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NULab/DSG Fall Welcome 2021


On November 4th, 2021, the NULab and the Digital Scholarship Group (DSG) hosted the eighth annual Fall Welcome event, featuring an exciting group of lightning talks from graduate students and faculty, as well as a keynote lecture by Dr. Garrett Dash Nelson, President and Head Curator at the Norman B. Leventhal Map and Education Center at the Boston Public Library.


The NULab and DSG began the new academic year welcoming Dr. Garrett Dash Nelson, President and Head Curator at the Norman B. Leventhal Map and Education Center at the Boston Public Library, as the keynote speaker for the Fall Welcome. The Leventhal Center is an independent center partnered with the Boston Public Library. Nelson’s keynote talk was entitled, “It Could Happen Here: Space, Place, and Geography in Digital Scholarship.” Nelson described himself as a historical geographer studying ideas about place and community, and noted that he is mostly self-taught in terms of digital methods. He seeks to ask the question: where it is appropriate and useful to embrace digital map-making tools and when is it not? Nelson emphasized that maps are not the only analytical method for space and place, and maps should not be chosen simply because the data deals with space. Maps should only be used when the content would be difficult to understand without one. Put another way, he warned against making a web-map simply because you can and called for maps to be made only when they reveal an insight related to spatiality. Quite simply: just because you can make a map doesn’t mean you should.

Nelson is wary of the “inherent truth” often perceived in maps, and attempts to problematize maps as a form of visualization. Today, maps are often used for practical answers, such as ‘How many Dunkin’ Donuts are there within a mile?’, and this often gets extended to the use of maps in a research context. This tendency leads to uncritical consumption of maps as visualizations of truth. Nelson proposed that maps, and spatial data more generally, should be a means of opening up research questions rather than only answering them. The questions raised by maps often demand other methods to answer them.

Nelson spent a portion of the talk demonstrating the Atlascope Boston project created by the Leventhal Center. This project overlays a variety of historical maps on top of a standard open street maps view of Boston, as a means of demonstrating the spatiality of a place across time. This project ties into his overarching goals of reorienting mapmaking platforms towards perspectives based in human geography and urban history. Nelson highlighted the importance of recognizing the loss of data that occurs in making spatial data legible to computers. A central point of his keynote was noticing where these slippages happen in the process of creating a web-map.

A View of Northeastern University through Atlascope Boston

Nelson asserted that geography should be viewed as a binding agent for many other forms of digital scholarship. By a “binding agent” he means a set of methods that can be utilized by a variety of disciplines. He used the example of history as a recognizable binding agent, since many disciplines make use of historical methods. Nelson argued that the same can be considered of geography, with both historical and geographical methods being useful across disciplines. He concluded by encouraging people to visit the Leventhal Center, and to contact him with any questions.

Lightning Talks

Rixt Woudstra, Assistant Professor of Art History at the New College of the Humanities, London, gave a presentation on a proposed undergraduate course in her talk: “Imperial Objects.” Imperial Objects will be an experimental undergraduate course focused on the material culture of the British Empire. Woudstra explained that the students will focus on St. Katherine’s Dock, a former dock in Central London, which was a luxury goods dock during the peak of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century British Imperialism. There is a very rich archive detailing everything that came through St. Katherine’s Dock, which has been relatively unexplored by historians. For the proposed course, students will focus on a particular good, such as ivory, and trace its movement through the imperial period, attempting to answer these questions: where did it come from? How much entered Britain? Where did it end up? Students will use digital mapping tools to map the movement of these objects.

In her presentation, “Why an Index? On Archival Absences and Authorship within The Brownies’ Book,” Tieanna Graphenreed, English PhD Student, shared her digital humanities project centered on The Brownies’ Book, the first periodical published for African-American children and youth. The periodical was created by Jessie Redmon Fauset, Augustus Granville Dill, and W. E. B. Du Bois, who were all involved with The Crisis, a periodical associated with the NAACP. This magazine was influential, yet there is a dearth of academic writing on it. Graphenreed aims to create a comprehensive index of the texts in part to recognize child authorship within the periodical. Her index would include more than just the influential people involved in the magazine, but also unnamed authors, place names, genres at play, and more. Children would often submit essays, photos of themselves, and letters to the editor and this index would give authorship to these children. Ideally, the index will be used by other researchers interested in The Brownies’ Book.

Ellen Cushman, Dean’s Professor of Civic Sustainability and Professor of English, discussed her project “DAILP: the Digital Archive of American Indian Language Preservation and Perserverance.” She illuminated the main goals of this large digital project, including developing an online environment for reading and exploring indigenous language documents, creating a framework of linguistic and cultural tools and resources to support translators and learners, and supporting sustainable programs of language learning and practice. Currently, the DAILP prototype focuses on translating texts written in the Cherokee syllabary, but the long-term goal is to extend the project into other indigenous languages. The project has a GitHub presence in the hopes of making their work publicly available to other tribes. Cushman revealed that there have been hundreds of texts produced in the Cherokee syllabary since the early nineteenth century and most of them have yet to be translated. One facet of the project is to translate these Cherokee texts as they are hugely important in allowing us to understand reading and writing practices, as well as modeling better methods of language preservation.

In his presentation, “Using Computation to Understand the Media,” Rahul Bhargava, Assistant Professor of Art + Design and Journalism, detailed his work on Media Cloud, a tool created in partnership with Harvard University, the University of Massachusetts, and Northeastern. Media Cloud is attempting to create a large corpus of online news texts and aims to use computational methods to analyze the news. Bhargava noted that Media Cloud is one of the larger archives of completely free news in multiple languages, making it an invaluable tool for researchers. Media Cloud provides a set of web-based tools to help interrogate this large corpus of texts. These tools align themselves along four axes: attention, language, representation, and influence. Media Cloud makes it possible for researchers to investigate the following questions: What is driving coverage of a particular issue? How is a particular issue being talked about? Who or what groups are being talked about?

If this year’s Fall Welcome is any indication, it will be another exciting year of Digital Humanities scholarship at Northeastern!

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