Digital humanities and information visualization

This is a guest post from Kelly Holob, class of 2014

At Reed, I was a Classics/Religion major (’14), maybe not the sort of person you’d expect to see on a technology blog. But I worked with computers a lot — and not just because I was a T-Watcher. My field’s been developing tools like the TLG, which can search nearly the entire corpus of Greek texts, since the 1970s, and almost anyone who’s taken a class in Latin or Greek knows about Perseus, a easy-to-search collection of public domain classical texts and translations, including lexicons. There’s also Logeion, another lexical tool, which my current school, the University of Chicago, is still developing. Digital Humanities tools have been useful for exploring new ways to learn, interpret, and discover information about everyone from Plato to Plotinus for a long time.

For over a decade professor Mike Foat (Religion) and his students have been working on Patrologia, a collection of texts and other information about the Church Fathers and their friends and enemies in the fourth century Mediterranean world. I was first introduced to the project in my sophomore year, when Mike pulled a giant sheet of butcher paper covered with index cards and colored string from his office. The index cards represented everyone from famous Christians to mostly forgotten orators, and the strings showed how they knew one another. St. Jerome, for example, had made an enemy of almost every one of his contemporaries, so he had a lot of red strings. After I graduated, it became my task to turn that social network map (at that point in the form of a database) into an online app that his students could use.

After a few weeks of trial and error, it became increasingly clear that I would have to dive into real coding. I needed to turn a database into a table that a script could turn into links and nodes — those cards and strings Mike’s chart. I ended up settling on D3.js, a Javascript library for information visualization, developed by Mike Bostock.

I didn’t understand anything about coding when I started this project, and to a large extent, I still don’t completely understand how I ended up getting it to work. Tools like CodeAcademy and StackOverflow were great resources, but I couldn’t have finished this project without Reed’s amazingly gracious computing staff. For example, Daniel Landau (Senior Programmer/Open Source, Instructional Technology Services) helped me realize that I needed to start from the bottom up, with just a piece of paper, and sketch out what I needed the barest bones of the table to look like. I won’t go through the entire thing here, because the code itself isn’t even the most important thing.

The most significant lesson I learned from this is that in programming, you need to tackle one small problem at a time, not jumping ahead, and not trying to do several things at once. This was a change from the sorts of humanities that I was used to, but not necessarily a bad one. Coding is a different way of thinking, and sometimes offers a welcome break from reading articles and translating. Information visualization and other innovative using of computers will continue to be useful, and I encourage anyone with a passing interest to read up on it and maybe write a program themselves.

The result of my work is here, and it will eventually be live on the Patrologia site.

Kelly Holob (Classics-Religion, ’14) is currently a graduate student at the University of Chicago Divinity School, where she studies the New Testament and Early Christianity. She can be contacted at


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