Tales of an Indiscriminate Tool Adopter

Roundup: Talking About History
tags: digital humanities, digital history

This is a guest post on ProfHacker by Michelle Moravec, a historian currently working on the politics of women's culture, which you can read about at michellemoravec.com. Follow her on Twitter at @professmoravec.--@JBJ

If you participate in social media and do digital humanities work, this situation may sound familiar. Trawling through Twitter, someone mentions a bright, shiny tool and off you go, down the rabbit hole. Repeat, frequently, and the hours add up. Over the past three years, relying heavily on the hive mind of social media, I’ve adapted and discarded a wide range of tools.

This is how I became an indiscriminate tool adopter.

Confession time: my project, Visualizing Schneemann, is a hack inspired by Mapping the Republic of Letters. Visualizing Schneemann, which explores the artist’s edited correspondence, became a sort of proof of concept project for me. How much could I do using (mostly free) off-the–shelf tools in the very short, twelve week, timeframe I had to complete the project?

Insight #1 spend money wisely

My projects almost always begin with converting pdf to plain text files. I initially attempted to use Adobe Export PDF (Tool #1, $19.99), but the files required extensive hand cleaning due to poor OCR.  A tweet from Josh Honn directed me to ABBYY FineReader (Tool #2, $99). I ran the free trial and saw it produced excellent results. The time saved more than justified the money spent. I only wish I had not tried to cheap out with the lower cost option as that work all had to be re-done.

Insight #2 Don’t just use the popular tool
To visualize various relationships within the letters, I started with Gephi (Tool #3, free). Gephi is very cool, but it has a steep learning curve.  I persevered, until I saw a tweet from Elijah Meeks, about Raw. Cursory investigation revealed that it was more than sufficient for my needs. I abandoned Gephi because Raw (Tool #4, free) was far quicker....

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