Most digital humanities projects tend to start out from existing collections, thus limiting the degree to which they can operationalize digital techniques to the specific questions that should interest historians. Instead, in our approach the corpus selection is research driven. Therefore we’ve been compiling a corpus of dispersed sources on long 19th century social and legal reform. Our intentions go beyond just compiling the sources, rather we are building a platform that enables the researchers to combine the use of both ‘traditional’ qualitative approaches as well as digital methods. Many of the advanced mining techniques—such as forensic analysis of texts (author recognition), topic modeling, text clustering, named entity recognition—are currently still in an experimental stage, but very recent findings show the exciting potential of for example multi-lingual text-mining in large historical datasets and text corpora. Exploratory searching can provoke new questions and research objectives, but in fact until now it has mainly been used for the confirmation of existing historical knowledge. We aim to avoid this by using a hybrid approach, combining text mining (topic modeling in particular) with network analysis, data visualization techniques and ‘traditional’ close reading. TIC-collaborative allows the exportation of enriched data in order to perform historical discourse and linguistic analysis with other tools.
Another feature of our VRE is a joint relational database, which links international congresses, international organizations, people and publications in order to process the data for social network analysis, cluster analysis, prosopography. During the last several years, various initiatives were initiated to build a structured database about persons, organisations and congresses in the field of social and legal reform, such as at the prosopographical database of magistrates (UCL), TIC (Ghent and Maastricht University), ODIS (www.odis.be; KUL, Ghent and Antwerp University, VUB) and the Europhil group (EHESS, Maastricht University,…). It is our goal to integrate these data in one single platform. We also envisage the exchange/linking of data with other databases and a wide range of query- and export possibilities (Json, XML, xls). This part of the VRE is already operational and uses the ‘Nodegoat’ software. Nodegoat is a web-based database management, analysis and visualisation platform: “Using this system, scholars define, create, query, update, and manage any number of data tables by use of a graphic user interface. Within nodegoat, scholars are able to instantly analyse and visualize data sets (also in space). It allows scholars to enrich data with relational, geographical and temporal attributes. Therefore, the modes of analysis are inherently diachronic and ready-to-use for interactive maps and extensive trailblazing.” (www.nodegoat.net). Next to these built-in functionalities, Nodegoat also enables the researcher to export datasets, ready to use in more advanced visualization software such as Gephi and UCINET (network visualization) or QGIS and ArcGIS (GIS).
Beyond the history of social reform and the attempt to bring particular collections and databases together, the use of a VRE allows the development and assessment of methodologies in the field of digital humanities. Therefore the TIC-Collaborative VRE will serve as a pilot case within the recently founded Flemish/Belgian branch of DARIAH (Digital Research Infrastructure for the Arts and Humanities) (DARIAH-VL/BE). Researchers in the humanities who want to make use of digital analytical tools often face two problems: the tools are developed in an ad hoc manner within the scope of a particular research project and are not evaluated or communicated outside the project context. Secondly, research projects require specific types of scholarly data resources in combination with specific tools. In order to valorize analytical tools better and exchange expertise, DARIAH-VL/BE aims to set up a common standards-based infrastructure offering these tools as a service for all research projects, together with a documentation knowledge base of tools, standards and best practices. In this way, previously developed tools can be reused and may even become ‘standard tools’ in the field. Being a pilot project within DARIAH-VL, TIC-Collaborative will contribute to this.