Profile: She’s Helping to Bring Humanities Studies into the 21st Century

Joe Tyrrell | October 8, 2014 | Profiles
Princeton’s Meredith Martin takes research in a new direction with the Center for Digital Humanities

Princeton University's Meredith Martin
Name: Meredith Martin

Who she is: Associate professor of English and director of the new Center for Digital Humanities at Princeton University.

Martin, an Oregon native, has a 2005 Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of Michigan. She arrived at Princeton later that year. Her area of specialization is
poetry in English from 1830 to the present.

What she’s done: Martin’s first book, “The Rise and Fall of Meter: Poetry and English National Culture 1860–1930” won a prize from the Modern Language Association. She also oversees the Poetry@Princeton website.

What she’s doing: In 2007, Martin began compiling the Princeton Prosody Archive, a still growing and searchable database of articles, manuscripts, grammar books and related works from 1750 to 1923. (Prosody, in simple terms, is the study of the patterns of rhythms and sounds in poetry.)

Her take on technology: “For all of us interested in the 19th century, Google has made so many digitized books available in recent years that research that would have taken years, or entire careers, can be done readily if you can apply the technology,” Martin said.

Taking technology to the next level: In May 2011, Martin sat down with a group of like-minded individuals to assess Princeton’s computer resources. Their conclusion: “despite all the resources that we had at the university, in many ways our technological infrastructure was woefully outdated,” unsuited for faculty and students to share information about research in the humanities, much less to work collaboratively, Martin said.

Princeton was hardly unique in that regard, “but unlike a lot of universities, we have one of the strongest computing research centers in the world,” she said.

Over the following summer, members of the working group identified so colleagues who might be interested in bringing Princeton’s computational power to their fields. Virtually all of those contacted showed up for the first brainstorming session in September 2011.

Over the course of the next year, the number of participants expanded and divided up the issues from funding to programming. They also established an advisory board, including some key managers and administrators, to help refine the proposals. By March 2013, the university’s academic planning group approved a proposal to establish the Digital Center for the Humanities.

Off the ground: “This is our treehouse phase,” Martin said of the center, still in the process of opening in a suite of offices in Green Hall. Although it does have some snazzy computer workstations and snappy graphics from some initial projects, the CDH is still adding furniture. Funding comes from participating departments and the university. “It’s up to us to build it into what the university community wants it to be.”

Works in progress: The current soft launch will begin with projects by faculty members, expanding to graduate and undergraduate students over the course of the next year, Martin said. As a practical matter, students are already involved in digital humanities research through their professors. For example, one of her graduate students applied his computer background to track revisions in W.H. Auden’s poetry.

Another early project involved digitizing the collection of early ABC books in the Cotsen Children’s Library. A sample of the work is posted in the center.

“One of things we really felt this was applicable to was the Blue Mountain Project,” a digital repository “that brings together a lot of avant-garde newspapers and other texts” from the mid-19th century onward that now are readily accessible to scholars, Martin said.

Thinking internationally: Projects are not limited to literature — or to the United States. One professor is working with archaeologists on the Greek island of Thera to build an automated system to reconstruct ancient frescoes. The system matches fragments of damaged works, mirroring but speeding what has been a tedious manual process in the field.

Further, the Department of East Asian Studies plans to develop a database linking Chinese characters and sounds with hypertext versions of premodern texts.

Digital Dancing: “When I got into humanities, I thought I was leaving databases behind,” said Jean Bauer, Martin’s new deputy director, who came to Princeton after serving as digital librarian at Brown University.

“One of the things I’m really excited about is the ability to do spatial mapping,” she said. “For example, we have a graduate student who is studying the Cuban dance scene in New York City.”

Software already has improved the use of notation to provide scores for dance works, but this new project goes beyond that. “She’s looking at how people move through a room” as they dance and interact in social clubs, Bauer said.

Big ideas: The center opens up infinite research possibilities into fields previously removed from technological applications, but Martin said the goal is not simply faster cataloging art works indexing of articles.

“The use of computational tools such as large-scale databases and text-analysis software is relatively new to the humanities, “Martin said. “We’re looking for projects from people who are going to ask new questions in their research because the technology allows them.”

In her off-hours: “I read poetry for enjoyment, and I also enjoy contemporary fiction and historical fiction,” Martin said.

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