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Dreaming up a DH Research Agenda for Mormon Studies

By: Tona H - April 02, 2013

On my spring break I took a one-day “staycation” to Day 1 of a local gathering of digital humanities scholars, hosted by the smart folks at Northeastern University’s NULab for Texts, Maps and Networks (http://nulab.neu.edu/, tweeting at @NUlabTMN). It was one of the best conferences I’ve been to – seemed like mainly literary scholars but also historians, librarians, and coders, and it involved a good blend of showcasing completely awesome ongoing initiatives, asking big existential questions about knowledge production, and teaching hands-on skills. Myself, I learned a bit about network analysis using Gephi (no relation to Nephi) and how to georeference a high-resolution historical map image using ArcGIS. I felt like a boss (as my students would say) by the day’s end.

And it got me thinking. Suppose a group of smart someones were applying these tools to Mormon Studies. (For one thing, they probably are, and I just don’t know about it – I hope you will proliferate the comments with examples). What’s so cool about the kinds of projects that are emerging in the digital humanities now is that they can apply to pretty much anything that can be…

annotated

aggregated

mapped

tagged

related to something else

counted

tabulated

collected

located in space and/or time

Which offers lots of possibilities for studying the Mormon past, Mormon texts, and the Mormon people.

For example –

One of NULab’s projects is looking at reprinting networks in the 19th century. Newspapers in antebellum America were notorious for borrowing material from other newspapers and reprinting it, and the NULab scholars are interested in which texts “went viral” and how those networks actually worked – how fast, how interconnected, how spatially dispersed were they. Currently they’re using papers from the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America collection. Another network, created by Jean Bauer at Brown, analyzes early American diplomatic correspondence – who’s writing to whom and how often, over what kinds of questions, and so on.

One could easily envision this kind of approach applied to the emerging Mormon movement, analyzing networks of missionization, immigration, marriage, friendship and kinship, schism, correspondence, publications, sermons, hymnody, and a zillion other things we might want to know (and might actually have decent data on). We might think we already know who the most influential or important early Mormons were, but data analysis might yield some surprising patterns. Whose texts are Mormons reading, borrowing from, and citing? Who’s reading, borrowing from, and citing them in return? Where are the “nodes” of this network – are they where we would expect (Kirtland, Independence, Quincy, Salt Lake, London), or are there some outliers?

Or for example –

Adding onto the work of historians who look at the built landscape (I’m thinking of not only Jared Farmer and Thomas Carter, but even about Arrington and Reisner), could GIS and geolocation help us better understand how Mormons literally reshaped the American West? What if we were mapping settlements, irrigation, quarrying and construction, housing patterns, meetinghouses, Relief Society buildings, orchards, trading posts, railroads, and cemeteries? What might we learn that we didn’t already know, by seeing data mapped either geographically or chronologically?

While we’re at it, can we leverage “big data” to do more to uncover the lives of “unexceptional” Mormon women and men? This came from a comment I jotted in my notes from last summer’s “Women and the LDS Church” conference — we just don’t know enough about members (especially, but not exclusively women) who weren’t powerful, connected, literate, educated, white, or long-lived. Perhaps a sustained digital initiative could help. A tracking project? Data mining? Census records? Personal papers database? Other ideas? I’m thinking how to move from the anecdotal and biographical approaches (e.g. the fine Women of Faith series) to something more granular.

Or for example –

The keynote of the conference was a structured — and incredibly engaging — dialogue between “big data” Matthew Jockers and “small data” Julia Flanders. In the end, their conversation circled around the idea that “close reading” might be not so much a conflict between scales as an approach that might work at any scale by iterating between texts and the questions we choose to ask of them.

And Mormons are nothing if not text-producers, much of it banal. One of the promising avenues that Flanders mentioned was to begin to see anew the text that “disappears” as utterly ordinary, and to re-introduce it as an object of scholarly inquiry. Not sure what that might mean exactly for Mormon Studies, but it got me thinking. Patriarchal blessings. General Conference talks. Scripture marginalia, if it could somehow be captured. Mommy blogs. Missionary letters. Recipes. Then there’s Mormon linguistics: like the Google N-gram or the Popular Science Archive Explorer, one could envision a tool like a Mormon M-gram that charts frequency of words and thus helps us get at their changing meaning & use over our history.

As a scholar of radio and audio files, one direction I’d love to see the digital humanities move is toward better markup and annotation for sound files without having to convert them all to text. Then we could start in on the massive Mormon soundscape archive: Music and the Spoken Word, General Conference, films & filmstrips, recordings, oral histories, you name it. We have a huge untapped potential database there, don’t we?

Then there’s metahistory, too – imagine a huge CSV file of all the dissertations, journal articles, monographs and conference papers dealing with Mormon history. Run it through some algorithms, and what questions, themes, concerns are overrepresented and where might the gaps be?

I guess what my trip downtown Boston got me thinking about is – what do we, the emerging generation of digital humanists working in religious history, wish we knew about this collective past? And could digital humanities tools help get us there? I think the answer is a resounding yes. Here’s dreaming.



11 Comments

  1. I love this in so many ways. I wonder how difficult it would be to get the data from BYU’s Studies in Mormon History database. Hmm…

    Comment by Tod Robbins — April 2, 2013 @ 11:51 am

  2. Really exciting stuff, Tona. And a lot to think about. Thank you.

    Comment by J. Stapley — April 2, 2013 @ 11:52 am

  3. Excellent, Tona. A lot of exciting stuff going on and a lot of possibilities for Mormon historians/digital humanists to advantage of.

    Comment by Christopher — April 2, 2013 @ 1:51 pm

  4. I would have loved (and still would!) that huge searchable CSV file of Mormon history scholarship! Looking forward to the future!

    Comment by NatalieR — April 2, 2013 @ 2:45 pm

  5. Cool stuff and ideas. Thanks, Tona.

    Comment by Ben P — April 2, 2013 @ 3:06 pm

  6. This is, indeed, a really, really exciting post, Tona. Your enthusiasm spills through the page.

    And you should know I’m the lead organizer for a THATCamp which will be held at the AAR’s next annual meeting in Baltimore. Hope to see you there!

    Chris

    Comment by Chris Cantwell — April 2, 2013 @ 3:16 pm

  7. Very intriguing.

    One source I have found useful is _The Corpus of LDS General Conference Talks_, which contains GC addresses from 1851 to the present, and is designed for analyzing word frequencies and collocations.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — April 2, 2013 @ 5:16 pm

  8. I like these ideas. You might want to check out Steve Liddle’s LDS Scripture Citation Index (http://scriptures.byu.edu/). I’ve been mulling over some ideas related to the JSPP documents, but haven’t started anything yet. Thanks for bringing this back to my attention.

    Comment by Aaron Curtis — April 3, 2013 @ 4:49 pm

  9. You could also check out LDS-related subsets of existing data sets that have been used in digital humanities / networks type research. For example, the IMDB database contains production info, actors, directors, etc. for film productions, including those produced by Brigham Young University Studios http://www.imdb.com/company/co0029469/?ref_=tt_dt_co.

    Comment by Aaron Curtis — April 3, 2013 @ 4:55 pm

  10. Exciting ideas! I’m working on an annotated table of contents for the Young Woman’s Journal–very rudimentary so far; I’d love some advice from an expert. My hope is to create a source that will be useful in and of itself but also help make this great source (and others, when I get to it) more usable.

    Comment by LisaT — April 3, 2013 @ 7:41 pm

  11. Thanks for all the good comments. LisaT, I’m excited to hear more about your project as it unfolds! You can track me down at professortona at gmail if you want to connect about it. Love to hear about LDS women’s DH projects, of whatever scale and size.

    Comment by Tona H — April 4, 2013 @ 7:06 pm