Digital Humanities Tools Can Inform Media Studies


Practitioners of the Digital Humanities such as Dan Rosenberg, Arianne Dwyer or Giovanna Ceserani use digital research tools to make arguments in their respective disciplines.  While the object of study itself might be digital in a field such as media studies, tools provided by the digital humanities can be used to do research within the realm of media studies.

A case in point is the digitization of recordings still only available on VHS tapes so as to make them searchable. Had 1980s French television shows been digitized when I consulted them at the TV archive in Paris a few years ago, I might have been able to locate the advertising, which in turn would have allowed me to elaborate my arguments.  The digitization was then in process; these arguments will have to be made. While I wanted to locate such advertising so as to have a better insight into marketer's understanding of specific shows' demographics, the digitized files and their encoding likely will lend themselves to unforeseen findings.

Many more possible avenues for productive use of digital research techniques come to mind well beyond my narrow focus on - what Jonathan Gray called - paratexts. Further development of software and search engines would allow for the filtering of information in ways that would alter the research process as it currently is, and would in turn certainly affect the media studies scholarship thereby elicited.  While this argument might appear somewhat slippery, it rests on the assumption that how we analyze and look at texts is more dynamic than the object of one's study, the what of any methodological framework.  Following this logic, historians, linguists and classicists such as the three above cited scholars will be able to borrow from the digital humanities to develop scholarship in their own respective fields in the same way that media scholars can.


Image on the front page by andyaldridge and available on flickr.


I think the concepts that you present for helping to fold digital humanities into more traditional fields. I wonder if it might be productive to think about the ways in which the archiving process and those who determine what the archiving process looks like for certain media. In other words, how does the heuristic applied to the archiving process for, say your 1980s French television shows example, configure how the researcher approaches the object of their research?

I don't know that I am so much suggesting a way for the digital humanities to get in step with traditional fields as I am intrigued by what the tools they have to offer can do for a more established one, namely media studies. I will answer your rhetorical question positively, following your lead, and perhaps go further yet: these tools, whether they are modes of preservation or research filters, will have an impact not only on scholars' research designs and readings of their object of study, but also on the nature of the knowledge they produce. Shall we consider an epistemology of the digital archive? How much will be lost in heuristic translation? How much gained?

As someone involved in the process of building digital tools for film and media research, I was glad this week to read both your post and Richard Abel’s essay, “The Pleasures and Perils of Big Data in Digitized Newspapers” (which is in the new issue of Film History).

Search is important, and I’ve been working with a team at the Media History Digital Library and University of Wisconsin-Madison Dept. of Communication Arts on making the MHDL’s collection of 500,000+ digitized film and media magazines more easily searchable. The process has been illuminating and often surprising. I frequently hear scholars express concern about OCR quality in terms of search accuracy. However, I’ve found that the bigger problem for accuracy is search algorithms that are optimized for speed and time out after a certain number of results. It’s only when you peek under the hood of an open source search engine, like Solr, that you notice these things. (Solr, by the way, has great “stemming” algorithms that help mitigate the problems of OCR).

Also, as I work on the MHDL’s search tool, I’m also aware that there are many other uses beyond fulltext search for the digital data available to our field. Two especially exiting tools that pursue these possibilities are emerging from USC: the Scalar platform, with its powerful integration of media archive APIs, and Virgina Kuhn’s ongoing development of moving image analytics software. 

We’re at a point where media scholars aren’t simply using digital humanities tools; we’re building them.


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