The PBMP Welcomes Daniel Armenti

As the PBMP closes in on its goals in 2014/2015, we welcome a new team to see them to completion. Chief among them is Daniel Armenti, the new graduate research assistant for the project who captains the bibliography component and supervises an excellent team of undergraduate assistants. Let’s meet Daniel:


I often resort to my knowledge of various languages as a positive accomplishment when I feel intimidated by an academic project. As a student of Comparative Literature, we’re encouraged to learn several to do our research, and to not rely on other peoples’ translations. I’ve found my language knowledge to be comforting though because it gives me what I feel to be a concrete metric by which to measure my academic progress. Things that intimidate me academically: anything computer related beyond simple word processing (and, let’s be honest, that can get a bit dicey as well). So when I was encouraged by one of my professors to apply for the graduate assistant position with the Pompeii Bibliography and Mapping Project, I spent a long time wondering how my name had crossed his mind for a digital humanities project.

This is rather silly, because in reality my research and work experiences have dealt extensively with the digital humanities, even if I seem to have trouble reconciling them with my perception of computers as essentially wonder–boxes–where–the–magic–occurs: for the previous two years I have been working as an editorial assistant for the journal Digital Philology (Johns Hopkins UP), a medieval studies journal with a focus on the digital humanities. Most of my actual work was concerned with proofing, formatting, and bibliographic work, but it has put me in a position to encounter many of the new methods of approaching medieval text, from the creation of interactive databases of texts, to the use of software for authorial attribution. Before working on Digital Philology, I had worked off and on for several years on the Raymond J. Lord Collection (associated with the University of Massachusetts Renaissance Center), a digital library of medieval and renaissance combat treatises and fencing manuals—this work was primarily image editing and transcription work.

I don’t know why I have to work so hard to associate these projects with experience in the digital humanities—I mean, the word “digital” is in the title of the journal I edit—but for some reason, like many who do work in the humanities, I’ve pigeonholed myself as “computer illiterate,” which is demonstrably untrue. This is not to say that my languages haven’t been helpful on the Project—all of the biographical notes that we deal with are in Italian, and I’m thankful that I can read and understand the vast majority of titles, with the exception of those in Slavic or Asian languages. But the more I work on the Project (and the more I watch the undergraduates we hired do their work considerably faster than I do despite their lack of Italian, and other relevant languages), makes me realize that it’s my familiarity with other digital humanities projects, and my own thoughts on the problems and difficulty of doing research, that will really help me as our work on the Project moves forward.

Currently the digital humanities are a boon to those of us working on pre-modern subjects (I’m sure it is for those working on modern subjects as well, but I’m going to stick with what I’m familiar with): high resolution scans and digital libraries save us the trouble of buying plane tickets, travelling overseas (did I mention that I have an inconvenient terror of flying), to try and spend as much time with the objects of our research as the librarians will grant us; combined with these scans, OCR software allows us to interact with the information of our texts in almost every way imaginable, from simple word searches, to attribution studies, stylistics, etc.; bibliographical databases provide not only a foundation for new research, but also help avoid redundant research—if they’re set up well—on subjects that sometimes have over two thousand years of academic history, and tens of thousands of sources.

One of the things that Eric Poehler (the director of the PBMP, whose name you’re probably familiar with if you’re reading this blog) impressed on me was how well set up the bibliographical database will be once it’s established—we’ve got around thirty points of information that can be applied to any citation, including title, author/editor, publisher, and date, but also medium, language, authorial biographical information, series information, and we’re discussing the implementation of keywords. The inclusion of this information allows for not only simple searches of the database, but the use of the information of the database itself as a source for new historical studies. Furthermore, our goal is to link as many of these sources to digital copies of their texts as possible, as many of them now exist in the public domain. By linking the entries to the texts themselves the bibliography will act to a certain degree as an online library, providing the researcher with access to the research itself. Bibliographical searches will be refined even more when we introduce the mapping portion of the Project, which will link physical location and subject as intuitive search parameters.

It’s impressive, or rather it will be impressive when you see it. I’ve seen it everyday for the past month, so I’m already impressed with the ambition, potential, and awesomeness of this project. When I give this last quality, I want to it to imply not only how excellent a resource the PBMP will be, but also the enormity of the work that has already been accomplished, and that still lies ahead of us. We’re currently working with some twenty thousand sources, splitting them into points of data, editing citation entries, and preparing to shift all of this information online. It requires a lot of time, and a lot of hands, to get this much work (a considerable amount of it data entry) finished, and for me, a surprising amount of supervising as I work with our undergraduate assistants. And it is getting done. It is getting done far more rapidly than I would have expected, after reviewing the mass of work that lay ahead of us a month ago.

It’s exciting. And, for the most part, the work is interesting (I’m speaking for myself here, not necessarily for my undergraduate assistants, who we’ve foisted most of the data entry onto). It’s interesting in part because I am able to use my languages (at last!) to do the work of editing and proofing our citation lists, but also because I’m learning an enormous amount about what goes into a project like this, and how to implement it in a way that will be useful to scholars who study Pompeii, certainly, but on a broader scale as a model to scholars who would like to create similar projects in their own fields.

– Daniel Armenti