How to Find the Best Tool for the Job

ProfHacker 2013-03-18

dirt[This is a guest post by Seth Denbo, project coordinator for Project Bamboo at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities. Seth is a cultural historian of eighteenth-century England, has worked on projects in digital history, and is also a convenor of a new seminar in digital history at the Institute of Historical Research.]

When I’m confronted with a new dataset or a recently digitized resource that might be relevant to my research, my first thought isn’t “Oh wow, there are lots of cool things I can do with this material!” Instead, it’s usually more like “Where do I begin?”

For all the excitement around digital scholarship, the problem of knowing how to set about using computers for research can be a significant barrier for scholars who may not feel they have the skills or expertise to pursue computational methodologies. In fact, there are many applications available to help those of us who are interested in using computers but who do not have programming skills. In spite of the wealth of tools available (and to some extent because of it), finding out what’s out there and where to find it can be difficult.

Bamboo DiRT (Digital Research Tools) has been developed to assist scholars who want to understand the kinds of things that can be done with digital tools and to find those tools that would be most helpful to them. DiRT is a registry of digital tools for scholarly use in the humanities and beyond. It includes hundreds of entries that span the full range of research activities, from note taking to image manipulation and from blogging to visualization. The site is organized by categories that allow the user to find things based upon what they need to do. Categories such as “Collect data”, “Take notes/Annotate resources” or “Manage bibliographic information” each list a range of applications. A user who wants to, for example, “Make a dynamic map” can view a list of mapping applications. The list includes short blurbs on the tools, and the user can click through to more detailed descriptions, links, and other useful information. There are also tags that can be defined by the user when they create or edit a description.

While there is currently is a widespread interest in computational analyses of texts and the developments associated with “Big Data,” there are many other kinds of work that can be done using digital tools. As made clear by the categories mentioned above–along with the longer list on the DiRT home page–digital applications for scholarly work can help with all stages of the research lifecycle. Almost any scholarly or research management task can be done with the assistance of digital tools.

Future plans for the site include embedding it in the growing network of online resources for information about using digital tools and methods. Links to DHCommons–a hub to help people, organizations and projects to find collaborators–are currently being built. When projects on DHCommons include information about an application this will link directly to an entry on DiRT. Another need that has been identified by the editorial board is the lack of places for reviewing digital tools, and the board are currently looking at possibilities for creating a platform for open peer reviews of tools on the site.

Bamboo DiRT is an evolution of the DiRT wiki that was started by Lisa Spiro of the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education, and it is intended to continue in the community-driven spirit of the site upon which it is based. It is overseen by a volunteer editorial board who help maintain the site and plan for its future development, but anyone can add new tools, improve existing records, provide information about their own experiences with the tools, and otherwise enhance and improve the records and the overall site.

The more people that engage with it, the better the site becomes, and the more useful it will be to scholars who want information about the best tool for the job. So please get involved by adding your favorite tool and by helping to provide more information about existing tools.

[Creative Commons-licensed flickr photo by Josh Larios]