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Digital databases open up new research avenues for humanists

Alison Langmead, Associate Professor

What would happen if humanists—those scholars who study human beings and their social, cultural, and built environments—dived purposefully and deeply into the techniques of the computing and information sciences, looking for ways to expand our understanding of ourselves and our past using digital technologies? Those working in the University of Pittsburgh’s Visual Media Workshop discovered first-hand that there are many ways to unleash the power of computing in a more interpretive context.

Alison Langmead’s research connects the worlds of art history and information science

In the 18th and 19th centuries, many elite Europeans embarked on what is often called “The Grand Tour.” These men and women would travel hundreds of miles across Europe, through France, Germany and Italy, to study, create, and disseminate art and culture. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Alphonse Bertillon, a French criminologist, anthropologist, statistician, and inventor, created a system of identifying criminals by measuring eleven specific body measurements and recording them on cards next to photographs of that person’s face and codes representing physical attributes.

These two events have absolutely nothing in common, except to the student researchers in Langmead’s Visual Media Workshop (VMW).

Graduate and undergraduate students studying both art history and the information sciences work together in the VMW on many digital humanities projects, including Itinera and Decomposing Bodies.

Decomposing Bodies

Itinera is a database as well as a map-based, interactive digital resource for the Grand Tour. Many authors have poured over private diaries and personal letters to write books about these trips, but the Itinera project takes information from these print materials and enters specific data about each place a person stopped during their travels. If a researcher comes across discrepancies, Itinera has a way to track the conflicting information.

“While humans are natural storytellers, accurately remembering mass quantities of little details is not one of our strengths,” explains Langmead. “A critical shift in Itinera is using the computer for what it’s really good at, keeping track of this details—these slowly accruing details—and then visualizing changes over time.”

The Decomposing Bodies project also brings together those studying the humanities and information sciences, asking each researcher to bring their own disciplinary expertise to the table. Decomposing Bodies has digitized over 12,500 Bertillon cards held by the archives of the Ohio History Connection in Columbus, Ohio. The number of ways in which this information might be used are enormous.

It could be used to study historical methods of human identification, especially the documentation and treatment of prisoners in particular. We have used any number of systems of identification over the ages, including fingerprinting, DNA analysis, and computerized facial recognition. The content of these historical identification cards could be used to study race; the experiences or treatment of women in the prison system; the Ohio State Penitentiary, the Ohio State Reformatory, or prison history in general; or the crimes for which people were arrested during this period.

Entering the data for both Itinera and Decomposing Bodies may seem slow in the age of fast, voluminous data. But, humanists understand that little details can spark new ways to think and interpret the world, and computers can be essential in the world of “small data” too.

Research Interests:

Digital Humanities, Visual and Material Cultures, Digital Preservation, Digital Culture, History of Information and Information Management

Selected Publications:

Birnbaum, David and Alison Langmead. “Task-Driven Programming Pedagogy in the Digital Humanities.” In New Directions for Computing Education: Embedding Computing across Disciplines, edited by Samuel B. Fee, Amanda M. Holland-Minkley, and Tom Lombardi, 63-85. New York: Springer, 2017.

Langmead, Alison, Jessica M. Otis, Christopher N. Warren, Scott B. Weingart, and Lisa D. Zilinksi. “Towards Interoperable Network Ontologies for the Digital Humanities.” International Journal of Humanities and Computing 10, no. 1 (2016): 22-35.

Lyon, Liz, Eleanor Mattern, Amelia Acker, and Alison Langmead. “Applying Translational Principles to Data Science Curriculum Development.” Proceedings of the 12th International Conference on Digital Preservation, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 2015.

Langmead, Alison. “The History of Archival Education in America: What’s Next?” In Archival Research and Education: Selected Papers from the 2014 AERI Conference, edited by Richard J. Cox, Alison Langmead, and Nora Mattern, 273-314. Sacramento: Litwin Books, 2015.

Langmead, Alison, et al. “Curatorial Practice as Production of Visual and Spatial Knowledge: Panelists Respond.” Contemporaneity 4 (2015): 158-163.

“When an art historian learns to use the language of the information scientist or the information scientist learns the terms used in the humanities, it can facilitate conversation between the fields which can create something amazing.”


Alison Langmead holds a joint faculty appointment at the University of Pittsburgh between the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences and the School of Computing and Information. She serves as the Director of the Visual Media Workshop (VMW), a digital humanities lab located in the Department of Art History and Architecture. Langmead is also the Principal Contact for the DHRX: Digital Humanities Research at Pitt initiative, which represents a transdisciplinary network of scholars who use digital methods to study the ways in which humans interact with their environments, whether social or cultural, natural or human-created.