Project Vox and the Digital Humanities at McGill University

Late last year, CIT provided Andrew Janiak, Chair and Creed C. Black Professor in the Department of Philosophy, with funding to attend a conference at McGill University entitled, “Early Modern Works by and about Women.”  In addition to attending sessions and discussions about digital humanities in Philosophy, Janiak presented about Project Vox, a Duke-sponsored project that seeks to recover the lost voices of women who have been ignored in standard narratives of the history of modern philosophy.  Dr. Janiak provided the following account of the conference.

In November, 2016, McGill University in Montreal, Canada, held a two-day international conference that brought together scholars from numerous fields working on digital humanities (DH) projects of various kinds. The DH projects presented at the conference ran the full gamut from inchoate efforts at institutions just beginning to think about how humanistic research can be influenced and presented using digital tools to long-standing, third generation efforts that are pushing the envelope of the field. Importantly, the audience included a full range of students and faculty from throughout the humanistic universe: whereas some were technically informed and thoroughly familiar with all the latest tools in the DH toolkit, others were learning about DH projects for the first time. This proved to be especially helpful in challenging the presenters to accommodate two distinct audiences simultaneously, presenting their work in a way that engages DH experts without alienating humanists lacking a DH background.

In general, the DH projects at the conference can be separated into three categories. First, some of them involved the use of large data sets of information — for instance, thousands of titles of humanistic works — that can be processed and analyzed only using new digital tools of various kinds. Instead of following the traditional route of having one scholar obtain expert knowledge of some field — say, 19th century life-writing in Germany — and then produce an analysis on that basis, one group proposed the use of digital tools that would allow for an analysis of a much wider swath of the field, perhaps even achieving a comprehensive view of it. Second, some of the DH projects used digital tools to accomplish tasks that are more familiar to the humanist: for instance, the clever use of text files representing different editions of a single work in one language allows the scholar to find all alterations in the text in a systematic and quick manner. Unlike the first kind of case, this approach doesn’t fundamentally alter the work of the humanist, but perhaps can be seen to strengthen it in some ways. Third and finally, there were DH projects that transcended the usual boundaries involved in traditional publishing through the digital publication of texts. Obviously, digital publication has certain benefits, including a lack of financial constraints concerning page lengths, the use of color images, etc., and the ability to dynamically update a text as new analysis is completed. The pros and cons of various mechanisms for digital publishing were discussed at some length; there was some debate about the best mechanism for digital publication, and the best approach toward digital transcriptions of manuscript material (MS Word, RTF, and LaTex were all mentioned). Participants tended to agree that programs such as Word will tend to import a considerable amount of extraneous code that can hamper efforts at digital publication, in a way that RTF and LaTex do not.

I presented Project Vox as falling into the third category of DH project. Vox is a digital platform for the dissemination of scholarly information about the neglected voices of women during the development of European philosophy during the 17th and 18th centuries. We are just beginning our efforts in the realm of digital publishing. The Vox team is truly interdisciplinary and vertically integrated: we include undergraduates, recent graduates, PhD students in several different fields, graduate students in library science, faculty members and high-level staff members from Duke Libraries. As of this month, Vox has had 24,000 unique visitors from 139 countries around the world. Our work has been covered by the London Times, the Atlantic Monthly, the Washington Post, Duke Magazine and Duke Today, among other venues.