A big question for me, as a designer of text analysis tools for the humanities is: how do the tools I’m building fit in? Sure, you can have fancy word trees and grammatical search histograms. Sure, they’re chock-full of interesting information that you can make an argument about. But where exactly in the humanistic analysis process does a scholar need things like that? I have no idea.
But there’s more. I don’t just build tools, I build environments. And that means support for reading the text, navigating it, searching it, and (most importantly) “working” with it. And I have no idea what that means either. So over the past few weeks I’ve been having hour-long chats with late-stage PhD students from the literature and history departments, and asking them to tell me about how they do research. I asked all kinds of confusing and mundane questions like, “How do you decide what to underline?” and , “Can you define formalism for me?” and, “You mean you actually copy it out by hand?” and “How do you organize all the quotes you collect?” and, “How do you go about proving that?” and, “So you scanned in everything in those boxes?”
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I only did twelve of those interviews, but patterns began to emerge. So I did a survey. A simple one, with six questions about reading habits. This survey’s purpose was to confirm whether some of the patterns I noticed around reading were general. If you just want the charts summarizing the responses, you can find them here (those numbers include around 20 more responses I got while I was writing this post). For a full analysis in which I extract some general patterns in humanities scholars’ reading processes, read on.