How Optimistic Were the Victorians? New Google Grant to CHNM Will Help Find Out

Posted: July 15, 2010 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: July 14, 2010 at 2:53 pm

By Tara Laskowski

Dan Cohen and Fred Gibbs of the Center for History and New Media (CHNM) received one of 12 Google Digital Humanities Research Awards announced this week.

Over the next two years, these awards will help fund research projects that focus on applying quantitative methods to specific fields within the humanities.

In the case of CHNM, Cohen and Gibbs submitted the proposal, “Reframing the Victorians,” which will use Google Books and CHNM’s own tools and software to re-examine Victorian literature and determine if the stereotypical description of Victorians as optimists is actually true.

The research team will look at the claims of popular Victorian critic Walter Houghton and his book, “The Victorian Frame of Mind,” in which he states that most Victorians were very optimistic and therefore in written texts used many more optimistic terms such as “light,” “sunshine” and “hope.” However, because the author tested the theory on only a small group of works, scholars have never been able to thoroughly assess this theory in a widespread fashion.

“The vast digital library of Google Books presents for the first time the possibility that we can conduct a comprehensive survey of Victorian writing — not just the well-known authors, but tens of thousands of lesser-known or even forgotten authors — to see if the Victorians truly did use the kinds of words and phrases that Houghton thought were indicative of their character,” says Cohen.

Google has worked to digitize more than 12 million books in more than 400 languages. Digital humanitarians can use text-analytic techniques to analyze massive amounts of literature, like those in the Google Books corpus, and identify trends over selected periods of time, by language, geography and topic.

The Center for History and New Media will also use their own software product and open source tool Zotero, which helps researchers gather and organize resources, and then annotate, organize and share the results of their research. Zotero already integrates well with Google Books, and the research team plans to incorporate both innovative tools in their research proposal to make the work of other scholars even easier.

Read more about the grants and CHNM’s work in the article by Inside Higher Ed.

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