In the digital humanities, academics from fields like English and history use high tech tools to conduct research and track trends. Projects that were once impossible are now underway, from comparing language usage in a million books to curating online collections of interactive and multimedia materials. We’ll discover what digital humanities scholars are uncovering about the past and learn how some are looking to the future to preserve the culture of today.


  • Brett Bobley Director of the Office of Digital Humanities, National Endowment for the Humanities
  • Kari Kraus Assistant professor, department of English and College of Information Studies, University of Maryland
  • Benjamin Schmidt Visiting graduate fellow, Cultural Observatory at Harvard; graduate student, Princeton University.

Quiz: Anachronisms In Popular Period Dramas

Period dramas are making a resurgence in popular culture, from television series like “Mad Men” and “Downton Abbey” to historical films like “Lincoln.” Stage designers, costume makers and screenplay writers are keen to reflect the era that the story is set. But how accurate are the words and phrases these characters use?

Benjamin Schmidt, visiting graduate fellow at the Cultural Observatory at Harvard and a graduate student in history at Princeton University, researches verbal anachronisms in his blog, Prochronisms. He’s identified conversations peppered with words and phrases that are more popular today than the period in which they’re supposed to be speaking. For example, Schmidt found that modern business vernacular such as “leverage” and “even the playing field” often seems to creep into “Mad Men” scenes.

Test your knowledge of which saying was chronologically correct for the time, knowing that “Downton Abbey” is set from 1912 to 1921, “Mad Men” takes place during the 1960s and “Lincoln” is set in 1865. Answers to the quiz are below.

Quiz Answers

Q1. India
Q2. contraband
Q3. combine against
Q4. have to
Q5. coffee beans
Q6. perfect match
Q7. sharpshooter
Q8. sneaked
Q9. peace mission
Q10. irritating


  • 12:08:14

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's Tech Tuesday. The traditional literary historian doesn't like computers and data. They hail from a field that celebrates time spent in old archives, poring over ancient texts and first editions, parsing words and pondering analogies and allegories, finding answers and narratives from the past.

  • 12:08:53

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut some pioneering researchers are using technology to transform disciplines across the humanities and social sciences using sophisticated algorithms and new digital archives to disrupt disciplines as old as academia itself. Today, some so-called digital humanists are writing academic papers that would have been impossible 20 years ago, comparing literally millions of essays, poems and novels.

  • 12:09:21

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIOthers are using massive digital collections of books to critique popular historical shows and movies, like "Downton Abbey" and Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln," while others are worrying about how we can create archives today that will last thousands of years. This Tech Tuesday, we're exploring how scholars in the digital humanities are tracing the evolution of ideas in the past and preserving them for the future.

  • 12:09:47

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us in studio is Kari Kraus. She's a professor in the Department of English and in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland. Kari Kraus, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:09:57

    PROF. KARI KRAUSThanks for having me, Kojo.

  • 12:09:59

    NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Brett Bobley. He is director of the Office of Digital Humanities at the National Endowment for the Humanities. Brett, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:10:08

    MR. BRETT BOBLEYThank you, Kojo. Great to be here.

  • 12:10:09

    NNAMDIAnd joining us from studios at Harvard is Benjamin Schmidt. He is a visiting graduate fellow of the Cultural Observatory at Harvard and a graduate student at Princeton. Benjamin, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:10:21

    MR. BENJAMIN SCHMIDTThank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

  • 12:10:23

    NNAMDIIt's a Tech Tuesday conversation we'd like for you too to join. You can do that by calling us at 800-433-8850. You can send us email to, send us a tweet, @kojoshow, using #TechTuesday, or go to our website,, and join the conversation there. Brett Bobley, I'll start with you. Even if you were to read one book a day, it would take you over 3,000 years to read 1 million books, but today, digital humanists are reading through a million books at once. What is the digital humanities?

  • 12:10:58

    BOBLEYWell, Kojo, just as scientists today use technology to do their research, what we're finding is that scholars in the humanities disciplines, things like literature and philosophy and history, are starting to use computers in new ways to do their work. If you think about the things that these scholars study, things like books and music and art, these are increasingly becoming digital products, and technology allows these scholars to study them in new ways they couldn't do before.

  • 12:11:26

    NNAMDIKari, what kinds of technology are changing work in this field?

  • 12:11:31

    KRAUSWell, so there's a variety. I mean certainly the digitization process and technologies that we have are allowing us to make that conversion from analog materials to digital materials. But in addition to kind of the big-data approach to digital humanities, there's also things like microcontrollers. So increasingly, we're able to make things in the real world animate and interactive in various kinds of ways. So interactive textiles, for example, smart textiles, textiles that have LEDs on them that can light up and do things. This is part of the digital humanities, too.

  • 12:12:07

    NNAMDIBenjamin, you help developed a tool called Bookworm. It lets you search the full texts of thousands of books. How does a tool like that change the kinds of questions you can ask as a researcher?

  • 12:12:20

    SCHMIDTWell, previously, we've had to think about historical questions largely in terms of the archives or the individual books that we want to look in. But when you can look at all of the metadata that librarians have been collecting for years and years, for example, you can start to think in larger terms about how disciplines are shifting or about how genres are changing. And there's a lot of really interesting work that a lot of people are doing right now to try to ask those questions above the level of the individual novel or the individual work of history.

  • 12:12:52

    NNAMDIYeah, there are a lot of questions now about pop culture, too. You've started fact-checking pop culture's take on history. You've picked apart the likes of "Mad Men," "Downton Abbey" and the winter blockbuster "Lincoln" with questions of historical accuracy. How are you able to figure out what meticulous screenwriters, like Tony Cushman and Matthew Wiener, cannot?

  • 12:13:16

    SCHMIDTWell, this is one of the really interesting things that happens when you have a million books that are suddenly available, or actually more than a million books. I think it's about 6 or 8 million that are in the Google Ngrams Corpus right now. And so what I was able to do was just take every single word or phrase that shows up in a movie like "Lincoln" and see if it ever appeared in the books at the time to find words that stick out, words that were anachronisms in the period.

  • 12:13:44

    NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number here if you'd like to join this conversation. Do you have any questions about the historical accuracy of shows like "Downton Abbey" and "Mad Men"? 800-433-8850. You can send email to Benjamin, after watching the season finale of "Downton Abbey," you say writer Julian Fellowes saved the worst anachronisms for last. I'd like to start out by listening to a clip from the latest episode and ask our callers, too, if they can pick the anachronism in what we're about to hear. It's 800-433-8850. Let's listen to it now.

  • 12:14:22

    MS. MAGGIE SMITHWell this evening had a rumpy start. I'm afraid (unintelligible) isn't herself.

  • 12:14:30

    UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE #1She's absolutely herself. That's the problem.

  • 12:14:34

    SMITHPoor souls. It's bad enough parenting a child when you like each other.

  • 12:14:42

    NNAMDIBenjamin, set that up for us. That's Maggie Smith talking. What is she talking about?

  • 12:14:46

    SCHMIDTYes. Well, Maggie Smith is talking in that scene in her fantastic way about a unhappy family that they're visiting up in Scotland, and she's describing the problems that they're having -- which should be rearing a child. But she says parenting a child. And I thought that...

  • 12:15:02

    NNAMDILet's listen to it again. Let's listen to it again. Let's see if our callers figured it out.

  • 12:15:14

    NNAMDIWent right by me, Benjamin. What's wrong with the use of parenting in that context?

  • 12:15:20

    SCHMIDTWell, it's a very subtle distinction, but it's one of the things that I find so interesting about doing this work is that parenting is a word that only comes in in the 1960s and the 1970s to describe raising a child. And there are two really significant changes that happened in the ways that we talk about families in the '60s and the '70s. The first is that there's a new and equal role expected to be shared between the mother and the father.

  • 12:15:48

    SCHMIDTAnd the second is that it's described primarily in terms of a nuclear family, and it takes both of those changes for us to really need this new word parenting to describe what it means to bring a child up, whereas in actuality in a British aristocratic family, they wouldn't have been thinking in those nuclear family terms at all.

  • 12:16:07

    NNAMDIAt the very beginning of that, we also heard the term bumpy road. Was that also an anachronism?

  • 12:16:14

    SCHMIDTYeah. Bumpy start is...

  • 12:16:16

    NNAMDIBumpy start.

  • 12:16:16

    SCHMIDT...almost certainly an anachronism. I noticed that it popped out when I ran the anachronism machine through this thing, and both bumpy start and rocky start, which comes into use a little bit earlier, are words that enter the language maybe in the 1940s and the 1950s.

  • 12:16:34

    NNAMDIWell, I guess you need to be consulting with screenwriters in the future.

  • 12:16:38

    NNAMDIBrett, a research project that you recently funded is using technology to authenticate letters that scholars believe were written by Lincoln. How can technology be a better judge of Lincoln's writing style than human experts?

  • 12:16:52

    BOBLEYWell, back in Abraham Lincoln's day, it's well-known among historians that he would sometimes write very scathing anonymous letters to the editor of local newspapers, sometimes attacking his political opponents. And historians for years have argued which ones he wrote and which ones he didn't write because we're not exactly sure. So we're trying to come up with new ways to authenticate these letters.

  • 12:17:15

    BOBLEYAnd Daniel Stowell, who's the head of The Papers of Abraham Lincoln Project, is directing this project, and he knows probably more about the writings of Abraham Lincoln than anyone in the country. And he's gathered together a group of letters that we know for a fact were written by Lincoln. And he's working with Patrick Juola, who's a computer scientist at Duquesne University.

  • 12:17:34

    BOBLEYAnd Patrick is going to compare computationally the letters that we know Lincoln wrote to these ones that we're not sure about, to see if we can stylistically figure out which ones Lincoln wrote and which ones he did not.

  • 12:17:46

    NNAMDIUsing huge sets of data to figure out historical trends would not be easy without technology. When you heard a soldier in Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln," Benjamin, using -- being addressed by the name Kevin, you went to the data to check it out. What did you find, and traditionally, how would a historian go about answering the questions you're asking?

  • 12:18:09

    SCHMIDTWell, so I was really surprised when I ran through the algorithm and this soldier named Kevin showed up as an anachronism. But then I checked in the Union soldier enlistment records which has put online, and there's actually only one soldier named Kevin who entered the Union Army in the entire period from 1863 to 1865. Kevin was just...

  • 12:18:28

    NNAMDIHe might have been the guy.

  • 12:18:30

    SCHMIDTHe might have been the guy. It's true. And that's one of the things that's so funny about doing this is that we can't know for sure what absolutely didn't happen. But that's not actually the sort of questions that historians tend to be really interested in. It's, what was the custom at the time or what was the general environment like?

  • 12:18:46

    SCHMIDTAnd one of the things that's so interesting about big data applied this way is that we can see things that didn't happen rather than things that did happen. And it's very hard to be sure that something didn't happen traditionally. There's just no way to look through the phonebook, unless it's alphabetized by first name, to see what people's first names were.

  • 12:19:04

    NNAMDIAnd I guess people will want to know why was there only one Kevin at that time in the entire Union Army. When did the name Kevin become more popular?

  • 12:19:13

    SCHMIDTSo the first year that the Social Security Administration has more than five Kevins in the United States is 1905, I think. And the reason is Irish nationalism. It's that in the run-up to Irish independence, a lot more families were trying to find traditional Irish names for their children. And St. Kevin, of course, although he wasn't called Kevin in Irish Gaelic, was one of the trendy names among the Irish populations. They were trying to register their support for a free Irish nation.

  • 12:19:41

    NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. We're talking about digital humanities and wondering if you have questions about the historical accuracy of shows like "Downton Abbey" and "Mad Men," give us a call, 800-433-8850. Do you think we can learn about a culture from the books it publishes? Give us a call. We're talking with Brett Bobley. He is director of the Office of Digital Humanities at the National Endowment for the Humanities.

  • 12:20:06

    NNAMDIKari Kraus is a professor in the Department of English and in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland. And Benjamin Schmidt is a visiting graduate fellow of the Cultural Observatory at Harvard and a graduate student at Princeton. Brett, "Lincoln" was set in a historical period that can make Americans pretty uneasy. Do you think we can handle seeing history as it really was then what you seem to be determined to have us do?

  • 12:20:35

    BOBLEYWell, I think -- and you should ask Ben this question as well. There is nothing wrong, of course, with the screenwriter taking artistic license and trying to make the story as compelling as possible for modern readers and modern viewers, I should say. But, on the other hand, it's really fascinating to trace how language changes over time. Often time, we take for granted the words we use today.

  • 12:20:58

    BOBLEYAnd it's quite surprising to learn that a phrase that you might use every day was not used 100 years ago. Maybe it was not even used 20 years ago. So this type of research helps us get a better understanding of language and how we communicate as a people across the United States and really across the world. So there's really a lot of interesting uses for this sort of research beyond just the sort of fun approach that we're looking at today.

  • 12:21:24

    NNAMDIBenjamin, same question to you, with the addendum, is it likely that the screenwriter feels it not only has to be accessible to viewers today but also palatable to viewers today?

  • 12:21:37

    SCHMIDTYes. Well, I think that -- one of the things that I have really gotten out of doing this is that it's probably not even possible to make something completely historically accurate. I'm only checking the three-word phrases, but there are five-word phrases. And all the props can't be right. And, of course, it's perfectly fine for a movie or a TV show to take license. But I think it's also important that we realize that the past was actually very, very different. And this is something that historians are always talking about.

  • 12:22:04

    SCHMIDTBut the more that we can use tools like this to uncover just how much has changed that we don't even realize its change, that opens up a lot of really interesting possibilities for historians. And I think it's sort of -- should tamper our -- it shouldn't tamper our enjoyment of historical television shows. But it should possibly tamper our respect of them as something that accurately represents the past as it was.

  • 12:22:27

    NNAMDIKari Kraus, back in the '90s, you worked to create an archive of the complete works of the poet William Blake. It not only included poetry but illustrations. What can you learn about the artist if you're able to compare their ideas across different media?

  • 12:22:42

    KRAUSYeah. That's an example of an early digital humanities project, a first generation humanities project in a lot of ways. And it was daunting in that we not only had to figure out how to digitize Blake's engravings and etchings, his paintings, his drawings but ways that we could mark them up to make them searchable in new kinds of ways. So we developed an in-house controlled vocabulary at the time that described each visual motif and Blake's corpus in minute detail.

  • 12:23:12

    KRAUSSo you can still now go to the Blake archive, and if you're interested in, say, all shepherds who are kneeling with pipes across Blake's entire visual oeuvre, you can find those. It demanded a tremendous amount of manual labor and work. But it potentially opens up new -- finding new patterns in his visual corpus.

  • 12:23:33

    NNAMDIIs it difficult now even in today's digital environment to make images truly searchable?

  • 12:23:39

    KRAUSIt is in that we still rely on language to search for pictures. So there is a field called computer vision, and the sort of Holy Grail is to be able to take images to search for other images. So you can imagine a database of, say, animals in a zoo. And let's say that you're interested in all pictures of horses in the zoo. So ideally, you'd be able to click on a picture of a horse.

  • 12:24:03

    KRAUSAnd that would pull up all of the other images of horses in the database. And you are seeing applications along those lines. Google is experimenting with that. But we still rely a lot on descriptions of pictures to search for and find other pictures. And that's certainly what we did with the William Blake Archive.

  • 12:24:21

    NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Elizabeth in Springfield, Va. Elizabeth, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:24:27

    ELIZABETHHi. I just wanted ask, what big ideas are people thinking of using these for not just authenticating what happened in movies and some things like that? I just heard about the Blake Archive. But what other things our researchers really interested in using this mega data for?

  • 12:24:48

    NNAMDIWant to talk about that, Brett Bobley?

  • 12:24:51

    BOBLEYSure. We're using this type of data for lots of different things. If you think about this and in, like, history, for example, imagine you're a historian, and you're trying to do research on, say, the Civil War. You might go back and read old newspapers from the time to try to gather information, gather your research. But today, you have access to far, far more information than researchers did just a few years back. You can literally search almost every newspaper that still exists from the Civil War period.

  • 12:25:21

    BOBLEYHow does that change what you discover now that you can compare things? You can learn much more about what actually happened. And because the volume, these new digital tools are really, really important in helping the researcher to still down and figure out what they're looking at and how they can really bring that to bear for their historical research.

  • 12:25:43

    NNAMDIAnd, you know, Elizabeth, expanding on your question for a little bit, Kari, Benjamin, this is addressed to both of you or anyone who cares to answer, while words change through history, the ideas behind those words might stay the same. Is it possible to track abstract ideas in big data sets? First you, Benjamin.

  • 12:26:04

    SCHMIDTWell, it's very difficult. And that's one of the things that we're really trying to figure out how to do. But one of the things that you notice when you look at these data sets is that usually, if you have two particular words that you might think mean the same thing, parenting a child, for example, and raising a child, they actually rise at the same time rather than one displacing the other.

  • 12:26:27

    SCHMIDTSo in a lot of ways, if you can just find bundles of words that move together or if you can do the same sort of really in-depth reading of individual texts which you find through the sorts of search engines and more advanced algorithms that Brett was talking about, you can get to not necessarily a perfect understanding of what happened but the same store of understanding invested in close reading that historians have always tried to get.

  • 12:26:53


  • 12:26:54

    KRAUSYeah. So, I mean, there are a lot of approaches coming out of computational linguistic. One is called topic modeling -- and Brett has funded work in this area, so he might actually want to chime in here. But this is an approach that allows you to find topics or categories that characterize large corpora of texts. And so it's another way of just locating those kinds of patterns.

  • 12:27:20

    KRAUSI have a student at the University of Maryland, actually, she just recently graduated with a PhD in English literature, who was working in an -- with ekphrastic poetry. This is poetry about visual works of art. So Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn" is a kind of typical example. But she was interested in ekphrastic poetry by women, and she used topic modeling and advanced visualization techniques to sort rethink our understanding of the way this genre works.

  • 12:27:52


  • 12:27:53

    BOBLEYYeah. Absolutely. And I should note it's not just large data sets of text. It is also other types of data, like musical data. We've got projects that are studying the history of music by digitally analyzing millions of works of music, or visual as well. We've got a terrific project that we funded called FACES at UC Riverside, and they're actually using facial recognition technology.

  • 12:28:16

    BOBLEYThis is technology that really came out of the defense and security era. You've probably seen it on TV where they have a face of a terrorist, and they try to locate it on a video camera or the like. But these folks said, well, what if we could use that for art history? We know that many famous painters would often paint the same faces in more than one picture.

  • 12:28:37

    BOBLEYSo why not take one face and then computationally search thousands of other paintings to try to find out if the same figure appeared in different ones? And the preliminary results are actually quite interesting. We're already seeing -- art historians are telling us they're finding new connections and new faces that they hadn't seen before until they were able to apply this new computer technology.

  • 12:28:56

    NNAMDIZelig rises again. Elizabeth, thank you very much for your call. How cool is that? We're going to take a short break. If you have already called, stay on the line, if you're Jeannie, Emily or others, 'cause when we come back, we're obviously going to talk about our membership campaign. But we will be continuing this conversation on the digital humanities. So stay on the line. Or you can call right now, 800-433-8850. If you have questions or comments, send us an email to Can history and culture be broken down into numbers and statistics? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:36:45

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our Tech Tuesday conversation on digital humanities. We're talking with Kari Kraus. She's a professor in the Department of English and in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland. Brett Bobley is director of the Office of Digital Humanities at the National Endowment for the Humanities.

  • 12:37:02

    NNAMDIAnd Benjamin Schmidt is a visiting graduate fellow of the Cultural Observatory at Harvard and a graduate student at Princeton. You can call us at 800-433-8850. I think I'll go directly to the phones where Jeannie in Silver Spring, Md., I think, has a relevant question. Jeannie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:37:23

    JEANNIEHello there. I'd like to know whether the databases show the researchers anything about, I guess, you'd say the demographics of the use of whatever it is. Is it in a magazine that had a circulation of 2 million or a small one that had a circulation of 1,000? Were they used for college-educated people or was this teenage boys in Popular Mechanics or what?

  • 12:37:48

    NNAMDIYes. That's a fascinating question. You want to start with that, Brett Bobley?

  • 12:37:53

    BOBLEYWell, the database that Ben is using -- and, Ben, maybe I should tip this over to you -- is a huge database of books that were scanned from libraries across the country. Isn't that right, Ben?

  • 12:38:03

    SCHMIDTYeah, that's right. And it was assembled by Google over the course of the last seven years, and Google has going to almost all of the largest libraries in the world and scanning primarily library books.

  • 12:38:13

    NNAMDIBut what do you say to people who say, even today, the entire population doesn't read or write books? So are published books good measuring sticks for studying culture?

  • 12:38:24

    SCHMIDTAnd the answer is that they're good measuring sticks for studying some aspects of culture but not every aspect of culture, and that's actually one of the things that's so important about the kind of digitization work that Kari has been doing with things like the Blake poems and a lot of the projects that Brett has been funding. For example, the NEH has a fantastic program to scan all of these historical newspapers from the 19th century in the United States.

  • 12:38:48

    SCHMIDTAnd that lets us see stuff at much finer resolution than just knowing that it appeared in a library book somewhere. It lets us know that it appeared in this particular newspaper with this circulation in this town. And as we move forward and as we get more data online, we're going to be able to ask and answer questions with a lot more specificity and ask a lot more important questions. It's very relevant to know just those sorts of questions about what a book is.

  • 12:39:13

    NNAMDIAnd, Jeanie, does that answer your question?

  • 12:39:15

    JEANNIEYes, basically. Thanks.

  • 12:39:16

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. We move on to Emily in Arlington, Va. Emily, your turn.

  • 12:39:22

    EMILYHi. Thanks for taking my call. And my question is, what are the problems you would encounter with using written language to critique or get a perspective on spoken language such as in "Downton Abbey" because there are inherent differences between the two especially when you go further back historically?

  • 12:39:48


  • 12:39:50

    SCHMIDTYeah, that is definitely true. It's something that I worry about, and it's something that more sorts of data can help with. One of the places that I have checked is by looking against both old movies and in "Downton Abbey's" period screenplays to make sure -- or, excuse me, plays to make sure that the changes that I'm seeing in books hold up -- and they do -- and also looking at actual tape-recorded conversations where they exist.

  • 12:40:12

    SCHMIDTSo when I was looking at "Mad Men," I compared that to all of the White House tapes that Kennedy and Johnson made. And the changes that I was observing in the written language over the time did match pretty well against the changes in the spoken language as well.

  • 12:40:27

    NNAMDIKari Kraus, care to comment?

  • 12:40:29

    KRAUSI would just say that this is an issue that has plagued, say, the field of lexicography, dictionary-making for a long time. My understanding is that when the Oxford English Dictionary was in the making, that they relied on a word's first appearance in print, for obvious reasons, to sort of date its origin. And, of course, there could have -- there could be a lag between when a word is first used in a spoken context and when it first appears in print. So this is a long-standing issue.

  • 12:40:55

    NNAMDIBrett, people in the humanities -- and thank you for your call, Emily. People in the humanities have always debated the most influential writers of their time, but those observations were always, well, subjective. Yet a researcher at the University of Nebraska may have actually found an objective answer using data analysis.

  • 12:41:12

    NNAMDIHe says when it comes to themes and writing styles, Jane Austen was one of the most influential writers in the 19th century. Well, some people already thought so. Can researchers use these new tools to find an objective answer to questions that seemed hopelessly subjective?

  • 12:41:30

    BOBLEYThat's a great question, Kojo. And I think the answer is no, not in the scientific sense. In other words, you can't definitively say Jane Austen is the most influential novelist ever. But what you can do is use these quantitative methods to try to see the influence of someone like Jane Austen on other writers. And then perhaps it raises new questions or sometimes contradicts what people thought was the case.

  • 12:41:57

    BOBLEYI think what we're seeing with digital humanities is kind of the rise of using both quantitative and qualitative methods to look carefully at the data and say, hey, that doesn't look right, something's wrong. Or this person's more influential than I ever thought. But now let's try to delve in more and try to figure out why.

  • 12:42:13

    NNAMDIOn to the telephones again. Here is, oh, Geri in Shady Side, Md. Geri, go ahead, please.

  • 12:42:20

    GERIOh, hi. Thank you, Kojo. I love your show.

  • 12:42:23

    NNAMDIThank you.

  • 12:42:25

    GERII'm just fascinated by this whole idea of using computer technology to isolate anachronisms. And I was watching, of course, "Downton Abbey" a few days ago. And I heard one of the characters respond to a question by saying the two-word phrase, as if. And I thought, wow, I didn't know there were Valley girls in Yorkshire...

  • 12:42:50 least not at that time. And I just wondered, surely the phrase, as if, would appear -- you know, if you did some kind of a search on it, of writings at the time, you would find that phrase. But isolated just as that two-word phrase, is there a way to do that?

  • 12:43:06


  • 12:43:08

    SCHMIDTWell, I'll say that I did hear complaints about that from other people, that my algorithm did not pick it up, which I think is an important thing to remember about the accuracy of algorithmic techniques. They work some of the time. They can really help you uncover stuff, but then you need to figure out what to do with them when they come out. And that's the place where all of the traditional humanistic expertise that we've built up is invaluable.

  • 12:43:30

    NNAMDIBenjamin, when you mine the data of millions of digitized text, you're tapping into the collective memory to answer questions about that period of time. Is there a danger that you're taking the individual out of history in the process, maybe the exception?

  • 12:43:47

    SCHMIDTI certainly hope not. And I absolutely don't think that we should view the digital humanities as displacing individuals entirely. But the thing to remember that is, as all of these new sources come into existence, historians have always tried to figure out how to make the best use of the sources that we have.

  • 12:44:05

    SCHMIDTAnd with these huge textual collections, a lot of the time, they're not that good at answering questions about individuals. If you want to know that, you have to go to the individual archives. You have to really invest yourself in individual work. But they do present really enormous opportunities if we want to understand how a discipline evolved or if we want to know when novels started changing the way that their character spoke.

  • 12:44:28

    NNAMDIKari, before you can do all these interesting searches, you first need these big data projects. How do you construct and curate these kinds of digital collections?

  • 12:44:38

    KRAUSThere's a lot of issues involved. So curating -- one thing that curating involves is just cleaning the data. A lot of the data that someone like Ben works with or the people working on projects funded by Brett have a lot of inconsistencies in the data. So if you imagine a kind of spreadsheet -- let's say you've got a column full of dates. It may be that some of those dates put the day of the month first and then the month, and then some reverse that or some spell out the month rather than represent it with a number.

  • 12:45:09

    KRAUSSo you'll want to use tools like Google Refine to help you standardize all of that data, clean it up, and then hopefully share it with other people so that they can use it. The second issue is sharing data. Currently, we don't have a lot of incentives in academia to share our data or to publish our data in open ways. And to really, I think, leverage the full benefits of quantitative approaches, we need to do that and to find -- and to create incentives in the academy for scholars to do that.

  • 12:45:42

    NNAMDIGeri, thank you very much for your call. We move on now to Lisa in Hyattsville, Md. Lisa, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:45:53

    LISAIt's another "Downton Abbey" question.

  • 12:45:55

    NNAMDIYes, go ahead.

  • 12:45:56

    LISAAnd just a couple of weeks ago...

  • 12:45:59

    NNAMDIOh, by the way, Lisa, you should know that on our website,, we have a quiz where you can try to find and spot the anachronisms in pop culture. So that might be a great exercise for you and others at our website, But go ahead, please, Lisa.

  • 12:46:14

    LISAGood plug. I like that. OK. Excuse me.

  • 12:46:18


  • 12:46:20

    LISANo. Just we were watching it and kept hearing people referring -- like, three different characters said, stuff and stuff. And every time, it was like our nerves would start to, like, agitate. It just didn't seem appropriate somehow. And so I didn't know if stuff was something that they referred to a lot in those days, if that was common use...

  • 12:46:41

    NNAMDIStuff in common usage in that time, Benjamin Schmidt?

  • 12:46:45

    SCHMIDTYes, that sort of stuff -- it was actually seven times in that episode. I went through and counted it 'cause everybody had this reaction to that show. I did when I was watching it, too. I was actually surprised. I went back, and I looked at the titles of some books. And that usage did seem to be, as far as I could tell, pretty much current in the 1920s.

  • 12:47:01

    SCHMIDTIt's a case where I would suspect that it's a lot more common today. We wouldn't hear it as sticking out so much if it wasn't. But there definitely are books with titles like -- I can't remember the thing, but they used the phrase and other stuff a lot in the 1920s.

  • 12:47:17

    NNAMDILisa, thank you very much for your call. You can go to our website,, and see more. And, yes, that is a plug. Here is Rick in Silver Spring, Md. Rick, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:47:29

    RICKThank you very much. I really appreciate this opportunity. I did my grad work in literary computing at WVU in the '90s. And now I'm a high school teacher, teaching English and advanced technology. And my question is how you would like to see high school curricula for advanced technology students change to better prepare them for computational thinking and critical thinking in order to be innovators of these tools that can be put to use by humanities professors?

  • 12:48:01


  • 12:48:02

    BOBLEYWow, it's a great question. I think that I would love to see people starting at the high school level really learning how the Internet really works. How do you search for information? How does Google work, right? And a lot of people -- a lot of researchers, a lot of people will punch a word into Google, and a bunch of hits come up. And they just assume it's just like this magic box. But I think that it will be great to see more kids really learning how does a database really work? How do these basic algorithms work?

  • 12:48:31

    BOBLEYHow do you actually do research in an Internet age? And those are the sorts of things that I think are very engaging. I think kids really enjoy learning about that. But it'll also help them, going forward, to get a better sense for how the information that's all around them is organized and how they can find what they're looking for.

  • 12:48:47

    NNAMDIHow is the work of digital humanities being accepted into the academic world?

  • 12:48:54

    BOBLEYWell, I would say that digital humanities had been really a growth field. I'm seeing it all across the country. And really, all across the world, more and more universities are building digital humanities centers, are hiring more digital humanities faculty. I currently run an international grant program called the Digging Into Data Challenge, and I do that with nine other funding agencies from all around the world. So clearly, this is an area of great interest, not just in the United States but in other countries as well.

  • 12:49:23

    NNAMDIKari, in the past, most scholarly work has been, well, inaccessible to the general public. Is the work in digital humanities changing that?

  • 12:49:32

    KRAUSAbsolutely. And there's a close correlation between the digital humanities and what's increasingly called the public humanities. So we know that scientists are really good at communicating what they do in language that the general public can understand. And there's dedicated shows on NPR for doing that, Science Friday, Radiolab are two of them.

  • 12:49:52

    KRAUSAnd increasingly, humanists are undertaking those same kinds of activities of trying to communicate to a larger general public the importance of what they do and in turn, creating projects that the public can actively participate in, in terms of crowd sourcing, maybe, let's say, transcription problems. If you've got OCR text, there might be some issues in terms of cleaning that up, and you can enlist the public as a kind of partner.

  • 12:50:26

    NNAMDIOn to -- and, Rick, for your call. Here's Susan in Bowie, Md. Susan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:50:33

    SUSANHi. I just wanted to call because I am a professional research historian myself. And I have watched the absolutely incredible changes in research methods over the last 25 or 30 years, and, where I used to sit and read newspapers and read into my little recording machine, I now do it on the Web as much as I can through ProQuest and/or Google News Archives and so forth.

  • 12:51:00

    SUSANBut there are so many newspapers that are not yet accessible. And I wondered if your guests could give me a hint as to how far along the process is and when we might be able to get through to some of these wonderful local papers from (unintelligible)...

  • 12:51:16

    NNAMDIBrett Bobley, any ideas about that at all?

  • 12:51:18

    BOBLEYAbsolutely. In fact, the National Endowment for the Humanities, my organization, in partnership with the Library of Congress has a project called Chronicling America, the National Digital Newspaper Project. And the idea is to digitize not just big newspapers like The New York Times, which already are digital, but local hometown newspapers from all across the country. And we've already have several million pages digitized.

  • 12:51:40

    BOBLEYAnd, in fact, if you Google Chronicling America, you can go to our website and you can actually for free read millions of pages of newspapers from all round the country. And every year, we're digitizing more and more and more. Obviously, funding is limited. We -- I would love to be able to digitize more of these newspapers in a shorter period of time. But over the next 10 or 15 years, you'll see, we're really developing a huge collection of local papers from all around in the country in more than one language as well.

  • 12:52:07

    NNAMDISusan, thank you very much for your call. That's all the time we have. Brett Bobley is director of the Office of Digital Humanities of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Brett Bobley, thank you for joining us. Kari Kraus is a professor in the Department of English and in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland. Kari, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:52:24

    KRAUSThank you.

  • 12:52:25

    NNAMDIBenjamin Schmidt is a visiting graduate fellow of the Cultural Observatory at Harvard and a graduate student at Princeton. Benjamin, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:52:33

    SCHMIDTThank you.

  • 12:52:34

    NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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