Last week, I attended a workshop offered by Jo Guldi on Paper Machines, Paper Machines as part of the Digital History Master Class here at Rice. Caleb McDaniel has a debriefing post on what we covered in the workshop, and some thoughts on how we can use paper machines, but I wanted to offer some longer thoughts here about how I think I can make paper machines useful for me.
First, I think Paper Machines could be really helpful for me in the project I’m working on right now for the American Historical Association annual meeting coming up in January. I’m presenting a paper on the panel Manipulating Freedom: Liberty, Enslavement, and the Quest for Power in the Southwestern Borderlands discussing Texas’s voluntary enslavement law of 1858. I will be analyzing how Texas newspapers (and southern newspapers more generally) discussed instances of free blacks voluntarily enslaving themselves as a way of analyzing Texans’ views of black freedom and the growing sectional crisis of the 1850s. One of my initial observations has been that when these stories are discussed in the newspaper, they are very formulaic, and often feature what seem like stock characters. Using a database like America’s Historical Newspapers, I could download OCR-ed articles discussing voluntary enslavement in Texas newspapers, and assess this general observation more systematically using Paper Machines. I’d be interested to see what kind of word clouds and phrase-nets these articles produced, even if it only functioned as a way to visualize what I thought I was reading in these newspapers.
Secondly, I think Paper Machines would be helpful as well in developing a comparative project like my dissertation. Even if it I used it to analyze secondary sources and journal articles, I think Paper Machines could offer some direction on fruitful avenues of research when going into what seems like a pretty ambitious project. If I downloaded to my Zotero library all the articles I will be using for my dissertation on free people of color in Cartagena, Colombia and in Charleston, South Carolina, I could use Paper Machines to see if my focus is in the right place, or if there are potential areas of research that I hadn’t yet thought of exploring. For instance, I would expect terms like “Haiti” and “respectability” to be featured fairly prominently in any word clouds, but perhaps there are terms I wouldn’t expect as well. Further, since the concept of respectability will play such a central role in my argument, it would be really interesting to see what kind of terms and ideas are connected to respectability (using phrase nets and topic modeling) both when the articles on both regions are analyzed together, as well as when Cartagena and Charleston are analyzed separately. I would likely have to separate out articles in Spanish from the articles in English, although keeping them together could perhaps still work if I was careful about analyzing cognates/false cognates.
Jo Guldi emphasized to us that Paper Machines is in a “pre-Alpha” stage, so I look forward to exploring what Paper Machines can do as she and other programmers begin to cater it more closely to their research needs.