DH Interview with Ian Read

I decided to interview a former professor, Dr. Ian Olivo Read. Dr. Read is an Associate Professor of Latin American Studies at Soka University of America in Aliso Viejo, California. He received his B.A. from DePaul University, his M.A. from University of Chicago, and his PhD from Stanford. I thought he would be helpful for the purposes of this course because he received a National Endowment for the Humanities Digital Fellowship.

Dr. Read is currently working on a book-length project studying the movement of epidemics in 19th century Imperial Brazil, which employs “geographic information system (GIS) tools, digital records derived from archival research, and database organizational techniques.” His very interesting project website includes archival sources, maps, and other information and can be accessed at http://eraofepidemics.squarespace.com/

Dr. Read shared that he became interested in the Digital Humanities at about the same time as it was being labeled as such. He had been attracted to a PhD program at Stanford which combined his interests in the social sciences and history, and through that program was able to work with sociologists that used network analysis and GIS technologies.  By his second year, he was pursuing a project which involved social networking and network graphs, which have since become part of various publications he has written. In a broad sense, these examine the links between people and various social phenomenon. He later used GIS as a tool for his dissertation work, learning it at a basic level in order to create maps and do spatial analysis.  He later created more maps to provide visual representations of his arguments when he turned his doctoral dissertation into a book. Dr. Read commented on the importance of maps, noting that they continue to be useful as almost all social phenomena are spatial phenomena, and that maps lead to new questions and avenues for understanding.

Most recently, Dr. Read became interested in using content analysis quantitatively. For example, in researching Brazilian newspaper databases he found that the frequency of the world “slave” very closely matched a pattern which mirrored the population of slaves at different times. In terms of research, Dr. Read says that the Digital Humanities have become an important tool not only for asking questions, but for framing new questions. He said that “when you gain these tools you start to realize there are more questions you can ask,” which often changes the direction of the research. Dr. Read has also embraced the Digital Humanities in his teaching, albeit to a lesser extent. He teaches an introductory course on the Pacific Basin, in which students read an approximately 800-page text about the history of the Northern Pacific from about 1500-1950. Since this is a huge amount of material to cover, he has found that by putting his students into groups and having them map the lessons on Google Earth, they are better able to comprehend the material. He finds that Google Earth is a great teaching tool, containing a lot of the capabilities of a GIS program but in a user friendly way that only takes about an hour to learn.

Dr. Read recently decided to end a start-up consulting company he was involved in for two years, which offered GIS services aimed at providing cartographic tools at academic researchers and writers. He said he was able to learn a huge amount about GIS in that time, and had some great advice for those interested in GIS. He noted that it is possible to learn basic GIS in 10-20 hours, and while ARCGIS maintains a virtual monopoly over the industry, there is a program called Quantum GIS or QGIS which works as well as ARC for basic use and is completely free. Furthermore, there are tutorials on YouTube and he recommends anyone interested in learning GIS to spend even 10 hours learning QGIS and listing it as a skillset on a resume.

Another helpful bit of advice Dr. Read recommended for those interested in the Digital Humanities is to master Excel. He noted that in his experience with content and spatial analysis, networking, and GIS, basic database management such as the ability to store and manipulate data is a critical skillset. While there are more advanced internet databases such as SQL, he said that even using Excel can be a great time-saving tool. Dr. Read further remarked that beyond writing and analysis skills, visual and design experience is a great tool to have in the Digital Humanities, as even using something such as a mobile mapping device involves maximizing space and utilizing design elements like colors, symbols, and placement. These are skills can be self-taught through reading.

In regards to DH overall, Dr. Read believes that the greatest amount of activity, interest, and funding lies in content analysis paired with networking, and in using GIS to analyze social phenomena or even map out literature. For those interested in pursuing DH, he recommends learning how to use these skills in new, intersectional ways. One resource he recommends is Stanford’s Terrain of History program, which is highly funded and has an interactive website which is a great tool. Stanford’s Humanities Lab is at the forefront of content analysis. Dr. Read laments that within the traditional humanities about 95% of researchers are not using DH tools, but notes that there is a lot of interest forming and we are just at the beginning phase. I sincerely hope so, and greatly enjoyed the opportunity to catch up with Dr. Read and learn about his experience in the Digital Humanities. He was a wellspring of advice and offered great guidance for my thesis work and for the class.