the book and maybe the author. On the book’s spine is the title and publisher. Inside the book there are cover pages, title pages, tables of contents, prefaces & introductions, tables of figures, the chapters themselves complete with chapter headings at the top of every page, footnotes & references & endnotes, epilogues, and an index or two. These extras — tables of contents, chapter headings, indexes, etc. — did not appear in books with the invention of the codex. Instead their existence was established and evolved over time.

In scholarly detail, Blair documents how these extras — as well as standard reference works like dictionaries, encyclopedias, and catalogs — came into being. She asserts the creation of these things became necessary as the number and lengths of books grew. These tools made the process of understanding the content of books easier. They reenforced ideas, and made the process of returning to previously read information faster. Accordingl to Blair, not everybody thought these tools — especially reference works — were a good idea. To paraphrase, “People only need a few good books, and people should read them over and over again. Things like encyclopedias only make the mind weaker since people area not exercising their memories.” Despite these claims, reference tools and the aparatus of printed books continue to exist and our venerable “sphere of knowledge” continues to grow.

Nobody can claim undertanding of a book if they read only the table of contents, flip through the pages, and glance at the index. Yes, they will have some understanding, but it will only be tertiary. We see the tools described in this proposal akin to tables of contents and back-of-the-book indexes. They are tools to find, get, use, and understand the data, information, and knowledge a book contains. They are a natural evolution considering the existence of books in digital forms. The services against texts described in this proposal enhance and supplement the reading process. They make it easier to compare & contrast the content of single books or an entire corpus. They make it faster and easier to extract pertinate information. Like a back-of-the-book index, they make it easier to ask questions of a text and get answers quickly. The tools described in this proposal are not intended to be end-all and be-all of textual analysis. Instead, they are intended to be pointers to interesting ideas, and it is left up to the reader to flesh out and confirm the ideas after closer reading.

Digital humanities investigations and specifically text mining computing techniques like the ones in this proposal can be viewed as modern-day processes for dealing with and taking advantage of information overload. Digital humanists use computers to evaluate all aspects of human expression. Writing. Music. Theator. Dance. Etc. Text mining is a particular slant on the digital humanities applying this evaluation process against sets of words. We are simply advocating these proceses become integrated with library collections and services.


This section lists the software used to create our Beta-Sprint Propoal examples. All of the software is open source or freely accessible. None of the software is one-of-a-kind because each piece could be replaced by something else providing similar functionality.

  • Alex Catalogue of Electronic Texts – This is a collection and full-text index of approximately 14,000 public domain documents from the areas of American and English literature as well as Western philosophy. This “digital library”, created and maintined by the author since 1994, is a personal “sandbox” and laboratory for the implementation of new ideas in librarianship.
  • Google Charts – Implemented through a Javascript API (application programmer interface), Google Charts enabled us to create the histograms in the “display location of word in a text service”. It also provided the guage-like graphics for the “measure size” and “measure difficulty” services.
  • Google Maps – Another Javascript API, Google Maps was a part of the “plot on a map” service.
  • Lingua::Concordance – A Perl module, Lingua::Concordance was used to implement the “display in context” service. This module was written by the author.
  • Lingua::EN::Ngram – Another Perl module written by the author, Lingua::EN::Ngram was used to count and tabulate the words and n-length phrases in a given text. It plays a crucial role “count word and phrase frequencies” service.
  • Lingua::Fathom – This Perl module formed the basis of the “measure size” and “measure difficulty” services since its primary purpose is to calculate Fog, Flesch, and Kincaid readability scores.
  • Lingua::Stem::Snowball – This Perl module plays a role in the “measure concept” service. Given words as input, it outputs the words’ roots (or “stems”). These roots were then searched against the index of Alex Catalogue to determine the number of documents (f) containing the root. This value was then used to calculate TFIDF.
  • Lingua::TreeTagger – This a Perl interface to set of cross-platform binary applications whose purpose is to classify parts-of-speech. Lingua::TreeTagger was used to compare & contrast the ways pronouns were used in four classic works of literature.
  • MyLibrary – This is a digital library framework written in Perl. At its core are modules to manage library resources, librarians, and patron descriptions. Inter-relationships between resources, librarians, and patrons can be controlled through the creation and maintenance of facet/term combinations. MyLibrary was co-written by the author and implemented the concept of facets before faceted browse became popular. MyLibrary, in combination with Solr, forms the functional basis of the Alex Catalogue.
  • Protovis – This is the Javascript library used to visualize the “display the proximity of a given word to other words” service.
  • SIMILE Widgets Timeline – This is a Javascript library used to display timelines. It was used in the “plot on a timeline” service.
  • Solr – Solr is probably the most popular open source indexer in use by the library community, if not else where. It is used to index the full-text of the Alex Catalogue. It was also used to determine the value of f in the “measure concept” service.
  • Stanford Named Entity Recognizer – This is the set of Java programs used to extract the names and places from a document. These names and places were then linked to Wikipedia or plotted on a map — the “elaborate upon and visualize parts-of-speech” service.

This short list of software can be used to create a myriad of enhanced library services and tools, but the specific pieces of software listed above are not so important in and of themselves. Instead, they represent types of software which already exist and are freely available for use by anybody. Services against texts facilitating use & understand can be implemented with a wide variety of software applications. The services against texts outlined in this proposal are not limited to the software listed in this section.

Implementation how-to’s

Putting into practice the services against text described in this proposal would not be a trivial task, but process is entirely feasible. This section outlines a number of implementation how-to’s.

Measurement services

The measurement services (size, readability, and concept) would idealy be done against texts as they were added to the collection. The actual calculation of the size and readability scores are not difficult. All that is needed is the full text of the documents and software to do the counting. (Measuring concepts necessitates additional work since TFIDF requires a knowledge of the collection as a whole; measuring concepts can only be done once the bulk of the collection has been built. Measuring concepts is also a computationally intensive process.)

Instead, the challenge includes denoting locations to store the metadata, deciding whether or not to index the metadata, and figuring out how to display the metadata to the reader. The measurements themselves will be integers or decimal numbers. If MARC were the container for the bibliogrpahic data, then any one of a number of local notes could be used for storage. If a relational database were used, then additional fields could be used. If the DPLA wanted to enable the reader to limit or sort search results by any of the measurments, then the values will need to be indexed. We would be willing to guess the underlying indexer for the DPLA will be Solr, since it seems to be the current favorite. Indexing the measurements in Solr will be as easy as creating the necessary fields to a Solr configuration file, and adding the measurements to the fields as the balance of the bibliographic data is indexed. We would not suggest creating any visualizations of the measurements ahead of time, but rather on-the-fly and only as they were needed; the visualizations could probably be implemented using Javascript and embedded into the DPLA’s “catalog”.

Timeline services

Like the measurements, plotting the publication dates or dates of conception on a timeline can be implemented using Javascript and embedded into the DPLA’s “catalog”. For serial literature (blogs, open access journal articles, Twitter feeds, etc.) the addition of meaningful dates will have already been done. For more more traditional library catalog materials (books), the addition of dates of conception will be labor intensive. Therefore such a thing might not be feasible. On the other hand, this might be a great opportunity to practice a bit of crowdsourcing. Consider making a game out of the process, and try to get people outside the DPLA to denote when Plato, Thoreau, Longfellow, and Whitman wrote their great works.

Frequency, concordance, proximity, and locations in a text services

Implementing the frequency, concordance, proximity, and locations in a text services require no preprocessing. Instead these services can all be implemented on-the-fly by a program linked from the DPLA’s “catalog”. These services will require a single argument (a unique identifier) and some optional input parameters. Given a unique identifier, the program can look up basic bibliographic information from the catalog including the URL where the full-text resides, retrieve the full-text, and do the necessary processing. This URL could point to the local file system, or, if the network was deemed fast and reliable, the URL could point to the full-text in remote repositories such as the Internet Archive or the HathiTrust. These specific services against texts have been implemented in the Catholic Research Resources Alliance “Catholic Portal” application using “Analyze using text mining techniques” as the linked text. This is illustrated below:

Screen shot of the “Catholic Portal”

By the middle of September 2011 we expect the Hesburgh Libraries at the University of Notre Dame will have included very similar links in their catalog and “discovery system”. These links will provide access to frequency, concordance, and locations in a text services for sets of digitized Catholic pamphlets.

Parts-of-speech services

Based on our experience, the parts-of-speech services will require pre-processing. This is because the process of classifying words into categories of parts-of-speech is a time- and computing-intensive process. It does not seem feasible to extract the parts-of-speech from a document in real time.

To overcome this limitation, we classified our small sample of texts and saved the result in easily parsable text files. Our various scripts were then applied against these surrogates as opposed to the original documents. It should be noted that these surrogates, while not only computationally expensive, were also expensive in terms of disk space consuming more than double the space of the original.

We suggest one or two alternative strategies for the DPLA. First, determine what particular items from the DPLA’s collection may be the more popular. Once determined, have those items pre-processed outputting the surrogate files. These pre-processed items can then be used for demonstration purposes and generate interest in the parts-of-speech services. Second, when readers want to use these services against items that have not been pre-processed, then have the readers select their items, supply an email address, process the content, and notifiy the readers when the surrogates have been created. This second approach is akin to the just-in-time approach to collection development as opposed to the just-in-case philosophy.


Obviously, we think all of the services against texts outlined above are useful, but practically speaking, it is not feasible to implement all of them once. Instead we advocate the following phased approach:

  1. Word/phrase frequency, concordance, proximity, and locations in a text services – We suggest these services be implemented first, mostly because they can be written outside any “discovery system” hosted by the DPLA. Second, these services are the root of many of the other services, so it will be easier to build the others once these have been made available.
  2. Measurments of size and readability – Calculating the values of size and readability on-the-fly is possible but is limiting in functionality. Pre-processing these values is relatively easy, and incorporating the result into the “discovery system” has many benefits. This is why we see these two services as the second highest priority.
  3. Plot dates of publication on a timeline – Plotting dates will be easy enough if the content in question is of a serial nature and the dates represent “dates of conception”. But we are not sure content of a serial nature (blog postings, open access journal literature, Twitter feeds, etc.) will be included in the DPLA’s collection. Consequently, we suggest this service be implemented third.
  4. Parts-of-speech analysis – Implementing services based on parts-of-speech will almost certainly require pre-processing as increase local storage requirements. While these costs are withing the DPLA’s control, they are expenses that may inhibit implementation feasibility. That is why they are listed fourth in the priority order.
  5. After crowdsourcing the content, plot dates of conception on a timeline – We think this is one of the easier and more interesting services, especially if the dates in question are “dates of conception” for books, but alas, this data is not readily available. After figuring out how to acquire dates of conception for traditional catalog-like material — through something like crowdsourcing — implementing this service my be very enlightinging.
  6. Measure ideas – This is probably the most avant-garde service described in the proposal. Its implementation can only be done after the bulk of the DPLA’s collection has been created. Furthermore, calculating TFIDF for a set of related keyword is computationally expensive. This can be a truly useful and innovative service, especially if the reader were able to create a personal concept for comparison. But because of the time and expense, we advocate this service be implemented last.

Quick links

This section lists most of the services outlined in the proposal as well as links to blog postings and example implementations.

Word frequencies, concordances

These URLs point to services generating word frequencies, concordances, histograms illustrating word locations, and network diagrams illustrating word proximities for Walden and Ulysses.

Word/phrase locations

Using the text mining techniques built into the “Catholic Portal” the reader can see where the words/phrases “catholic”, “lake erie”, and “niagara falls” are used in the text.

Proximity displays

Using network diagrams, the reader can see what words Thoreau uses “in the same breath” when he mentions the word “woodchuck”. These proximity displays are also incorporated into just about every item in the Alex Catalogue

Plato, Aristotle, and Shakespeare

This blog posting first tabulates the most frequently used words by the authors, as well as their definitions of “man” and a “good man”.

Catholic Portal

The “Portal” is collection of rare, uncommon, and infrequently held materials brought together to facilitate Catholic studies. It includes some full text materials, and they are linked to text mining services.

Measuring size

In this blog posting a few works by Charles Dickens are compared & contrasted. The comparisons include size and word/phrase usage.

Plot on a timeline

This blog posting describes how a timeline was created by plotting the publication dates of RSS feeds.

Lookup in Wikipedia and plot on a map

After extracting the names and places from a text, this service grabs Linked Data from DBedia, displays a descriptive paragraph, and allows the reader to look the name or place up in Wikipedia and/or plot it on a world map. This service is specifically designed for mobile devices.

Parts-of-speech analysis

This blog posting elaborates on how various parts of speech were used in a number of selected classic works.

Measuring ideas

The “greatness” of the Great Books was evaluated in a number of blog postings, and the two listed here give a good overview of the methodology.


In our mind, the combination of digital humanities computing techniques — like all the services against texts outined above — and the practices of librarianship would be a marriage made in heaven. By supplementing the DPLA’s collections with full text materials and then enhancing its systems to facilitate text mining and natural language processing, the DPLA can not only make it easier for readers to find data and information, but it can also make that data and information easier to use & understand.

We know the ideas outlined in this proposal are not typical library functions. But we also apprehend the need to take into account the changing nature of the information landscape. Digital content lends itself to a myriad of new possibilities. We are not saying analog forms of books and journals are antiquated nor useless. No, far from it. Instead, we believe the library profession has figured out pretty well how to exploit and take advantage of that medium and its metadata. On the other hand, the posibilities for full text digital content are still mostly unexplored and represent a vast untapped potencial. Building on and expanding on the education mission of libraries, services against texts may be a niche the profession — and the DPLA — can help fill. The services & tools described in this proposal are really only examples. Any number of additional services against texts could be implemented. We are only limited by our ability to think of action words denoting the things people want to do with texts once they find & get them. By augmenting a library’s traditional functions surrounding collection and sevices with the sorts of things described above, the role of libraries can expand and evolve to include use & understand.

About the author

Eric Lease Morgan considers himself to be a librarian first and a computer user second. His professional goal is to discover new ways to use computers to provide better library service. He has a BA in Philosophy from Bethany College in West Virginia (1982), and an MIS from Drexel University in Philadelphia (1987).

While he has been a practicing librarian for more than twenty years he has been writing software for more than thirty. He wrote his first library catalog in 1989, and it won him an award from Computers in Libraries Magazine. In a reaction to the “serials pricing crisis” he implemented the Mr. Serials Process to collect, organize, archive, index, and disseminate electronic journals. For these efforts he was awarded the Bowker/Ulrich’s Serials Librarianship Award in 2002. An advocate of open source software and open access publishing since before the phrases were coined, just about all of his software and publications are freely available online. One of his first pieces of open source software was a database-driven application called MyLibrary, a term which has become a part of the library vernacular.

As a member of the LITA/ALA Top Technology Trends panel for more than ten years, as well as the owner/moderator of a number of library-related mailing lists (Code4Lib, NGC4Lib, and Usability4Lib), Eric has his fingers on the pulse of the library profession. He coined the phrase “‘next-generation’ library catalog”. More recently, Eric has been applying text mining and other digital humanities computing techniques to his Alex Catalogue of Electronic Texts which he has been maintaining since 1994. Eric relishes all aspects of librarianship. He even makes and binds his own books. In his spare time, Eric plays blues guitar and Baroque recorder. He also enjoys folding origami, photography, growing roses, and fishing.

How “great” are the Great Books?

In this posting I present two quantitative methods for denoting the “greatness” of a text. Through this analysis I learned that Aristotle wrote the greatest book. Shakespeare wrote seven of the top ten books when it comes to love. And Aristophanes’s Peace is the most significant when it comes to war. Once calculated, this description – something I call the “Great Ideas Coefficient” – can be used as a benchmark to compare & contrast one text with another.

Research questions

In 1952 Robert Maynard Hutchins et al. compiled a set of books called the Great Books of the Western World. [1] Comprised of fifty-four volumes and more than a couple hundred individual works, it included writings from Homer to Darwin. The purpose of the set was to cultivate a person’s liberal arts education in the Western tradition. [2]

To create the set a process of “syntopical reading” was first done. [3]. (Syntopical reading is akin to the emerging idea of “distant reading” [4], and at the same time complementary to the more traditional “close reading”.) The result was an enumeration of 102 “Great Ideas” commonly debated throughout history. Through the syntopical reading process, through the enumeration of timeless themes, and after thorough discussion with fellow scholars, the set of Great Books was enumerated. As stated in the set’s introductory materials:

…but the great books posses them [the great ideas] for a considerable range of ideas, covering a variety of subject matters or disciplines; and among the great books the greatest are those with the greatest range of imaginative or intellectual content. [5]

Our research question is then, “How ‘great’ are the Great Books?” To what degree do they discuss the Great Ideas which apparently define their greatness? If such degrees can be measured, then which of the Great Books are greatest?

Great Ideas Coefficient defined

To measure the greatness of any text – something I call a Great Ideas Coefficient – I apply two methods of calculation. Both exploit the use of term frequency inverse document frequency (TFIDF).

TFIDF is a well-known method for calculating statistical relevance in the field of information retrieval (IR). [6] Query terms are supplied to a system and compared to the contents of an inverted index. Specifically, documents are returned from an IR system in a relevancy ranked order based on: 1) the ratio of query term occurrences and the size of the document multiplied by 2) the ratio of the number of documents in the corpus and the number of documents containing the query terms. Mathematically stated, TFIDF equals:

(c/t) * log(d/f)


  • c = number of times the query terms appear in a document
  • t = total number of words in a document
  • d = total number of documents in a corpus
  • f = total number of documents containing the query terms

For example, suppose a corpus contains 100 documents. This is d. Suppose two of the documents contain a given query term (such as “love”). This is f. Suppose also the first document is 50 words long (t) and contains the word love once (c). Thus, the first document has a TFIDF score of 0.034:

(1/50) * log(100/2) = 0.0339

Where as, if the second document is 75 words long (t) and contains the word love twice (c), then the second document’s TFIDF score is 0.045:

(2/75) * log(100/2) = 0.0453

Thus, the second document is considered more relevant than the first, and by extension, the second document is probably more “about” love than the first. For our purposes relevance and “aboutness” are equated with “greatness”. Consequently, in this example, when it comes to the idea of love, the second document is “greater” than the first. To calculate our first Coefficient I sum all 102 Great Idea TFIDF scores for a given document, a statistic called the “overlap score measure”. [7] By comparing the resulting sums I can compare the greatness of the texts as well as examine correlations between Great Ideas. Since items selected for inclusion in the Great books also need to exemplify the “greatest range of imaginative or intellectual content”, I also produce a Coefficient based on a normalized mean for all 102 Great Ideas across the corpus.

Great Ideas Coefficient calculated

To calculate the Great Ideas Coefficient for each of the Great Books I used the following process:

  1. Mirrored versions of Great Books – By searching and browsing the Internet 222 of the 260 Great Books were found and copied locally, giving us a constant (d) equal to 222.
  2. Indexed the corpus – An inverted index was created. I used Solr for this. [8]
  3. Calculated TFIDF for a given Great Idea – First the given Great Idea was stemmed and searched against the the index resulting in a value for f. Each Great Book was retrieved from the local mirror whereby the size of the work (t) was determined as well as the number of times the stem appeared in the work (c). TFIDF was then calculated.
  4. Repeated Step #3 for each of the Great Ideas – Go to Step #3 each of the Great Ideas.
  5. Summed each of the TFIDF scores – The Great Idea TFIDF scores were added together giving us our first Great Ideas Coefficient for a given work.
  6. Saved the result – Each of the individual scores as well as the Great Ideas Coefficient was saved to a database.
  7. Returned to Step #3 for each of the Great Books – Go to Step #3 each of the other works in the corpus.

The end result was a file in the form of a matrix with 222 rows and 104 columns. Each row represents a Great Book. Each column is a local identifier, a Great Ideas TFIDF score, and a book’s Great Ideas Coefficient. [9]

The Great Books analyzed

Sorting the matrix according to the Great Ideas Coefficient is trivial. Upon doing so I see that Kant’s Introduction To The Metaphysics Of Morals and Aristotle’s Politics are the first and second greatest books, respectively. When the matrix is sorted by the love column, I see Plato’s Symposium come out as number one, but Shakespeare claims seven of the top ten items with his collection of Sonnets being the first. When the matrix is sorted by the war column, then Aristophanes’s Peace is the greatest.

Unfortunately, denoting overall greatness in the previous manner is too simplistic because it does not fit the definition of greatness posited by Hutchins. The Great Books are expected to be great because they exemplify the “greatest range of imaginative or intellectual content”. In other words, the Great Books are great because they discuss and elaborate upon a wide spectrum of the Great Ideas, not just a few. Ironically, this does not seem to be the case. Most of the Great Books have many Great Idea scores equal to zero. In fact, at least two of the Great Ideas – cosmology and universal – have TFIDF scores equal to zero across the entire corpus, as illustrated by Figure 1. This being the case, I might say that none of the Great Books are truly great because none of them significantly discuss the totality of the Great Ideas.

box plots of great ideas
Figure 1 – Box plot scores of Great Ideas

To take this into account and not allow the value of the Great Idea Coefficient to be overwhelmed by one or two Great Idea scores, I calculated the mean TFIDF score for each of the Great Ideas across the matrix. This vector represents an imaginary but “typical” Great Book. I then compared the Great Idea TFIDF scores for each of the Great Books with this central quantity to determine whether or not it is above or below the typical mean. After graphing the result I see that Aristotle’s Politics is still the greatest book with Hegel’s Philosophy Of History being number two, and Plato’s Republic being number three. Figure 2 graphically illustrates this finding, but in a compressed form. Not all works are listed in the figure.

normalized great books
Figure 2 – Individual books compared to the “typical” Great Book


How “great” are the Great Books? The answer depends on what qualities a person wants to measure. Aristotle’s Politics is great in many ways. Shakespeare is great when it comes to the idea of love. The calculation of the Great Ideas Coefficient is one way to compare & contrast texts in a corpus – “syntopical reading” in a digital age.


[1] Hutchins, Robert Maynard. 1952. Great books of the Western World. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica.

[2] Ibid. Volume 1, page xiv.

[3] Ibid. Volume 2, page xi.

[4] Moretti, Franco. 2005. Graphs, maps, trees: abstract models for a literary history. London: Verso, page 1.

[5] Hutchins, op. cit. Volume 3, page 1220.

[6] Manning, Christopher D., Prabhakar Raghavan, and Hinrich Schütze. 2008. An introduction to information retrieval. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, page 109.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Solr –

[9] This file – the matrix of identifiers and scores – is available at, but a more useful and interactive version is located at

Foray’s into parts-of-speech

This posting is the first of my text mining essays focusing on parts-of-speech. Based on the most rudimentary investigations, outlined below, it seems as if there is not much utility in the classification and description of texts in terms of their percentage use of parts-of-speech.


For the past year or so I have spent a lot of my time counting words. Many of my friends and colleagues look at me strangely when I say this. I have to admit, it does sound sort of weird. On the other hand, the process has enabled me to easily compare & contrast entire canons in terms of length and readability, locate statistically significant words & phrases in individual works, and visualize both with charts & graphs. Through the process I have developed two Perl modules (Lingua::EN::Ngram and Lingua::Concordance), and I have integrated them into my Alex Catalogue of Electronic Texts. Many people are still skeptical about the utility of these endeavors, and my implementations do not seem to be compelling enough to sway their opinions. Oh well, such is life.

My ultimate goal is to figure out ways to exploit the current environment and provide better library service. The current environment is rich with full text. It abounds. I ask myself, “How can I take advantage of this full text to make the work of students, teachers, and scholars both easier and more productive?” My current answer surrounds the creation of tools that take advantage of the full text — making it easier for people to “read” larger quantities of information, find patterns in it, and through the process create new knowledge.

Much of my work has been based on rudimentary statistics with little regard to linguistics. Through the use of computers I strive to easily find patterns of meaning across works — an aspect of linguistics. I think such a thing is possible because the use of language assumes systems and patterns. If it didn’t then communication between ourselves would be impossible. Computers are all about systems and patterns. They are very good at counting and recording data. By using computers to count and record characteristics of texts, I think it is possible to find patterns that humans overlook or don’t figure as significant. I would really like to take advantage of core reference works which are full of meaning — dictionaries, thesauri, almanacs, biographies, bibliographies, gazetteers, encyclopedias, etc. — but the ambiguous nature of written language makes the automatic application of such tools challenging. By classifying individual words as parts-of-speech (POS), some of this ambiguity can be reduced. This posting is my first foray into this line of reasoning, and only time will tell if it is fruitful.

Comparing parts-of-speech across texts

My first experiment compares & contrasts POS usage across texts. “To what degree are there significant differences between authors’ and genres’ usage of various parts-of-speech?”, I asked myself. “Do some works contain a greater number of nouns, verbs, and adjectives than others?” If so, then maybe this would be one way to differentiate works, and make it easier for the student to both select a work for reading as well as understand its content.

POS tagging

To answer these questions, I need to first identify the POS in a document. In the English language there are eight generally accepted POS: 1) nouns, 2) pronouns, 3) verbs, 4) adverbs, 5) adjectives, 6) prepositions, 7) conjunctions, and 8) interjections. Since I am a “lazy Perl programmer”, I sought a POS tagger and in the end settled on one called Lingua::TreeTagger — a full-featured wrapper around a command line driven application called Tree Tagger. Using a process called the Hidden Markov Model, TreeTagger systematically goes through a document and guesses the POS for a given word. According to the research, it can do this with 96% accuracy because is has accurately modeled the systems and patterns of the English language alluded to above. For example, it knows that sentences begin with capital letters and end with punctuation marks. It knows that capitalized words in the middle of sentences are the names of things and the names of things are nouns. It knows that most adverbs end in “ly”. It knows that adjectives often precede nouns. Similarly, it knows the word “the” also precedes nouns. In short, it has done its best to model the syntactical nature of a number of languages and it uses these models to denote the POS in a document.

For example, below is the first sentence from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Using Lingua::TreeTagger it is trivial to convert the sentence into the following XML snippet where each element contains two attributes (a lemma of the word in question and its POS) and the word itself:

<pos><w lemma="Four" type="CD">Four</w> <w lemma="score" type="NN">score</w> <w lemma="and" type="CC">and</w> <w lemma="seven" type="CD">seven</w> <w lemma="year" type="NNS">years</w> <w lemma="ago" type="RB">ago</w> <w lemma="our" type="PP$">our</w> <w lemma="father" type="NNS">fathers</w> <w lemma="bring" type="VVD">brought</w> <w lemma="forth" type="RB">forth</w> <w lemma="on" type="IN">on</w> <w lemma="this" type="DT">this</w> <w lemma="continent" type="NN">continent</w> <w lemma="," type=",">,</w> <w lemma="a" type="DT">a</w> <w lemma="new" type="JJ">new</w> <w lemma="nation" type="NN">nation</w> <w lemma="," type=",">,</w> <w lemma="conceive" type="VVN">conceived</w> <w lemma="in" type="IN">in</w> <w lemma="Liberty" type="NP">Liberty</w> <w lemma="," type=",">,</w> <w lemma="and" type="CC">and</w> <w lemma="dedicate" type="VVN">dedicated</w> <w lemma="to" type="TO">to</w> <w lemma="the" type="DT">the</w> <w lemma="proposition" type="NN">proposition</w> <w lemma="that" type="IN/that">that</w> <w lemma="all" type="DT">all</w> <w lemma="man" type="NNS">men</w> <w lemma="be" type="VBP">are</w> <w lemma="create" type="VVN">created</w> <w lemma="equal" type="JJ">equal</w> <w lemma="." type="SENT">.</w></pos>

Each POS is represented by a different code. TreeTagger uses as many as 58 codes. Some of the less obscure are: CD for cardinal number, CC for conjunction, NN for noun, NNS for plural noun, JJ for adjective, VBP for the verb to be in the third-person plural, etc.

Using a slightly different version of the same trivial code, Lingua::TreeTagger can output a delimited stream where each line represents a record and the delimited values are words, lemmas, and POS. The first ten records from the sentence above are displayed below:

Word Lemma POS
Four Four CD
score score NN
and and CC
seven seven CD
years year NNS
ago ago RB
our our PP$
fathers father NNS
brought bring VVD
forth forth RB

In the end I wrote a simple program — — taking a file name as input and streaming to standard output the tagged text in delimited form. Executing the code and saving the output to a file is simple:

$ bin/ corpus/walden.txt > pos/walden.pos

Consequently, I now have a way to quickly and easily denote the POS for each word in a given plain text file.

Counting and summarizing

Now that the POS of a given document are identified, the next step is to count and summarize them. Counting is something at which computers excel, and I wrote another program — — to do the work. The program’s input takes the following form: <all|simple|other|pronouns|nouns|verbs|adverbs|adjectives> <t|l> <filename>

The first command line argument denotes what POS will be output. “All” denotes the POS defined by Tree Tagger. “Simple” denotes Tree Tagger POS mapped to the eight generally accepted POS of the English language. The use of “nouns”, “pronouns”, “verbs”, “adverbs”, and “adjectives” tells the script to output the tokens (words) or lemmas in each of these classes.

The second command line argument tells the script whether to tally tokens (words) or lemmas when counting specific items.

The last argument is the file to read, and it is expected to be in the form of’s output.

Using to count the simple POS in Lincoln’s Address, the following output is generated:

$ simple t address.pos
noun 41
pronoun 29
adjective 21
verb 51
adverb 31
determiner 35
preposition 39
conjunction 11
interjection 0
symbol 2
punctuation 39
other 11

In other words, of the 272 words found in the Gettysburg Address 41 are nouns, 29 are pronouns, 21 are adjectives, etc.

Using a different from of the script, a list of all the pronouns in the Address, sorted by the number of occurances, can be generated:

$ pronouns t address.pos
we 10
it 5
they 3
who 3
us 3
our 2
what 2
their 1

In other words, the word “we” — a particular pronoun — was used 10 times in the Address.

Consequently, I now have tool enabling me to count the POS in a document.

Preliminary analysis

I now have the tools necessary to answer one of my initial questions, “Do some works contain a greater number of nouns, verbs, and adjectives than others?” To answer this I collected nine sets of documents for analysis:

  1. Henry David Thoreau’s Excursions (73,734 words; Flesch readability score: 57 )
  2. Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (106,486 words; Flesch readability score: 55 )
  3. Henry David Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (117,670 words; Flesch readability score: 56 )
  4. Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (119,625 words; Flesch readability score: 54 )
  5. Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (76,497 words; Flesch readability score: 58 )
  6. Jane Austen’s Emma (156,509 words; Flesch readability score: 60 )
  7. all of the works of Plato (1,162,460 words; Flesch readability score: 54 )
  8. all of the works of Aristotle (950,078 words; Flesch readability score: 50 )
  9. all of the works of Shakespeare (856,594 words; Flesch readability score: 72 )

Using I created POS files for each set of documents. I then used to output counts of the simple POS from each POS file. For example, after creating a POS file for Walden, I summarized the results and learned that it contains 23,272 nouns, 10,068 pronouns, 8,118 adjectives, etc.:

$ simple t walden.pos
noun 23272
pronoun 10068
adjective 8118
verb 17695
adverb 8289
determiner 13494
preposition 16557
conjunction 5921
interjection 37
symbol 997
punctuation 14377
other 2632

I then copied this information into a spreadsheet and calculated the relative percentage of each POS discovering that 19% of the words in Walden are nouns, 8% are pronouns, 7% are adjectives, etc. See the table below:

noun 19
pronoun 8
adjective 7
verb 15
adverb 7
determiner 11
preposition 14
conjunction 5
interjection 0
symbol 1
punctuation 12
other 2

I repeated this process for each of the nine sets of documents and tabulated them here:

POS Excursions Rivers Walden Sense Northanger Emma Aristotle Shakespeare Plato Average
noun 20 20 19 17 17 17 19 25 18 19
verb 14 14 15 16 16 17 15 14 15 15
punctuation 13 13 12 15 15 15 11 16 13 14
preposition 13 13 14 13 13 12 15 9 14 13
determiner 12 12 11 7 8 7 13 6 11 10
pronoun 7 7 8 12 11 11 5 11 7 9
adverb 6 6 7 8 8 8 6 6 6 7
adjective 7 7 7 5 6 6 7 5 6 6
conjunction 5 5 5 3 3 3 5 3 6 4
other 2 2 2 3 3 3 3 3 3 3
symbol 1 1 1 1 1 0 1 2 1 1
interjection 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Percentage and average of parts-of-speech usage in 9 works or corpra

The result was very surprising to me. Despite the wide range of document sizes, and despite the wide range of genres, the relative percentages of POS are very similar across all of the documents. The last column in the table represents the average percentage of each POS use. Notice how the each individual POS value differs very little from the average.

This analysis can be illustrated in a couple of ways. First, below are nine pie charts. Each slice of each pie represents a different POS. Notice how all the dark blue slices (nouns) are very similar in size. Notice how all the red slices (verbs), again, are very similar. The only noticeable exception is in Shakespeare where there is a greater number of nouns and pronouns (dark green).

Thoreau’s Excursions

Thoreau’s Walden

Thoreau’s Rivers

Austen’s Sense

Austen’s Northanger

Austen’s Emma

all of Plato

all of Aristotle

all of Shakespeare

The similarity across all the documents can be further illustrated with a line graph:

Across the X axis is each POS. Up and down the Y axis is the percentage of usage. Notice how the values for each POS in each document are closely clustered. Each set of documents uses relatively the same number of nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, etc.

Maybe such a relationship between POS is one of the patterns of well-written documents? Maybe it is representative of works standing the test of time? I don’t know, but I doubt I am the first person to make such an observation.


My initial questions were, “To what degree are there significant differences between authors’ and genres’ usage of various parts-of-speech?” and “Do some works contain a greater number of nouns, verbs, and adjectives than others?” Based on this foray and rudimentary analysis the answers are, “No, there are not significant differences, and no, works do not contain different number of nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc.”

Of course, such a conclusion is faulty without further calculations. I will quite likely commit an error of induction if I base my conclusions on a sample of only nine items. While it would require a greater amount of effort on my part, it is not beyond possibility for me to calculate the average POS usage for every item in my Alex Catalogue. I know there will be some differences — especially considering the items having gone through optical character recognition — but I do not know the degree of difference. Such an investigation is left for a later time.

Instead, I plan to pursue a different line of investigation. The current work examined how texts were constructed, but in actuality I am more interested in the meanings works express. I am interested in what they say more than how they say it. Such meanings may be gleaned not so much from gross POS measurements but rather the words used to denote each POS. For example, the following table lists the 10 most frequently used pronouns and the number of times they occur in four works. Notice the differences:

Walden Rivers Northanger Sense
I (1,809) it (1,314) her (1,554) her (2,500)
it (1,507) we (1,101) I (1,240) I (1,917)
my (725) his (834) she (1,089) it (1,711)
he (698) I (756) it (1,081) she (1,553)
his (666) our (677) you (906) you (1,158)
they (614) he (649) he (539) he (1,068)
their (452) their (632) his (524) his (1,007)
we (447) they (632) they (379) him (628)
its (351) its (487) my (342) my (598)
who (340) who (352) him (278) they (509)

While the lists are similar, they are characteristic of work from which they came. The first — Walden — is about an individual who lives on a lake. Notice the prominence of the word “I” and “my”. The second — Rivers — is written by the same author as the first but is about brothers who canoe down a river. Notice the higher occurrence of the word “we” and “our”. The later two works, both written by Jane Austin, are works with females as central characters. Notice how the words “her” and “she” appear in these lists but not in the former two. (Compare these lists of pronouns with the list from Lincoln’s Address and even more interesting things appear.) It looks as if there are patterns or trends to be measured here.

‘More later.

Visualizing co-occurrences with Protovis

This posting describes how I am beginning to visualize co-occurrences with a Javascript library called Protovis. Alternatively, I an trying to answer the question, “What did Henry David Thoreau say in the same breath when he used the word ‘walden’?”

“In the same breath”

Network diagrams are great ways to illustrate relationships. In such diagrams nodes represent some sort of entity, and lines connecting nodes represent some sort of relationship. Nodes clustered together and sharing many lines denote some kind of similarity. Conversely, nodes whose lines are long and not interconnected represent entities outside the norm or at a distance. Network diagrams are a way of visualizing complex relationships.

Are you familiar with the phrase “in the same breath”? It is usually used to denote the relationship between one or more ideas. “He mentioned both ‘love’ and ‘war’ in the same breath.” This is exactly one of the things I want to do with texts. Concordances provide this sort of functionality. Given a word or phrase, a concordance will find the query in a corpus and display the words on either side of it. A KWIK (key word in context) index, concordances make it easier to read how words or phrases are used in relationship with their surrounding words. The use of network diagrams seem like good idea to see — visualize — how words or phrases are used within the context of surrounding words.

Protovis is a Javascript charting library developed by the Stanford Visualization Group. Using Protovis a developer can create all sorts of traditional graphs (histograms, box plots, line charts, pie charts, scatter plots) through a relatively easy-to-learn API (application programmer interface). One of the graphs Protovis supports is an interactive simulation of network diagrams called “force-directed layouts“. After experiencing some of the work done by a few of my colleagues (“Thank you Michael Clark and Ed Summers“), I wondered whether or not network diagrams could be used to visualize co-occurrences in texts. After discovering Protovis, I decided to try to implement something along these lines.


The implementation of the visualization requires the recursive creation of a term matrix. Given a word (or regular expression), find the query in a text (or corpus). Identify and count the d most frequently used words within b number of characters. Repeat this process d times with each co-occurrence. For example, suppose the text is Walden by Henry David Thoreau, the query is “spring”, d is 5, and b is 50. The implementation finds all the occurrences of the word “spring”, gets the text 50 characters on either side of it, finds the 5 most commonly used words in those characters, and repeats the process for each of those words. The result is the following matrix:

spring day morning first winter
day days night every today
morning spring say day early
first spring last yet though
winter summer pond like snow

Thus, the most common co-occurrences for the word “spring” are “day”, “morning”, “first”, and “winter”. Each of these co-occurrences are recursively used to find more co-occurrences. In this example, the word “spring” co-occurs with times of day and seasons. These words then co-occur with more times of day and more seasons. Similarities and patterns being to emerge. Depending on the complexity of a writer’s sentence structure, the value of b (“breath”) may need to be increased or decreased. As the value of d (“detail”) is increased or decreased so does the number of co-occurrences to return.

Once this matrix is constructed, Protovis requires it to be converted into a simple JSON (Javascript Object Notation) data structure. In this example, “spring” points to “day”, “morning”, “first”, and “winter”. “Day” points to “days”, “night”, “every”, and “today”. Etc. As terms point to multiples of other terms, a network diagram is manifested, and the magic of Protovis is put to work. See the following illustration:

spring in walden
“spring” in Walden

It is interesting enough to see the co-occurrences of any given word in a text, but it is even more interesting to compare the co-occurrences between texts. Below are a number of visualizations from Thoreau’s Walden. Notice how the word “walden” frequently co-occurs with the words “pond”, “water”, and “woods”. This makes a lot of sense because Walden Pond is a pond located in the woods. Notice how the word “fish” is associated with “pond”, “fish”, and “fishing”. Pretty smart, huh?

walden in walden
“walden” in Walden
fish in walden
“fish” in Walden
woodchuck in walden
“woodchuck” in Walden
woods in walden
“woods” in Walden

Compare these same words with the co-occurrences in a different work by Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Given the same inputs the outputs are significantly different. For example, notice the difference in co-occurrences given the word “woodchuck”.

walden in rivers
“walden” in Rivers
fish in rivers
“fish” in Rivers
woodchuck in walden
“woodchuck” in Rivers
woods in rivers
“woods” in Rivers

Give it a try

Give it a try for yourself. I have written three CGI scripts implementing the things outlined above:

In each implementation you are given the opportunity to input your own queries, define the “size of the breath”, and the “level of detail”. The result is an interactive network diagram visualizing the most frequent co-occurrences of a given term.

The root of the Perl source code is located at

Implications for librarianship

The visualization of co-occurrences obviously has implications for text mining and the digital humanities, but it also has implications for the field of librarianship.

Given the current environment where data and information abound in digital form, libraries have found themselves in an increasingly competitive environment. What are libraries to do? Lest they become marginalized, librarians can not rest on their “public good” laurels. Merely providing access to information is not good enough. Everybody feels as if they have plenty of access to information. What is needed are methods and tools for making better use of the data and information they acquire. Implementing text mining and visualization interfaces are one way to accomplish that goal within context of online library services. Do a search in the “online catalog”. Create a subset of interesting content. Click a button to read the content from a distance. Provide ways to analyze and summarize the content thus saving the time of the reader.

Us librarians have to do something differently. Think like an entrepreneur. Take account of your resources. Examine the environment. Innovate and repeat.

Illustrating IDCC 2010

This posting illustrates the “tweets” assigned to the hash tag #idcc10.

I more or less just got back from the 6th International Data Curation Conference that took place in Chicago (Illinois). Somewhere along the line I got the idea of applying digital humanities computing techniques against the conference’s Twitter feed — hash tag #idcc10. After installing a Perl module implementing the Twitter API (Net::Twitter::Lite), I wrote a quick hack, fed the results to Wordle, and got the following word cloud:


What sorts of conclusions can you make based on the content of the graphic?

The output static and rudimentary. What I’d really like to do is illustrate the tweets over time. Get the oldest tweets. Illustrate the result. Get the newer tweets. Update the illustration. Repeat for all the tweets. Done. In the end I see some sort of moving graphic where significant words represent bubbles. The size of the bubbles grow in size depending on number of times they are used. Each bubble is attached to other bubbles with a line representing associations. The color of the bubbles might represent parts of speech. Using this technique a person could watch the ebb and flow of the virtual conversation.

For a good time time, you can also download the Perl script used to create the textual output. Called, it is only forty-three lines long and many of those lines are comments.

Text mining Charles Dickens

This posting outlines how a person can do a bit of text mining against three works by Charles Dickens using a set of two Perl modules — Lingua::EN::Ngram and Lingua::Concordance.


I recently wrote a Perl module called Lingua::EN::Ngram. Its primary purpose is to count all the ngrams (two-word phrases, three-word phrases, n-word phrases, etc.) in a given text. For two-word phrases (bigrams) it will order the output according to a statistical probability (t-score). Given a number of texts, it will count the ngrams common across the corpus. As of version 0.02 it supports non-ASCII characters making it possible to correctly read and parse a greater number of Romantic languages — meaning it correctly interprets characters with diacritics. Lingua::EN::Ngram is available from CPAN.


Concordances are just about the oldest of textual analysis tools. Originally developed in the Late Middle Ages to analyze the Bible, they are essentially KWIC (keyword in context) indexes used to search and display ngrams within the greater context of a work. Given a text (such as a book or journal article) and a query (regular expression), Lingua::Concordance can display the occurrences of the query in the text as well as map their locations across the entire text. In a previous blog posting I used Lingua::Concordance to compare & contrast the use of the phrase “good man” in the works of Aristotle, Plato, and Shakespeare. Lingua::Concordance too is available from CPAN.

Charles Dickens

In keeping with the season, I wondered about Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. How often is the word “Christmas” used in the work and where? In terms of size, how does A Christmas Carol compare to some of other Dickens’s works? Are there sets of commonly used words or phrases between those texts?

Answering the first question was relatively easy. The word “Christmas” is occurs eighty-six (86) times, and twenty-two (22) of those occurrences are in the the first ten percent (10%) of the story. The following bar chart illustrates these facts:

bar chart

The length of books (or just about any text) measured in pages in ambiguous, at best. A much more meaningful measure is number of words. The following table lists the sizes, in words, of three Dickens stories:

story size in words
A Christmas Carol 28,207
Oliver Twist 156,955
David Copperfield 355,203

For some reason I thought A Christmas Carol was much longer.

A long time ago I calculated the average size (in words) of the books in my Alex Catalogue. Once I figured this out, I discovered I could describe items in the collection based on relative sizes. The following “dial” charts bring the point home. Each one of the books is significantly different in size:

christmas carol
A Christmas Carol
oliver twist
Oliver Twist
david copperfield
David Copperfield

If a person were pressed for time, then which story would you be able to read?

After looking for common ngrams between texts, I discovered that “taken with a violent fit of” appears both David Copperfield and A Christmas Carol. Interesting!? Moreover, the phrase “violent fit” appears on all three works. Specifically, characters in these three Dickens stories have violent fits of laughter, crying, trembling, and coughing. By concatenating the stories together and applying concordancing methods I see there are quite a number of violent things in the three stories:

  n such breathless haste and violent agitation, as seemed to betoken so
  ood-night, good-night!' The violent agitation of the girl, and the app
  sberne) entered the room in violent agitation. 'The man will be taken,
  o understand that, from the violent and sanguinary onset of Oliver Twi
  one and all, to entertain a violent and deeply-rooted antipathy to goi
  eep a little register of my violent attachments, with the date, durati
  cal laugh, which threatened violent consequences. 'But, my dear,' said
  in general, into a state of violent consternation. I came into the roo
  artly to keep pace with the violent current of her own thoughts: soon 
  ts and wiles have brought a violent death upon the head of one worth m
   There were twenty score of violent deaths in one long minute of that 
  id the woman, making a more violent effort than before; 'the mother, w
   as it were, by making some violent effort to save himself from fallin
  behind. This was rather too violent exercise to last long. When they w
   getting my chin by dint of violent exertion above the rusty nails on 
  en who seem to have taken a violent fancy to him, whether he will or n
  peared, he was taken with a violent fit of trembling. Five minutes, te
  , when she was taken with a violent fit of laughter; and after two or 
  he immediate precursor of a violent fit of crying. Under this impressi
  and immediately fell into a violent fit of coughing: which delighted T
  of such repose, fell into a violent flurry, tossing their wild arms ab
   and accompanying them with violent gesticulation, the boy actually th
  ght I really must have laid violent hands upon myself, when Miss Mills
   arm tied up, these men lay violent hands upon him -- by doing which, 
   every aggravation that her violent hate -- I love her for it now -- c
   work himself into the most violent heats, and deliver the most wither
  terics were usually of that violent kind which the patient fights and 
   me against the donkey in a violent manner, as if there were any affin
   to keep down by force some violent outbreak. 'Let me go, will you,--t
  hands with me - which was a violent proceeding for him, his usual cour
  en.' 'Well, sir, there were violent quarrels at first, I assure you,' 
  revent the escape of such a violent roar, that the abused Mr. Chitling
  t gradually resolved into a violent run. After completely exhausting h
  , on which he ever showed a violent temper or swore an oath, was this 
  ullen, rebellious spirit; a violent temper; and an untoward, intractab
  fe of Oliver Twist had this violent termination or no. CHAPTER III REL
  in, and seemed to presage a violent thunder-storm, when Mr. and Mrs. B
  f the theatre, are blind to violent transitions and abrupt impulses of
  ming into my house, in this violent way? Do you want to rob me, or to

These observations simply beg other questions. Is violence a common theme in Dickens works? What other adjectives are used to a greater or lesser degree in Dickens works? How does the use of these adjectives differ from other authors of the same time period or within the canon of English literature?


The combination of the Internet, copious amounts of freely available full text, and ubiquitous as well as powerful desktop computing, it is now possible to analyze texts in ways that was not feasible twenty years ago. While the application of computing techniques against texts dates back to at least Father Busa’s concordance work in the 1960s, it has only been in the last decade that digital humanities has come into its own. The application of digital humanities to library work offers great opportunities for the profession. Their goals are similar and their tools are complementary. From my point of view, their combination is a marriage made in heaven.

A .zip file of the texts and scripts used to do the analysis is available for you to download and experiment with yourself. Enjoy.

Where in the world are windmills, my man Friday, and love?

This posting describes how a Perl module named Lingua::Concordance allows the developer to illustrate where in the continum of a text words or phrases appear and how often.

Windmills, my man Friday, and love

When it comes to Western literature and windmills, we often think of Don Quiote. When it comes to “my man Friday” we think of Robinson Crusoe. And when it comes to love we may very well think of Romeo and Juliet. But I ask myself, “How often do these words and phrases appear in the texts, and where?” Using digital humanities computing techniques I can literally illustrate the answers to these questions.


Lingua::Concordance is a Perl module (available locally and via CPAN) implementing a simple key word in context (KWIC) index. Given a text and a query as input, a concordance will return a list of all the snippets containing the query along with a few words on either side. Such a tool enables a person to see how their query is used in a literary work.

Given the fact that a literary work can be measured in words, and given then fact that the number of times a particular word or phrase can be counted in a text, it is possible to illustrate the locations of the words and phrases using a bar chart. One axis represents a percentage of the text, and the other axis represents the number of times the words or phrases occur in that percentage. Such graphing techniques are increasingly called visualization — a new spin on the old adage “A picture is worth a thousand words.”

In a script named I answered such questions. Specifically, I used it to figure out where in Don Quiote windmills are mentiond. As you can see below they are mentioned only 14 times in the entire novel, and the vast majority of the time they exist in the first 10% of the book.

  $ ./ ./don.txt 'windmill'
  Snippets from ./don.txt containing windmill:
	* d over by the sails of the windmill, Sancho tossed in the blanket, the
	* thing is ignoble; the very windmills are the ugliest and shabbiest of 
	* liest and shabbiest of the windmill kind. To anyone who knew the count
	* ers say it was that of the windmills; but what I have ascertained on t
	* e in sight of thirty forty windmills that there are on plain, and as s
	* e there are not giants but windmills, and what seem to be their arms a
	* t most certainly they were windmills and not giants he was going to at
	*  about, for they were only windmills? and no one could have made any m
	* his will be worse than the windmills," said Sancho. "Look, senor; thos
	* ar by the adventure of the windmills that your worship took to be Bria
	*  was seen when he said the windmills were giants, and the monks' mules
	*  with which the one of the windmills, and the awful one of the fulling
  A graph illustrating in what percentage of ./don.txt windmill is located:
	 10 (11) #############################
	 20 ( 0) 
	 30 ( 0) 
	 40 ( 0) 
	 50 ( 0) 
	 60 ( 2) #####
	 70 ( 1) ##
	 80 ( 0) 
	 90 ( 0) 
	100 ( 0)

If windmills are mentioned so few times, then why do they play so prominently in people’s minds when they think of Don Quiote? To what degree have people read Don Quiote in its entirity? Are windmills as persistent a theme throughout the book as many people may think?

What about “my man Friday”? Where does he occur in Robinson Crusoe? Using the concordance features of the Alex Catalogue of Electronic Texts we can see that a search for the word Friday returns 185 snippets. Mapping those snippets to percentages of the text results in the following bar chart:

bar chart
Friday in Robinson Crusoe

Obviously the word Friday appears towards the end of the novel, and as anybody who has read the novel knows, it is a long time until Robinson Crusoe actually gets stranded on the island and meets “my man Friday”. A concordance helps people understand this fact.

What about love in Romeo and Juliet? How often does the word occur and where? Again, a search for the word love returns quite a number of snippets (175 to be exact), and they are distributed throughout the text as illustrated below:

bar chart
love in Romeo and Juliet

“Maybe love is a constant theme of this particular play,” I state sarcastically, and “Is there less love later in the play?”

Digital humanities and librarianship

Given the current environment, where full text literature abounds, digital humanities and librarianship are a match made in heaven. Our library “discovery systems” are essencially indexes. They enable people to find data and information in our collections. Yet find is not an end in itself. In fact, it is only an activity at the very beginning of the learning process. Once content is found it is then read in an attempt at understanding. Counting words and phrases, placing them in the context of an entire work or corpus, and illustrating the result is one way this understanding can be accomplished more quickly. Remember, “Save the time of the reader.”

Integrating digital humanities computing techniques, like concordances, into library “discovery systems” represent a growth opportunity for the library profession. If we don’t do this on our own, then somebody else will, and we will end up paying money for the service. Climb the learning curve now, or pay exorbitant fees later. The choice is ours.

Ngrams, concordances, and librarianship

This posting describes how the extraction of ngrams and the implementation of concordances are integrated into the Alex Catalogue of Electronic Texts. Given the increasing availability of full-text content in libraries, the techniques described here could easily be incorporated into traditional library “discovery systems” and/or catalogs, if and only if the library profession were to shift its definition of what it means to practice librarianship.


During the past couple of weeks, in fits of creativity, one of the things I spent some of my time on was a Perl module named Lingua::EN::Bigram. At version 0.03, it now supports not only bigrams, trigrams, and quadgrams (two-, three-, and four-word phrases, respectively), but also ngrams — multi-word phrases of an arbitrary length.

Given this enhanced functionality, and through the use of a script called, I learned that the 10 most frequently used 5-word phrases and the number of times they occur in Henry David Thoreau’s Walden seem to surround spacial references:

  • a quarter of a mile (6)
  • i have no doubt that (6)
  • as if it were a (6)
  • the other side of the (5)
  • the surface of the earth (4)
  • the greater part of the (4)
  • in the midst of a (4)
  • in the middle of the (4)
  • in the course of the (3)
  • two acres and a half (3)

Whereas the same process applied to Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers returns lengths and references to flowing water, mostly:

  • a quarter of a mile (8)
  • on the bank of the (7)
  • the surface of the water (6)
  • the middle of the stream (6)
  • as if it were the (5)
  • as if it were a (4)
  • is for the most part (4)
  • for the most part we (4)
  • the mouth of this river (4)
  • in the middle of the (4)

While not always as clear cut as the examples outlined above, the extraction and counting of ngrams usually supports the process of “distant reading” — a phrase coined by Franco Moretti in Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History (2007) to denote the counting, graphing, and mapping of literary texts. With so much emphasis on reading in libraries, I ask myself, “Ought the extraction of ngrams be applied to library applications?”


Concordances are literary tools used to evaluate texts. Dating back to as early as the 12th or 13th centuries, they were first used to study religious materials. Concordances take many forms, but they usually list all the words in a text, the number of times each occurs, and most importantly, places where each word within the context of its surrounding text — a key-word in context (KWIC) index. Done by hand, the creation of concordances is tedious and time consuming, and therefore very expensive. Computers make the work of creating a concordance almost trivial.

Each of the full text items in the Alex Catalogue of Electronic Texts (close to 14,000 of them) is accompanied with a concordance. They support the following functions:

  • list of all the words in the text starting with a given letter and the number of times each occurs
  • list the most frequently used words in the text and the number of times each occurs
  • list the most frequently used ngrams in a text and the number of times each occurs
  • display individual items from the lists above in a KWIC format
  • enable the student or scholar to search the text for arbitrary words or phrases (regular expressions) and have them displayed in a KWIC format

Such functionality allows people to answer many questions quickly and easily, such as:

  • Does Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn contain many words beginning with the letter z, and if so, how many times and in what context?
  • To what extent does Aristotle’s Metaphysics use the word “good”, and maybe just as importantly, how is the word “evil” used in the same context?
  • In Jack London’s Call of the Wild the phrase “man in the red sweater” is one of the more frequently used. Who was this man and what role does he play in the story?
  • Compared to Shakespeare, to what extent does Plato discuss love, and how do the authors’ expositions differ?

The counting of words, the enumeration of ngrams, and the use of concordances are not intended to short-circuit traditional literary studies. Instead, they are intended to supplement and enhance the process. Traditional literary investigations, while deep and nuanced, are not scalable. A person is not able to read, compare & contrast, and then comprehend the essence of all of Shakespeare, all of Plato, and all of Charles Dickens through “close reading”. An individual simply does not have enough time. In the words of Gregory Crane, “What do you do with a million books?” Distant reading, akin to the proceses outlined above, make it easier to compare & contrast large corpora, discover patterns, and illustrate trends. Moreover, such processes are reproducible, less prone to subjective interpretation, and not limited to any particular domain. The counting, graphing, and mapping of literary texts makes a lot of sense.

The home page for the concordances is complete with a number of sample texts. Alternatively, you can search the Alex Catalogue and find an item on your own.

Library “discovery systems” and/or catalogs

The amount of full text content available to libraries has never been greater than it is today. Millions of books have been collectively digitized through Project Gutenberg, the Open Content Alliance, and the Google Books Project. There are thousands of open access journals with thousands upon thousands of freely available scholarly articles. There are an ever-growing number of institutional repositories both subject-based as well as institutional-based. These too are rich with full text content. None of this even considers the myriad of grey literature sites like blogs and mailing list archives.

Library “discovery systems” and/or catalogs are designed to organize and provide access to the materials outlined above, but they need to do more. First of all, the majority of the profession’s acquisitions processes assume collections need to be paid for. With the increasing availability of truly free content on the Web, greater emphasis needs to be placed on harvesting content as opposed to purchasing or licensing it. Libraries are expected to build collections designed to stand the test of time. Brokering access to content through licensing agreements — one of the current trends in librarianship — will only last as long as the money lasts. Licensing content makes libraries look like cost centers and negates the definition of “collections”.

Second, library “discovery systems” and/or catalogs assume an environment of sacristy. They assume the amount of accessible, relevant data and information needed by students, teachers, and researchers is relatively small. Thus, a great deal of the profession’s efforts go into enabling people to find their particular needle in one particular haystack. In reality, current indexing technology makes the process of finding relavent materials trivial, almost intelligent. Implemented correctly, indexers return more content than most people need, and consequently they continue to drink from the proverbial fire hose.

Let’s turn these lemons into lemonade. Let’s redirect some of the time and money spent on purchasing licenses towards the creation of full text collections by systematic harvesting. Let’s figure out how to apply “distant reading” techniques to the resulting collections thus making them, literally, more useful and more understandable. These redirections represent a subtle change in the current direction of librarianship. At the same time, they retain the core principles of the profession, namely: collection, organization, preservation, and dissemination. The result of such a shift will result in an increased expertise on our part, the ability to better control our own destiny, and contribute to the overall advancement of our profession.

What can we do to make these things come to fruition?

Lingua::EN::Bigram (version 0.02)

I have written and uploaded to CPAN version 0.02 of my Perl module Lingua::EN::Bigram. From the README file:

This module is designed to: 1) pull out all of the two-, three-, and four-word phrases in a given text, and 2) list these phrases according to their frequency. Using this module is it possible to create lists of the most common phrases in a text as well as order them by their probable occurrence, thus implying significance. This process is useful for the purposes of textual analysis and “distant reading”.

Using this module I wrote a script called Feed it a plain text file, and it will return the top 10 most significant bigrams (as calculated by T-Score) as well as the top 10 most common trigrams and quadgrams. For example, here is the output of when Henry David Thoreau’s Walden is input:

  Bi-grams (T-Score, count, bigram)
  4.54348783312048  22  one day  
  4.35133234596553  19  new england  
  3.705427371426    14  walden pond  
  3.66575742655033  14  one another  
  3.57857056272537  13  many years  
  3.55592136768501  13  every day  
  3.46339791276118  12  fair haven  
  3.46101939872834  12  years ago  
  3.38519781332654  12  every man  
  3.29818626191729  11  let us  
  Tri-grams (count, trigram)
  41  in the woods
  40  i did not
  28  i do not
  28  of the pond
  27  as well as
  27  it is a
  26  part of the
  25  that it was
  25  as if it
  25  out of the
  Quad-grams (count, quadgram)
  20  for the most part
  16  from time to time
  15  as if it were
  14  in the midst of
  11  at the same time
   9  the surface of the
   9  i think that i
   8  in the middle of
   8  worth the while to
   7  as if they were

The whole thing gets more interesting when you compare that output to another of Thoreau’s works — A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers:

  Bi-grams (T-Score, count, bi-gram)
  4.62683939320543  22  one another  
  4.57637831535376  21  new england  
  4.08356124174142  17  let us  
  3.86858364314677  15  new hampshire  
  3.43311180449584  12  one hundred  
  3.31196701774012  11  common sense  
  3.25007069543896  11  can never  
  3.15955504269006  10  years ago  
  3.14821552996352  10  human life  
  3.13793008615654  10  told us  
  Tri-grams (count, tri-gram)
  41  as well as
  38  of the river
  34  it is a
  30  there is a
  30  one of the
  28  it is the
  27  as if it
  26  it is not
  26  if it were
  24  it was a
  Quad-grams (count, quad-gram)
  21  for the most part
  20  as if it were
  17  from time to time
   9  on the bank of
   8  the bank of the
   8  in the midst of
   8  a quarter of a
   8  the middle of the
   8  quarter of a mile
   7  at the same time

Ask yourself, “Are their similarities between the outputs? How about differences? Do you notice any patterns or anomalies? What sorts of new discoveries might be made if where applied to the entire corpus of Thoreau’s works? How might the output be different if a second author’s works were introduced?” Such questions are the core of digital humanities research. With the increasing availability of full text content in library collections, such are the questions the library profession can help answer if the profession were to expand it’s definition of “service”.

Search and retrieve are not the pressing problems to solved. People can find more data and information than they know what to do with. Instead, the pressing problems surround use and understanding. Lingua::EN::Bigram is an example of how these newer and more pressing problems can be addressed. The module is available for downloading (locally as well as from CPAN). Also for your perusal is

Digital Humanities 2010: A Travelogue

I was fortunate enough to be able to attend a conference called Digital Humanities 2010 (London, England) between July 4th and 10th. This posting documents my experiences and take-aways. In a sentence, the conference provided a set of much needed intellectual stimulation and challenges as well as validated the soundness of my current research surrounding the Great Books.

lunch castle castle

Pre-conference activities

All day Monday, July 5, I participated in a workshop called Text mining in the digital humanities facilitated by Marco Büchler, et al. of the University of Leipzig. A definition of “e-humanities” was given, “The application of computer science to do qualitative evaluation of texts without the use of things like TEI.” I learned that graphing texts illustrates concepts quickly — “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Also, I learned I should consider creating co-occurrence graphs — pictures illustrating what words co-occur with a given word. Finally, according to the Law of Least Effort, the strongest content words in a text are usually the ones that do not occur most frequently, nor the ones occurring the least, but rather the words occurring somewhere in between. A useful quote includes, “Text mining allows one to search even without knowing any search terms.” Much of this workshop’s content came from the eAQUA Project.

On Tuesday I attended the first half of a THATCamp led by Dan Cohen (George Mason University) where I learned THATCamps are expected to be: 1) fun, 2) productive, and 3) collegial. The whole thing came off as a “bar camp” for scholarly conferences. As a part of the ‘Camp I elected to participate in the Developer’s Challenge and submitted an entry called “How ‘great’ is this article?“. My hack compared texts from the English Women’s Journal to the Great Books Coefficient in order to determine “greatness”. My entry did not win. Instead the prize went to Patrick Juola with honorable mentions going to Loretta Auvil, Marco Büchler, and Thomas Eckart.

Wednesday morning I learned more about text mining in a workshop called Introduction to text analysis using JiTR and Voyeur led by Stéfan Sinclair (McMaster University) and Geoffrey Rockwell (University of Alberta). The purpose of the workshop was “to learn how to integrate text analysis into a scholar’s/researcher’s workflow.” More specifically, we learned how to use a tool called Voyeur, an evolution of the TAPoR. The “kewlest” thing I learned was the definition of word density, (U / W) 1000, where U is the total number of unique words in a text and W is the total number of words in a text. The closer the result is to 1000 the richer and more dense a text is. In general, denser documents are more difficult to read. (For a good time, I wrote — a program to compute density given an arbitrary plain text file.)

In keeping with the broad definition of humanities, I was “seduced” in the afternoon by listening to recordings of a website called CHARM (Center for History and Analysis of Recorded Music). The presentation described and presented digitized classical music from the very beginnings of recorded music. All apropos since the BBC was located just across the street from King’s College where the conference took place. When this was over we retired to the deck for tea and cake. There I learned the significant recording time differences between 10″ and 12″ 78/rpm records. Like many mediums, the recording artist needed to make accommodations accordingly.

me abbey abbey

Plenty of presentations

The conference officially began Wednesday evening and ended Saturday afternoon. According to my notes, I attended at many as eighteen sessions. (Wow!?) Listed below are summaries of most of the ones I attended:

  • Charles Henry (Council on Library and Information Resources) and Hold up a mirror – In this keynote presentation Henry compared & contrasted manifestations (oral, written, and digital) of Homer, Beowulf, and a 9-volume set of religious ceremonies compiled in the 18th century. He then asked the question, “How can machines be used to capture the interior of the working mind?” Or, in my own words, “How can computers be used to explore the human condition?” The digital versions of the items listed above were used as example answers, and a purpose of the conference was to address this question in other ways. He said, “There are many types of performance, preservation, and interpretation.”
  • Patrick Juola (Duquesne University) and Distant reading and mapping genre space via conjecture-based distance measures – Juola began by answering the question, “What do you do with a million books?”, and enumerated a number of things: 1) search, 2) summarize, 3) sample, and 4) visualize. These sorts of proceses against texts is increasingly called “distant reading” and is contrasted with the more traditional “close reading”. He then went on to describe his “Conjecturator” — a system where assertions are randomly generated and then evaluated. He demonstrated this technique against a set of Victorian novels. His presentation was not dissimilar to the presentation he gave at digital humanities conference in Chicago the previous year.
  • Jan Rybicki (Pedagogical University) and Deeper delta across genres and language: Do we really need the most frequent words? – In short Rybicki said, “Doing simple frequency counts [to do authorship analysis] does not work very well for all languages, and we are evaluating ‘deeper deltas'” — an allusion to the work for J.F. Burrows and D.L. Hoover. Specifically, using a “moving window” of stop words he looked for similarities in authorship between a number of texts and believed his technique has proved to be more or less successful.
  • David Holms (College of New Jersey) and The Diary of a public man: A Case study in traditional and non-traditional author attribution – Soon after the civil war a book called The Diary Of A Public Man was written by an anonymous author. Using stylometric techniques, Holms asserts the work really was written as a diary and was authored by William Hurlbert.
  • David Hoover (New York University) and Teasing out authorship and style with t-tests and zeta – Hoover used T-tests and Zeta tests to validated whether or not a particular author finished a particular novel from the 1800s. Using these techniques he was successfully able to illustrate writing styles and how they changed dramatically between one chapter in the book and another chapter. He asserted that such analysis would have been extremely difficult through rudimentary casual reading.
  • Martin Holmes (University of Victoria) and Using the universal similarity metric to map correspondences between witnesses – Holmes described how he was comparing the similarity between texts through the use of a compression algorithm. Compress texts. Compare their resulting lengths. The closer to lengths the greater the similarity. The process works for a variety of file types, languages, and when there there is no syntactical knowledge.
  • Dirk Roorda (Data Archiving and Networked Services) and The Ecology of longevity: The Relevance of evolutionary theory for digital preservation – Roorda drew parallels between biology and preservation. For example, biological systems use and retain biological characteristics. Preservation systems re-use and thus preserve content. Biological systems make copies and evolve. Preservation can be about migrating formats forward thus creating different forms. Biological systems employ sexual selections. “Look how attractive I am.” Repositories or digital items displaying “seals of approval” function similarly. Finally, he went on to describe how these principles could be integrated in a preservation system where fees are charged for storing content and providing access to it. He emphasized such systems would not necessarily be designed to handle intellectual property rights.
  • Lewis Ulman (Ohio State University) & Melanie Schlosser (Ohio State University) and The Specimen case and the garden: Preserving complex digital objects, sustaining digital projects – Ulman and Schlosser described a dichotomy manifesting itself in digital libraries. On one hand there is a practical need for digital library systems to be similar between each other because “boutique” systems are very expensive to curate and maintain. At the same time specialized digital library applications are needed because they represent the frontiers of research. How to accomodate both, that was their question. “No one group (librarians, information technologist, faculty) will be able to do preservation alone. They need to work together. Specifically, they need to connect, support, and curate.”
  • George Buchanan (City University) and Digital libraries of scholarly editions – Similar to Ulman/Schlosse above, Buchanan said, “It is difficult to provide library services against scholarly editions because each edition is just too much different from the next to create a [single] system.” He advocated the Greenstone digital library system.

book ice cream beer

  • Joe Raben (Queens College of the City University of New York) and Humanities computing in an age of social change – In this presentation, given after being honored with the community’s Busa Award, Raben first outlined the history of the digital humanities. It included the work done by Father Busa who collaborated with IBM in the 1960s to create a concordance against some of Thomas Aquinas‘s work. It included a description of a few seminal meetings and the formulation of the Computing in the Humanities journal. He alluded to “machine readable texts” — a term which is no longer in vogue but reminded me of “machine readable cataloging” (MARC) and how the library profession has not moved on. He advocated for a humanities wiki where ideas and objects could be shared. It sounded a lot like the website. He discussed the good work of a Dante project hosted at Princeton University, and I was dismayed because Notre Dame’s significant collection of Dante materials has not played a role in this particular digital library. A humanist through and through, he said, “Computers are increasingly controlling our lives and the humanities have not effected how we live in the same way.” To this I say, computers represent close trends compared to the more engrained values of the human condition. The former are quick to change, the later change oh so very slowly yet they are more pervasive. Compared to computer technology, I believe the humanists have had more long-lasting effects on the human condition.
  • Lynne Siemens (University of Victoria) and A Tale of two cities: Implications of the similarities in collaborative approaches within the digital libraries and digital humanities communities – Siemans reported on the results of survey in an effort to determine how and why digital librarians and digital humanists collaborate. “There are cultural differences between librarians and academics, but teams [including both] are necessary. The solution is to assume the differences rather than the similarities. Everybody brings something to the team.”
  • Fenella France (Library of Congress) and Challenges of linking digital heritage scientific data with scholarly research: From navigation to politics – France described some of the digital scanning processes of the Library of Congress, and some the consequences. For example, their technique allowed archivists to discover how Thomas Jefferson wrote, crossed out, and then replaced the word “subjects” with “citizens” in a draft of the Declaration of Independence. A couple of interesting quotes included, “We get into the optical archeology of the documents”, and “Digitization is access, not preservation.”
  • Joshua Sternfeld (National Endowment for the Humanities) and Thinking archivally: Search and metadata as building blocks for a new digital historiography – Sternfeld advocated for different sets of digital library evaluation. “There is a need for more types of reviews against digital resource materials. We need a method for doing: selection, search, and reliability… The idea of provenance — the order of document creation — needs to be implemented in the digital realm.”
  • Wendell Piez (Mulberry Technologies, Inc.) and Towards hermeneutic markup: An Architectural outline – Hermeneutic markup are annotations against a text that are purely about interpretation. “We don’t really have the ability to do hermeneutic markup… Existing schemas are fine, but every once in a while exceptions need to be made and such things break the standard.” Numerous times Piez alluded to the “overlap problem” — the inability to demarcate something crossing the essentially strict hierarchal nature of XML elements. Textual highlighting is a good example. Piez gave a few examples of how the overlap problem might be resolved and how hermeneutic markup may be achieved.
  • Jane Hunter (University of Queensland) and The Open Annotation collaboration: A Data model to support sharing and interoperability of scholarly annotations – Working with a number of other researchers, Hunter said, “The problem is that there is an extraordinarily wide variety of tools, lack of consistency, no standards, and no sharable interoperability when it comes to Web-based annotation.” Their goal is to create a data model to enable such functionality. While the model is not complete, it is being based on RDF, SANE, and OATS. See
  • Susan Brown (University of Alberta and University of Guelph) and How do you visualize a million links? – Brown described a number of ways she is exploring visualization techniques. Examples included link graphs, tag clouds, bread board searches, cityscapes, and something based on “six degrees of separation”.
  • Lewis Lancaster (University of California, Berkeley) and From text to image to analysis: Visualization of Chinese Buddhist canon – Lancaster has been doing research against a (huge) set of Korean glyphs for quite a number of years. Just like other writing techniques, the glyphs change over time. Through the use digital humanities computing techniques, he has been able to discover much more quickly patterns and bigrams that he was not able to discover previously. “We must present our ideas as images because language is too complex and takes too much time to ingest.”

church gate alley


In the spirit of British fast food, I have a number of take-aways. First and foremost, I learned that my current digital humanities research into the Great Books is right on target. It asks questions of the human condition and tries to answer them through the use of computing techniques. This alone was the worth the total cost of my attendance.

Second, as a relative outsider to the community, I percieved a pervasive us versus them mentality being described. Us digital humanists and those traditional humanists. Us digital humanists and those computer programmers and systems administrators. Us digital humanists and those librarians and archivists. Us digital humanists and those academic bureaucrats. If you consider yourself a digital humanist, then please don’t take this observation the wrong way. I believe communities inherently do this as a matter of fact. It is a process used to define one’s self. The heart of much of this particular differenciation seems to be yet another example of C.P. Snow‘s The Two Cultures. As a humanist myself, I identify with the perception. I think the processes of art and science complement each other, not contradict nor conflict. A balance of both are needed in order to adequantly create a cosmos out of the apparent chaos of our existance — a concept I call arscience.

Third, I had ample opportunities to enjoy myself as a tourist. The day I arrived I played frisbee disc golf with a few “cool dudes” at Lloyd Park in Croydon. On the Monday I went to the National Theater and saw Welcome to Thebes — a depressing tragedy where everybody dies. On the Tuesday I took in Windsor Castle. Another day I carried my Culver Citizen newspaper to have its photograph taken in front of Big Ben. Throughout my time there I experienced interesting food, a myriad of languages & cultures, and the almost overwhelming size of London. Embarassingly, I had forgotten how large the city really is.

Finally, I actually enjoyed reading the formally published conference abstracts — all three pounds and 400 pages of it. It was thorough, complete, and even included an author index. More importantly, I discovered more than a few quotes supporting an idea for library systems that I have been calling “services against texts”:

The challenge is to provide the researcher with a means to perceiving or specifying subsets of data, extracting the relevent information, building the nodes and edges, and then providing the means to navigate the vast number of nodes and edges. (Susan Brown in “How do you visualize a million links” on page 106)

However, current DL [digital library] systems lack critical features: they have too simple a model of documents, and lack scholarly apparatus. (George Buchanan in “Digital libraries of scholarly editions” on page 108.)

This approach takes us to the what F. Moretti (2005) has termed ‘distant reading,’ a method that stresses summarizing large bodies of text rather than focusing on a few texts in detail. (Ian Gregory in “GIS, texts and images: New approaches to landscape appreciation in the Lake District” on page 159).

And the best quote is:

In smart digital libraries, a text should not only be an object but a service: not a static entity but an interactive method. The text should be computationally exploitable so that it can be sampled and used, not simply reproduced in its entirety… the reformulation of the dictionary not as an object, but a service. (Toma Tasovac in “Reimaging the dictionary, or why lexicography needs digital humanities” on page 254)

In conclusion, I feel blessed with the ability to attended the conference. I learned a lot, and I will recommend it to any librarian or humanist.

How “great” is this article?

During Digital Humanities 2010 I participated in the THATCamp London Developers’ Challenge and tried to answer the question, “How ‘great’ is this article?” This posting outlines the functionality of my submission, links to a screen capture demonstrating it, and provides access to the source code.

screen captureGiven any text file — say an article from the English Women’s Journal — my submission tries to answer the question, “How ‘great’ is this article?” It does this by:

  1. returning the most common words in a text
  2. returning the most common bigrams in a text
  3. calculating a few readability scores
  4. comparing the texts to a standardized set of “great ideas”
  5. supporting a concordance for browsing

Functions #1, #2, #3, and #5 are relatively straight-forward and well-understood. Function #4 needs some explanation.

In the 1960’s a set of books was published called the Great Books. The set is based on a set of 102 “great ideas” (such as art, love, honor, truth, justice, wisdom, science, etc.). By summing the TFIDF scores of each of these ideas for each of the books, a “great ideas coefficient” can be computed. Through this process we find that Shakespeare wrote seven of the top ten books when it comes to love. Kant wrote the “greatest book”. The American State’s Articles of Confederation ranks the highest when it come to war. This “coefficient” can then be used as a standard — an index — for comparing other documents. This is exactly what this program does. (See the screen capture for a demonstration.)

The program can be improved a number of ways:

  1. it could be Web-based
  2. it could process non-text files
  3. it could graphically illustrate a text’s “greatness”
  4. it could hyperlink returned words directly to the concordance

Thanks to Gerhard Brey and the folks of the Nineteenth Century Serials Editions for providing the data. Very interesting.

The Next Next-Generation Library Catalog

With the advent of the Internet and wide-scale availability of full-text content, people are overwhelmed with the amount of accessible data and information. Library catalogs can only go so far when it comes to delimiting what is relevant and what is not. Even when the most exact searches return 100’s of hits what is a person to do? Services against texts — digital humanities computing techniques — represent a possible answer. Whether the content is represented by novels, works of literature, or scholarly journal articles the methods of the digital humanities can provide ways to compare & contrast, analyze, and make more useful any type of content. This essay elaborates on these ideas and describes how they can be integrated into the “next, next-generation library catalog”.

(Because this essay is the foundation for a presentation at the 2010 ALA Annual Meeting, this presentation is also available as a one-page handout designed for printing as well as bloated set of slides.)

Find is not the problem

Find is not the problem to be solved. At most, find is a means to an end and not the end itself. Instead, the problem to solve surrounds use. The profession needs to implement automated ways to make it easier users do things against content.

The library profession spends an inordinate amount of time and effort creating catalogs — essentially inventory lists of things a library owns (or licenses). The profession then puts a layer on top of this inventory list — complete with authority lists, controlled vocabularies, and ever-cryptic administrative data — to facilitate discovery. When poorly implemented, this discovery layer is seen by the library user as an impediment to their real goal. Read a book or article. Verify a fact. Learn a procedure. Compare & contrast one idea with another idea. Etc.

In just the past few years the library profession has learned that indexers (as opposed to databases) are the tools to facilitate find. This is true for two reasons. First, indexers reduce the need for users to know how the underlying data is structured. Second, indexers employ statistical analysis to rank it’s output by relevance. Databases are great for creating and maintaining content. Indexers are great for search. Both are needed in equal measures in order to implement the sort of information retrieval systems people have come to expect. For example, many of the profession’s current crop of “discovery” systems (VUFind, Blacklight, Summon, Primo, etc.) all use an open source indexer called Lucene to drive search.

This being the case, we can more or less call the problem of find solved. True, software is never done, and things can always be improved, but improvements in the realm of search will only be incremental.

Instead of focusing on find, the profession needs to focus on the next steps in the process. After a person does a search and gets back a list of results, what do they want to do? First, they will want to peruse the items in the list. After identifying items of interest, they will want to acquire them. Once the selected items are in hand users may want to print, but at the very least they will want to read. During the course of this reading the user may be doing any number of things. Ranking. Reviewing. Annotating. Summarizing. Evaluating. Looking for a specific fact. Extracting the essence of the author’s message. Comparing & contrasting the text to other texts. Looking for sets of themes. Tracing ideas both inside and outside the texts. In other words, find and acquire are just a means to greater ends. Find and acquire are library goals, not the goals of users.

People want to perform actions against the content they acquire. They want to use the content. They want to do stuff with it. By expanding our definition of “information literacy” to include things beyond metadata and bibliography, and by combining it with the power of computers, librarianship can further “save the time of the reader” and thus remain relevant in the current information environment. Focusing on the use and evaluation of information represents a growth opportunity for librarianship.

It starts with counting

The availability of full text content in the form of plain text files combined with the power of computing empowers one to do statistical analysis against corpora. Put another way, computers are great at counting words, and once sets of words are counted there are many things one can do with the results, such as but not limited to:

  • measuring length
  • measuring readability, “greatness”, or any other index
  • measuring frequency of unigrams, n-grams, parts-of-speech, etc.
  • charting & graphing analysis (word clouds, scatter plots, histograms, etc.)
  • analyzing measurements and looking for patterns
  • drawing conclusions and making hypotheses

For example, suppose you did the perfect search and identified all of the works of Plato, Aristotle, and Shakespeare. Then, if you had the full text, you could compute a simple table such as Table 1.

Author Works Words Average Grade Flesch
Plato 25 1,162,46 46,499 12-15 54
Aristotle 19 950,078 50,004 13-17 50
Shakespeare 36 856,594 23,794 7-10 72

The table lists who wrote how many works. It lists the number of words in each set of works and the average number of words per work. Finally, based on things like sentence length, it estimates grade and reading levels for the works. Given such information, a library “catalog” could help the patron could answer questions such as:

  • Which author has the most works?
  • Which author has the shortest works?
  • Which author is the most verbose?
  • Is the author of most works also the author who is the most verbose?
  • In general, which set of works requires the higher grade level?
  • Does the estimated grade/reading level of each authors’ work coincide with one’s expectations?
  • Are there any authors whose works are more or less similar in reading level?

Given the full text, a trivial program can then be written to count the number of words existing in a corpus as well as the number of times each word occurs, as shown in Table 2.

Plato Aristotle Shakespeare
will one thou
one will will
socrates must thy
may also shall
good things lord
said man thee
man may sir
say animals king
true thing good
shall two now
like time come
can can well
must another enter
another part love
men first let
now either hath
also like man
things good like
first case one
let nature upon
nature motion know
many since say
state others make
knowledge now may
two way yet

Table 2, sans a set of stop words, lists the most frequently used words in the complete works of Plato, Aristotle, and Shakespeare. The patron can then ask and answer questions like:

  • Are there words in one column that appear frequently in all columns?
  • Are there words that appear in only one column?
  • Are the rankings of the words similar between columns?
  • To what degree are the words in each column a part of larger groups such as: nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc.?
  • Are there many synonyms or antonyms shared inside or between the columns?

Notice how the words “one”, “good” and “man” appear in all three columns. Does that represent some sort of shared quality between the works?

If one word contains some meaning, then do two words contain twice as much meaning? Here is a list of the most common two-word phrases (bigrams) in each author corpus, Table 3.

Plato Aristotle Shakespeare
let us one another king henry
one another something else thou art
young socrates let uses thou hast
just now takes place king richard
first place one thing mark antony
every one without qualification prince henry
like manner middle term let us
every man first figure king lear
quite true b belongs thou shalt
two kinds take place duke vincentio
human life essential nature dost thou
one thing every one sir toby
will make practical wisdom art thou
human nature will belong henry v
human mind general rule richard iii
quite right anything else toby belch
modern times one might scene ii
young men first principle act iv
can hardly good man iv scene
will never two things exeunt king
will tell two kinds don pedro
dare say first place mistress quickly
will say like manner act iii
false opinion one kind thou dost
one else scientific knowledge sir john

Notice how the names of people appear frequently in Shakespeare’s works, but very few names appear in the lists of Plato and Aristotle. Notice how the word “thou” appears a lot in Shakespeare’s works. Ask yourself the meaning of the word “thou”, and decide whether or not to update the stop word list. Notice how the common phrases of Plato and Aristotle are akin to ideas, not tangible things. Examples include: human nature, practical wisdom, first principle, false opinion, etc. Is there a pattern here?

If “a picture is worth a thousand words”, then there are about six thousand words represented by Figures 1 through 6.

Words used by Plato
words used by Plato
Phrases used by Plato
phrases used by Plato
Words used by Aristotle
words used by Aristotle
Phrases used by Aristotle
phrases used by Aristotle
Words used by Shakespeare
words used by Shakespeare
Phrases used by Shakespeare
phrases used by Shakespeare

Word clouds — “tag clouds” — are an increasingly popular way to illustrate the frequency of words or phrases in a corpus. Because a few of the phrases in a couple of the corpuses were considered outliers, phrases such as “let us”, “one another”, and “something else” are not depicted.

Even without the use of statistics, it appears the use of the phrase “good man” by each author might be interestingly compared & contrasted. A concordance is an excellent tool for such a purpose, and below are a few of the more meaty uses of “good man” by each author.

List 1 – “good man” as used by Plato
  ngth or mere cleverness. To the good man, education is of all things the most pr
   Nothing evil can happen to the good man either in life or death, and his own de
  but one reply: 'The rule of one good man is better than the rule of all the rest
   SOCRATES: A just and pious and good man is the friend of the gods; is he not? P
  ry wise man who happens to be a good man is more than human (daimonion) both in 
List 2 – “good man” as used by Aristotle
  ons that shame is felt, and the good man will never voluntarily do bad actions. 
  reatest of goods. Therefore the good man should be a lover of self (for he will 
  hat is best for itself, and the good man obeys his reason. It is true of the goo
  theme If, as I said before, the good man has a right to rule because he is bette
  d prove that in some states the good man and the good citizen are the same, and 
List 3 – “good man” as used by Shakespeare
  r to that. SHYLOCK Antonio is a good man. BASSANIO Have you heard any imputation
  p out, the rest I'll whistle. A good man's fortune may grow out at heels: Give y
  t it, Thou canst not hit it, my good man. BOYET An I cannot, cannot, cannot, An 
  hy, look where he comes; and my good man too: he's as far from jealousy as I am 
   mean, that married her, alack, good man! And therefore banish'd -- is a creatur

What sorts of judgements might the patron be able to make based on the snippets listed above? Are Plato, Aristotle, and Shakespeare all defining the meaning of a “good man”? If so, then what are some of the definitions? Are there qualitative similarities and/or differences between the definitions?

Sometimes being as blunt as asking a direct question, like “What is a man?”, can be useful. Lists 4 through 6 try to answer it.

List 4 – “man is” as used by Plato
  stice, he is met by the fact that man is a social being, and he tries to harmoni
  ption of Not-being to difference. Man is a rational animal, and is not -- as man
  ss them. Or, as others have said: Man is man because he has the gift of speech; 
  wise man who happens to be a good man is more than human (daimonion) both in lif
  ied with the Protagorean saying, 'Man is the measure of all things;' and of this
List 5 – “man is” as used by Aristotle
  ronounced by the judgement 'every man is unjust', the same must needs hold good 
  ts are formed from a residue that man is the most naked in body of all animals a
  ated piece at draughts. Now, that man is more of a political animal than bees or
  hese vices later. The magnificent man is like an artist; for he can see what is 
  lement in the essential nature of man is knowledge; the apprehension of animal a
List 6 – “man is” as used by Shakespeare
   what I have said against it; for man is a giddy thing, and this is my conclusio
   of man to say what dream it was: man is but an ass, if he go about to expound t
  e a raven for a dove? The will of man is by his reason sway'd; And reason says y
  n you: let me ask you a question. Man is enemy to virginity; how may we barricad
  er, let us dine and never fret: A man is master of his liberty: Time is their ma

In the 1950s Mortimer Adler and a set of colleagues created a set of works they called The Great Books of the Western World. This 80-volume set included all the works of Plato, Aristotle, and Shakespeare as well as some of the works of Augustine, Aquinas, Milton, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Melville, Kant, James, and Frued. Prior to the set’s creation, Adler and colleagues enumerated 102 “greatest ideas” including concepts such as: angel, art, beauty, honor, justice, science, truth, wisdom, war, etc. Each book in the series was selected for inclusion by the committee because of the way the books elaborated on the meaning of the “great ideas”.

Given the full text of each of the Great Books as well as a set of keywords (the “great ideas”), it is relatively simple to calculate a relevancy ranking score for each item in a corpus. Love is one of the “great ideas”, and it just so happens it is used most significantly by Shakespeare compared to the use of the other authors in the set. If Shakespeare has the highest “love quotient”, then what does Shakespeare have to say about love? List 7 is a brute force answer to such a question.

List 7 – “love is” as used by Shakespeare
  y attempted? Love is a familiar; Love is a devil: there is no evil angel but Lov
  er. VALENTINE Why? SPEED Because Love is blind. O, that you had mine eyes; or yo
   that. DUKE This very night; for Love is like a child, That longs for every thin
  n can express how much. ROSALIND Love is merely a madness, and, I tell you, dese
  of true minds Admit impediments. Love is not love Which alters when it alteratio

Do these definitions coincide with expectations? Maybe further reading is necessary.

Digital humanities, library science, and “catalogs”

The previous section is just about the most gentle introduction to digital humanities computing possible, but can also be an introduction to a new breed of library science and library catalogs.

It began by assuming the existence of full text content in plain text form — an increasingly reasonable assumption. After denoting a subset of content, it compared & contrasted the sizes and reading levels of the content. By counting individual words and phrases, patterns were discovered in the texts and a particular idea was loosely followed — specifically, the definition of a good man. Finally, the works of a particular author were compared to the works of a larger whole to learn how the author defined a particular “great idea”.

The fundamental tools used in this analysis were a set of rudimentary Perl modules: Lingua::EN::Fathom for calculating the total number of words in a document as well as a document’s reading level, Lingua::EN::Bigram for listing the most frequently occurring words and phrases, and Lingua::Concordance for listing sentence snippets. The Perl programs built on top of these modules are relatively short and include:,, and (If you really wanted to download the full text versions of Plato, Aristotle, and Shakespeare‘s works used in this analysis.) While the programs themselves are really toys, the potential they represent are not. It would not be too difficult to integrate their functionality into a library “catalog”. Assume the existence of significant amount of full text content in a library collection. Do a search against the collection. Create a subset of content. Click a few buttons to implement statistical analysis against the result. Enable the user to “browse” the content and follow a line of thought.

The process outlined in the previous section is not intended to replace rigorous reading, but rather to supplement it. It enables a person to identify trends quickly and easily. It enables a person to read at “Web scale”. Again, find is not the problem to be solved. People can find more information than they require. Instead, people need to use and analyze the content they find. This content can be anything from novels to textbooks, scholarly journal articles to blog postings, data sets to collections of images, etc. The process outlined above is an example of services against texts, a way to “Save the time of the reader” and empower them to make better and more informed decisions. The fundamental processes of librarianship (collection, preservation, organization, and dissemination) need to be expanded to fit the current digital environment. The services described above are examples of how processes can be expanded.

The next “next generation library catalog” is not about find, instead it is about use. Integrating digital humanities computing techniques into library collections and services is just one example of how this can be done.

Measuring the Great Books

This posting describes how I am assigning quantitative characteristics to texts in an effort to answer the question, “How ‘great’ are the Great Books?” In the end I make a plea for library science.


With the advent of copious amounts of freely available plain text on the ‘Net comes the ability of “read” entire corpora with a computer and apply statistical processes against the result. In an effort to explore the feasibility of this idea, I am spending time answering the question, “How ‘great’ are the Great Books?

More specifically, want to assign quantitative characteristics to each of the “books” in the Great Books set, look for patterns in the result, and see whether or not I can draw any conclusions about the corpus. If such processes are proven effective, then the same processes may be applicable to other corpora such as collections of scholarly journal articles, blog postings, mailing list archives, etc. If I get this far, then I hope to integrate these processes into traditional library collections and services in an effort to support their continued relevancy.

On my mark. Get set. Go.

Assigning quantitative characteristics to texts

The Great Books set posits 102 “great ideas” — basic, foundational themes running through the heart of Western civilization. Each of the books in the set were selected for inclusion by the way they expressed the essence of these great ideas. The ideas are grand and ambiguous. They include words such as angel, art, beauty, courage, desire, eternity, god, government, honor, idea, physics, religion, science, space, time, wisdom, etc. (See Appendix B of “How ‘great’ are the Great Books?” for the complete list.)

In a previous posting, “Great Ideas Coefficient“, I outlined the measure I propose to use to determine the books’ “greatness” — essentially a sum of all TFIDF (term frequency / inverse document frequency) scores as calculated against the list of great ideas. TFIDF is defined as:

( c / t ) * log( d / f )


  • c = number of times a given word appears in a document
  • t = total number of words in a document
  • d = total number of documents in a corpus
  • f = total number of documents containing a given word

Thus, the problem boils down to determining the values for c, t, d, and f for a given great idea, 2) summing the resulting TFIDF scores, 3) saving the results, and 4) repeating the process for each book in the corpus. Here, more exactly, is how I am initially doing such a thing:

  1. Build corpus – In a previous posting, “Collecting the Great Books“, I described how I first collected 223 of the roughly 250 Great Books.
  2. Index corpus – The process used to calculate the TFIDF values of c and t are trivial because any number of computer programs do such a thing quickly and readily. In our case, the value of d is a constant — 223. On the other hand, trivial methods for determining the number of documents containing a given word (f) are not scalable as the size of a corpus increases. Because an index is essentially a list of words combined with the pointers to where the words can be found, an index proves to be a useful tool for determining the value of f. Index a corpus. Search the index for a word. Get back the number of hits and use it as the value for f. Lucene is currently the gold standard when it comes to open source indexers. Solr — an enhanced and Web Services-based interface to Lucene — is the indexer used in this process. The structure of the local index is rudimentary: id, author, title, URL, and full text. Each of the metadata values are pulled out of a previously created index file — great-books.xml — while the full text is read from the file system. The whole lot is then stuffed into Solr. A program called does this work. Another program called was created simply for testing the validity of the index.
  3. Count words and determine readability – A Perl module called Lingua::EN::Fathom does a nice job of counting the number of words in a file, thus providing me with a value for t. Along the way it also calculates a number of “readability” scores — values used to determine the necessary education level of a person needed to understand a given text. While I had “opened the patient” I figured it would be a good idea to take note of this information. Given the length of a book as well as its readability scores, I enable myself to answer questions such as, “Are longer books more difficult to read?” Later on, given my Great Ideas Coefficient, I will be able to answer questions such as “Is the length of a book a determining factor in ‘greatness’?” or “Are ‘great’ books more difficult to read?”
  4. Calculate TFIDF – This is the fuzziest and most difficult part of the measurement process. Using Lingua::EN::Fathom again I find all of the unique words in a document, stem them with Lingua::Stem::Snowball, and calculate the number of times each stem occurs. This gives me a value for c. I then loop through each great idea, stem them, and search the index for the stem thus returning a value for f. For each idea I now have values for c, t, d, and f enabling me to calculate TFIDF — ( c / t ) * log( d / f ).
  5. Calculate the Great Ideas Coefficient – This is trivial. Keep a running sum of all the great idea TFIDF scores.
  6. Go to Step #4 – Repeat this process for each of the 102 great ideas.
  7. Save – After all the various scores (number of words, readability scores, TFIDF scores, and Great Ideas Coefficient) have been calculated I save each to my pseudo database file called great-ideas.xml. Each is stored as an attribute associated with a book’s unique identifier. Later I will use the contents of this file as the basis of my statistical analysis.
  8. Go to Step #3 – Repeat this process for each book in the corpus, and in this case 223 times.

Of course I didn’t do all of this by hand, and the program I wrote to do the work is called

The result is my pseudo database file — great-books.xml. This is my data set. It keeps track all of my information in a human-readable, application- and operating system-independent manner. Very nice. If there is only one file you download from this blog posting, then it should be this file. Using it you will be able to create your own corpus and do your own analysis.

The process outlined above is far from perfect. First, there are a few false negatives. For example, the great idea “universe” returned a TFIDF value of zero (0) for every document. Obviously is is incorrect, and I think the error has something to do with the stemming and/or indexing subprocesses. Second, the word “being”, as calculated by TFIDF, is by far and away the “greatest” idea. I believe this is true because the word “being” is… being counted as both a noun as well as a verb. This points to a different problem — the ambiguity of the English language. While all of these issues will knowingly skew the final results, I do not think they negate the possibility of meaningful statistical investigation. At the same time it will be necessary to refine the measurement process to reduce the number of “errors”.

Measurment, the humanities, and library science

Measurement is one of the fundamental qualities of science. The work of Archimedes is the prototypical example. Kepler and Galileo took the process to another level. Newton brought it to full flower. Since Newton the use of measurement — the assignment of mathematical values — applied against observations of the natural world and human interactions have given rise to the physical and social sciences. Unlike studies in the humanities, science is repeatable and independently verifiable. It is objective. Such is not a value judgment, merely a statement of fact. While the sciences seem cold, hard, and dry, the humanities are subjective, appeal to our spirit, give us a sense of purpose, and tend to synthesis our experiences into a meaningful whole. Both of the scientific and humanistic thinking processes are necessary for us to make sense of the world around us. I call these combined processes “arscience“.

The library profession could benefit from the greater application of measurement. In my opinion, too much of the profession’s day-to-day as well as strategic decisions are based on antidotal evidence and gut feelings. Instead of basing our actions on data, actions are based on tradition. “This is the way we have always done it.” This is medieval, and consequently, change comes very slowly. I sincerely believe libraries are not going away any time soon, but I do think the profession will remain relevant longer if librarians were to do two things: 1) truly exploit the use of computers, and 2) base a greater number of their decisions on data — measurment — as opposed to opinion. Let’s call this library science.

How “great” are the Great Books?

In the 1952 a set of books called the Great Books of the Western World was published. It was supposed to represent the best of Western literature and enable the reader to further their liberal arts education. Sixty volumes in all, it included works by Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Milton, Galileo, Kepler, Melville, Darwin, etc. (See Appendix A.) These great books were selected based on the way they discussed a set of 102 “great ideas” such as art, astronomy, beauty, evil, evolution, mind, nature, poetry, revolution, science, will, wisdom, etc. (See Appendix B.) How “great” are these books, and how “great” are the ideas expressed in them?

Given full text versions of these books it would be almost trivial to use the “great ideas” as input and apply relevancy ranking algorithms against the texts thus creating a sort of score — a “Great Ideas Coefficient”. Term Frequency/Inverse Document Frequency is a well-established algorithm for computing just this sort of thing:

relevancy = ( c / t ) * log( d / f )


  • c = number of times a given word appears in a document
  • t = total number of words in a document
  • d = total number of documents in a corpus
  • f = total number of documents containing a given word

Thus, to calculate our Great Ideas Coefficient we would sum the relevancy score for each “great idea” for each “great book”. Plato’s Republic might have a cumulative score of 525 while Aristotle’s On The History Of Animals might have a cumulative score of 251. Books with a larger Coefficient could be considered greater. Given such a score a person could measure a book’s “greatness”. We could then compare the score to the scores of other books. Which book is the “greatest”? We could compare the score to other measurable things such as book’s length or date to see if there were correlations. Are “great books” longer or shorter than others? Do longer books contain more “great ideas”? Are there other books that were not included in the set that maybe should have been included? Instead of summing each relevancy score, maybe the “great ideas” can be grouped into gross categories such as humanities or sciences, and we can sum those scores instead. Thus we may be able to say one set of book is “great” when it comes the expressing the human condition and these others are better at describing the natural world. We could ask ourselves, which number of books represents the best mixture of art and science because their humanities score is almost equal to its sciences score. Expanding the scope beyond general education we could create an alternative set of “great ideas”, say for biology or mathematics or literature, and apply the same techniques to other content such as full text scholarly journal literatures.

The initial goal of this study is to examine the “greatness” of the Great Books, but the ultimate goal is to learn whether or not this quantitative process can be applied other bodies of literature and ultimately assist the student/scholar in their studies/research

Wish me luck.

Appendix A – Authors and titles in the Great Books series

  • AeschylusPrometheus Bound; Seven Against Thebes; The Oresteia; The Persians; The Suppliant Maidens
  • American State PapersArticles of Confederation; Declaration of Independence; The Constitution of the United States of America
  • ApolloniusOn Conic Sections
  • AquinasSumma Theologica
  • ArchimedesBook of Lemmas; Measurement of a Circle; On Conoids and Spheroids; On Floating Bodies; On Spirals; On the Equilibrium of Planes; On the Sphere and Cylinder; The Method Treating of Mechanical Problems; The Quadrature of the Parabola; The Sand-Reckoner
  • AristophanesEcclesiazousae; Lysistrata; Peace; Plutus; The Acharnians; The Birds; The Clouds; The Frogs; The Knights; The Wasps; Thesmophoriazusae
  • AristotleCategories; History of Animals; Metaphysics; Meteorology; Minor biological works; Nicomachean Ethics; On Generation and Corruption; On Interpretation; On Sophistical Refutations; On the Gait of Animals; On the Generation of Animals; On the Motion of Animals; On the Parts of Animals; On the Soul; Physics; Poetics; Politics; Posterior Analytics; Prior Analytics; Rhetoric; The Athenian Constitution; Topics
  • AugustineOn Christian Doctrine; The City of God; The Confessions
  • AureliusThe Meditations
  • BaconAdvancement of Learning; New Atlantis; Novum Organum
  • BerkeleyThe Principles of Human Knowledge
  • BoswellThe Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.
  • CervantesThe History of Don Quixote de la Mancha
  • ChaucerTroilus and Criseyde; The Canterbury Tales
  • CopernicusOn the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres
  • DanteThe Divine Comedy
  • DarwinThe Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex; The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection
  • DescartesDiscourse on the Method; Meditations on First Philosophy; Objections Against the Meditations and Replies; Rules for the Direction of the Mind; The Geometry
  • DostoevskyThe Brothers Karamazov
  • EpictetusThe Discourses
  • EuclidThe Thirteen Books of Euclid’s Elements
  • EuripidesAlcestis; Andromache; Bacchantes; Cyclops; Electra; Hecuba; Helen; Heracleidae; Heracles Mad; Hippolytus; Ion; Iphigeneia at Aulis; Iphigeneia in Tauris; Medea; Orestes; Phoenician Women; Rhesus; The Suppliants; Trojan Women
  • FaradayExperimental Researches in Electricity
  • FieldingThe History of Tom Jones, a Foundling
  • FourierAnalytical Theory of Heat
  • FreudA General Introduction to Psycho-Analysis; Beyond the Pleasure Principle; Civilization and Its Discontents; Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego; Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety; Instincts and Their Vicissitudes; New Introductory Lectures on Psycho- Analysis; Observations on “Wild” Psycho-Analysis; On Narcissism; Repression; Selected Papers on Hysteria; The Ego and the Id; The Future Prospects of Psycho-Analytic Therapy; The Interpretation of Dreams; The Origin and Development of Psycho- Analysis; The Sexual Enlightenment of Children; The Unconscious; Thoughts for the Times on War and Death
  • GalenOn the Natural Faculties
  • GalileoDialogues Concerning the Two New Sciences
  • GibbonThe Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
  • GilbertOn the Loadstone and Magnetic Bodies
  • GoetheFaust
  • HamiltonThe Federalist
  • HarveyOn the Circulation of Blood; On the Generation of Animals; On the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals
  • HegelThe Philosophy of History; The Philosophy of Right
  • HerodotusThe History
  • HippocratesWorks
  • HobbesLeviathan
  • HomerThe Iliad; The Odyssey
  • HumeAn Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding
  • JamesThe Principles of Psychology
  • KantExcerpts from The Metaphysics of Morals; Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals; General Introduction to the Metaphysic of Morals; Preface and Introduction to the Metaphysical Elements of Ethics with a note on Conscience; The Critique of Judgement; The Critique of Practical Reason; The Critique of Pure Reason; The Science of Right
  • KeplerEpitome of Copernican Astronomy; The Harmonies of the World
  • LavoisierElements of Chemistry
  • LockeA Letter Concerning Toleration; An Essay Concerning Human Understanding; Concerning Civil Government, Second Essay
  • LucretiusOn the Nature of Things
  • MachiavelliThe Prince
  • MarxCapital
  • Marx and EngelsManifesto of the Communist Party
  • MelvilleMoby Dick; or, The Whale
  • MillConsiderations on Representative Government; On Liberty; Utilitarianism
  • MiltonAreopagitica; English Minor Poems; Paradise Lost; Samson Agonistes
  • MontaigneEssays
  • MontesquieuThe Spirit of the Laws
  • NewtonMathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy; Optics; Twelfth Night; or, What You Will
    Christian Huygens
    ; Treatise on Light
  • NicomachusIntroduction to Arithmetic
  • PascalPensées; Scientific and mathematical essays; The Provincial Letters
  • PlatoApology; Charmides; Cratylus; Critias; Crito; Euthydemus; Euthyphro; Gorgias; Ion; Laches; Laws; Lysis; Meno; Parmenides; Phaedo; Phaedrus; Philebus; Protagoras; Sophist; Statesman; Symposium; The Republic; The Seventh Letter; Theaetetus; Timaeus
  • PlotinusThe Six Enneads
  • PlutarchThe Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans
  • PtolemyThe Almagest
  • RabelaisGargantua and Pantagruel
  • RousseauA Discourse on Political Economy; A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality; The Social Contract
  • ShakespeareA Midsummer-Night’s Dream; All’s Well That Ends Well; Antony and Cleopatra; As You Like It; Coriolanus; Cymbeline; Julius Caesar; King Lear; Love’s Labour’s Lost; Macbeth; Measure For Measure; Much Ado About Nothing; Othello, the Moor of Venice; Pericles, Prince of Tyre; Romeo and Juliet; Sonnets; The Comedy of Errors; The Famous History of the Life of King Henry the Eighth; The First Part of King Henry the Fourth; The First Part of King Henry the Sixth; The Life and Death of King John; The Life of King Henry the Fifth; The Merchant of Venice; The Merry Wives of Windsor; The Second Part of King Henry the Fourth; The Second Part of King Henry the Sixth; The Taming of the Shrew; The Tempest; The Third Part of King Henry the Sixth; The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark; The Tragedy of King Richard the Second; The Tragedy of Richard the Third; The Two Gentlemen of Verona; The Winter’s Tale; Timon of Athens; Titus Andronicus; Troilus and Cressida
  • SmithAn Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations
  • SophoclesAjax; Electra; Philoctetes; The Oedipus Cycle; The Trachiniae
  • SpinozaEthics
  • SterneThe Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
  • SwiftGulliver’s Travels
  • TacitusThe Annals; The Histories
  • ThucydidesThe History of the Peloponnesian War
  • TolstoyWar and Peace
  • VirgilThe Aeneid; The Eclogues; The Georgics

Appendix B – The “great” ideas

angel • animal • aristocracy • art • astronomy • beauty • being • cause • chance • change • citizen • constitution • courage • custom & convention • definition • democracy • desire • dialectic • duty • education • element • emotion • eternity • evolution • experience • family • fate • form • god • good & evil • government • habit • happiness • history • honor • hypothesis • idea • immortality • induction • infinity • judgment • justice • knowledge • labor • language • law • liberty • life & death • logic • love • man • mathematics • matter • mechanics • medicine • memory & imagination • metaphysics • mind • monarchy • nature • necessity & contingency • oligarchy • one & many • opinion • opposition • philosophy • physics • pleasure & pain • poetry • principle • progress • prophecy • prudence • punishment • quality • quantity • reasoning • relation • religion • revolution • rhetoric • same & other • science • sense • sign & symbol • sin • slavery • soul • space • state • temperance • theology • time • truth • tyranny • universal & particular • virtue & vice • war & peace • wealth • will • wisdom • world

Not really reading

Using a number of rudimentary digital humanities computing techniques, I tried to practice what I preach and extract the essence from a set of journal articles. I feel like the process met with some success, but I was not really reading.

The problem

A set of twenty-one (21) essays on the future of academic librarianship was recently brought to my attention:

Leaders Look Toward the Future – This site compiled by Camila A. Alire and G. Edward Evans offers 21 essays on the future of academic librarianship written by individuals who represent a cross-section of the field from the largest institutions to specialized libraries.

Since I was too lazy to print and read all of the articles mentioned above, I used this as an opportunity to test out some of my “services against text” ideas.

The solution

Specifically, I used a few rudimentary digital humanities computing techniques to glean highlights from the corpus. Here’s how:

  1. First I converted all of the PDF files to plain text files using a program called pdftotext — a part of xpdf. I then concatenated the whole lot together, thus creating my corpus. This process is left up to you — the reader — as an exercise because I don’t have copyright hutzpah.
  2. Next, I used Wordle to create a word cloud. Not a whole lot of new news here, but look how big the word “information” is compared to the word “collections”.

  3. Using a program of my own design, I then created a textual version of the word cloud listing the top fifty most frequently used words and the number of times they appeared in the corpus. Again, not a whole lot of new news. The articles are obviously about academic libraries, but notice how the word “electronic” is listed and not the word “book”.
  4. Things got interesting when I created a list of the most significant two-word phrases (bi-grams). Most of the things are nouns, but I was struck by “will continue” and “libraries will” so I applied a concordance application to these phrases and got lists of snippets. Some of the more interesting ones include: libraries will be “under the gun” financially, libraries will be successful only if they adapt, libraries will continue to be strapped for staffing, libraries will continue to have a role to play, will continue their major role in helping, will continue to be important, will continue to shift toward digital information, will continue to seek new opportunities.

Yes, there may very well be some subtle facts I missed by not reading the full texts, but I think I got a sense of what the articles discussed. It would be interesting to sit a number of people down, have them read the articles, and then have them list out a few salient sentences. To what degree would their result be the same or different from mine?

I was able to write the programs from scratch, do the analysis, and write the post in about two hours, total. It would have taken me that long to read the articles. Just think what a number of librarians could do, and how much time could be saved if this system were expanded to support just about any plain text data.

Colloquium on Digital Humanities and Computer Science: A Travelogue

On November 14-16, 2009 I attended the 4th Annual Chicago Colloquium on Digital Humanities and Computer Science at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. This posting outlines my experiences there, but in a phrase, I found the event to be very stimulating. In my opinion, libraries ought to be embracing the techniques described here and integrating them into their collections and services.

Paul Galvin Library
Paul Galvin Library

Day #0 – A pre-conference workshop

Upon arrival I made my way directly to a pre-conference workshop entitled “Machine Learning, Sequence Alignment, and Topic Modeling at ARTFUL” presented by Mark Olsen and Clovis Gladstone. In the workshop they described at least two applications they were using to discover common phrases between texts. The first was called Philomine and the second was called Text::Pair. Both work similarly but Philomine needs to be integrated with Philologic, and Text::Pair is a stand-alone Perl module. Using these tools n-grams are extracted from texts, indexed to the file system, and await searching. By entering phrases into a local search engine, hits are returned that include the phrases and the works where the phrase was found. I believe Text::Pair could be successfully integrated in my Alex Catalogue.

orange, green, and gray
orange, green, and gray
orange and green
orange and green

Day #1

The Colloquium formally began the next day with an introduction by Russell Betts (Illinois Institute of Chicago). His most notable quote was, “We have infinite computer power at our fingertips, and without much thought you can create an infinite amount of nonsense.” Too true.

Marco Büchler (University of Leipzig) demonstrated textual reuse techniques in a presentation called “Citation Detection and Textual Reuse on Ancient Greek Texts”. More specifically, he used textual reuse to highlight differences between texts, graph ancient history, and explore computer science algorithms. Try for more.

Patrick Juola‘s (Duquesne University) “conjecturator” was the heart of the next presentation called “Mapping Genre Spaces via Random Conjectures”. In short, Juola generated thousands and thousands of “facts” in the form of [subject1] uses [subject2] more or less than [subject3]. He then tested each of these facts for truth against a corpus. Ironically, he was doing much of what Betts alluded to in the introduction — creating nonsense. On the other hand, the approach was innovative.

By exploiting a parts-of-speech (POS) parser, Devin Griffiths (Rutgers University) sought the use of analogies as described in “On the Origin of Theories: The Semantic Analysis of Analogy in Scientific Corpus”. Assuming that an analogy can be defined as a noun-verb-noun-conjunction-noun-verb-noun phrase, Griffith looked for analogies in Darwin’s Origin of Species, graphed the number of analogies against locations in the text, and made conclusions accordingly. He asserted that the use of analogy was very important during the Victorian Age, and he tried to demonstrate this assertion through a digital humanities approach.

The use of LSIDs (large screen information displays) was discussed by Geoffrey Rockwell (McMaster University). While I did not take a whole lot of notes from this presentation, I did get a couple of ideas: 1) figure out a way for a person to “step into” a book, or 2) display a graphic representation of a text on a planetarium ceiling. Hmm…

Kurt Fendt (MIT) described a number of ways timelines could be used in the humanities in his presentation called “New Insights: Dynamic Timelines in Digital Humanities”. Through the process I became aware of the SIMILE timeline application/widget. Very nice.

I learned of the existence of a number of digital humanities grants as described by Michael Hall (NEH). They are both start-up grants as well a grants on advanced topics. See:

The first keynote speech, “Humanities as Information Sciences”, was given by Vasant Honavar (Iowa State University) in the afternoon. Honavar began with a brief history of thinking and philosophy, which he believes lead to computer science. “The heart of information processing is taking one string and transforming it into another.” (Again, think the introductory remarks.) He advocated the creation of symbols, feeding them into a processor, and coming up with solutions out the other end. Language, he posited, is an information-rich artifact and therefore something that can be analyzed with computing techniques. I liked how he compared science with the humanities. Science observes physical objects, and the humanities observe human creations. Honavar was a bit arscient, and therefore someone to be admired.

subway tunnel
subway tunnel
skyscraper predecessor
skyscraper predecessor

Day #2

In “Computational Phonostylistics: Computing the Sounds of Poetry” Marc Plamondon (Nipissing University) described how he was counting phonemes in both Tennyson’s and Browning’s poetry to validate whether or not Tennyson’s poetry is “musical” or plosive sounding and Browning’s poetry is “harsh” or fricative. To do this he assumed one set of characters are soft and another set are hard. He then counted the number of times each of these sets of characters existed in each of the respective poets’ works. The result was a graph illustrating the “musical” or “harshness” of the poetry. One of the more interesting quotes from Plamondon’s presentation included, “I am interested in quantifying aesthetics.”

In C.W. Forstal‘s (SUNY Buffalo) presentation “Features from Frequency: Authorship and Stylistic Analysis Using Repetitive Sound” we learned how he too is counting sound n-grams to denote style. He applied the technique to D.H. Lawrence as well as to the Iliad and Odyssey, and to his mind the technique works to his satisfaction.

The second keynote presentation was give by Stephen Wolfram (Wolfram Research) via teleconference. It was called “What Can Be Made Computable in the Humanities?” He began by describing Mathematica as a tool he used to explore the world around him. All of this assumes that the world consists of patterns, and these patterns can be described through the use of numbers. He elaborated through something he called the Principle of Computational Equivalency — once you get to a certain threshold systems create a level of complexity. Such a principle puts pressure on having the simplest descriptive model as possible. (Such things are standard scientific/philosophic principles. Nothing new here.) Looking for patterns was the name of his game, and one such game was applied to music. Discover the patterns in a type of music. Feed the patterns to a computer. Have the computer generate the music. Most of the time the output works pretty well. He called this WolframTones. He went on to describe WolframAlpha as an attempt to make the world’s knowledge computable. Essentially a front-end to Mathematica, WolframAlpha is a vast collection of content associated with numbers: people and their birth dates, the agriculture output of countries, the price of gold over time, temperatures from across the world, etc. Queries are accepted into the system. Searches are done against its content. Results are returned in the form of best-guess answers complete with graphs and charts. WolframAlpha exposes mathematical processing to the general public in ways that have not been done previously. Wolfram described two particular challenges in the creation of WolframAlpha. One was the collection of content. Unlike Google, Wolfram Research does not necessarily crawl the Internet. Rather it selectively collects the content of a “reference library” and integrates it into the system. Second, and more challenging, has been the design of the user interface. People do not enter structured queries, but structured output is expected. Interpreting people’s input is a difficult task in and of itself. From my point of view, he is probably learning more about human thought processes than the natural world.

red girder sculpture
red girder sculpture
gray sculpture
gray sculpture

Some thoughts

This meeting was worth every single penny, especially considering the fact that there was absolutely no registration fee. Free, except of the my travel costs, hotel, and the price of the banquet. Unbelievable!

Just as importantly, the presentations given at this meeting demonstrate the maturity of the digital humanities. These things are not just toys but practical tools for evaluating (mostly) texts. Given the increasing amount of full text available in library collections, I see very little reason why these sorts of digital humanities applications could not be incorporate into library collections and services. Collect full text content. Index it. Provide access to the index. Get back a set of search results. Select one or more items. Read them. Select one or more items again, and then select an option such as graph analogies, graph phonemes, or list common phrases between texts. People need to do more than read the texts. People need to use the texts, to analyze them, to compare & contrast them with other texts. The tools described in this conference demonstrate that such things are more than possible. All that has to be done is to integrate them into our current (library) systems.

So many opportunities. So little time.