Researchers’ projects

The Sherman Centre offers space for graduate students, faculty research assistants, and other researchers who do research within the broad realm of digital scholarship. This is a sampling of current projects.

Queen Luise:  Tracing Her Biography  Jennifer Askey, Associate Professor

In this project, initial results of which were presented at Digital Humanities 2015 in Sydney, Australia, I compare a corpus of children’s biographies of Queen Luise of Prussia (1176-1810) with memoirs and biographies written by acquaintances of the Queen shortly after her death. Using the ABBYY Recognition Server software installed on the Workstations at the Sherman Centre for Digital Scholarship, I performed OCR on over 800,000 words of nineteenth-century German Fraktur script to create the corpus for my textual analysis. After cleaning up the resuting .txt documents, I ingested them into several standard digital text analysis tools, in order to read the corpus “distantly” for patterns and divergencies. Voyant delivered word frequency lists, word collocates lists, word clouds, and other visualizations of the corpus (and segments of the corpus) that helped me focus in on differences between early-nineteenth-century accounts of the Queen’s life and later biographies of her written for children. Juxta, which compares and collocates “witness” texts to “source” texts, provided an indication of verbatim overlap between the set of children’s biographies and the three source memoirs. And AntConc, a concordance program, generated useful lists of Key Words in Context (KWIC) that enabled me to zero in on how each of the three source memoirs was used in later biographical writings.

The next steps of the project involve mining the late-nineteenth-century children’s biographies of the Queen for their geographical data, with the aim of putting together a map of locations in Prussia with emotional connections to Luise’s life story. These results will be shared at a conference on children’s literature and learning in Switzerland in February 2016.

International Copyright: A History of Access to Knowledge
Primary Researcher: Sara Bannerman, Assistant Professor (
Research Assistant: Karim El-Ziftawi

The objective of this project is to produce a new history of international copyright focused on emerging countries. Traditional histories of international copyright have showcased France, the United Kingdom, Germany, and the United States. The relative absence of other countries from the dominant history leaves a story with significant blindspots. This project will examine the history of international copyright from a different perspective, foregrounding the emerging countries of various historical periods.

The project will produce a book titled International Copyright: A History of Access to Knowledge. The working hypothesis guiding this project is that emerging and developing countries have been proponents of principles of access to knowledge in international copyright history. The term ‘access to knowledge’ has risen to prominence in recent years as a common reference point for a diverse set of agendas that all hope to realize technological and human potential by making knowledge more accessible.

This history will be based, in part, on data-mining of 130 years of recorded minutes of international copyright negotiations. The minutes of international copyright negotiations have been digitized and coded to allow data on country delegations’ positions and levels of activity, as well as the topics under discussion during negotiations, to be analyzed and correlated by region, development indicators, coalition status, and other factors. This will allow a quantitative assessment of what country and NGO delegations were present and/or spoke, what themes delegations addressed, which countries were aligned together during the negotiations, and which interventions and proposals were or were not reflected in the final treaty. This quantitative data will be combined with a narrative discussion to produce a counter-history of international copyright very different from existing copyright histories.

Visual Representation of Carbon Isotope Biosignatures in Freshwater Microbialites – Mark Belan

The Pavilion Lake Research Project (PLRP; was founded and organized by the NASA Ames Research Center to characterize the microbialite population in Pavilion Lake, British Columbia. Microbialites are rock-like structures believed to be formed by the metabolic activity of bacterial communities. There is extensive evidence in the geologic record that suggests these structures have been around for billions of years, raising questions as to the onset of microbial life on Earth and the evolution of these microbial systems over time. For the past 10 years, this project works as a multidisciplinary effort seeking to advance the understanding of relationships between biology and geochemistry in the formation of these structures. Currently, there is no arrangement of isotopic data in a visual format that can be applied to the existing science goals of PLRP. My thesis project seeks to investigate the presence and preservation of isotopic biosignatures in microbialite carbonate. As part of this project, designing a visual representation of isotopic data sampled from microbialites from the 2014 field season will better demonstrate the spatial distribution of biosignatures and prepare future sampling missions.

“Love Your City, Share Your Stories”
Primary Researcher: Brian Detlor, Associate Professor
Research Assistant: Jeremy Parsons

The “Love Your City, Share Your Stories” project is a digital storytelling venture carried out by the Hamilton Public Library, the City of Hamilton’s Tourism and Culture Division, and the McMaster University Library that will result in the creation, storage, and dissemination of a collective memory of digital stories concerning significant Hamilton cultural icons and their history. These stories will promote and foster Hamilton’s cultural identity and contribute to the preservation of Hamilton’s history. Stories of Hamilton citizens concerning these icons will be captured in a wide variety of digital formats (e.g., textual, audio, video) and will be supported by accompanying materials (e.g., photographs, maps, archival material, geo-coded references) provided by project partners. Marketing of these stories will leverage the use of new media and social media and will be created with adaptation to future media in mind, when possible. Project outputs include: having a collection of stories, a digital repository to house the stories and digitized archival materials, as well as a dedicated website, a large interactive LED display, and mobile device applications to showcase the stories. During the summer of 2014, Jeremy will be working on the first pilot portion of this project, which will be on Hamilton’s Gore Park and the Gore Fountain.

For Every Farm a Factory: Digitizing Ontario’s Industrial Dairy PastHayley Goodchild

Dairying is typically associated with idyllic, pastoral images of Holstein cows, but perhaps the quintessential dairying environment should be the rural factory.  My dissertation is an environmental and social history of the industrialization of dairying in Ontario from 1860 to 1930.  I’m interested in how people worked with non-human nature (cows, land, microorganisms, milk) to make their surroundings functional for what Harriett Friedmann and Philip McMichael have called the modern ‘global food regime.’  As part of this project, I am developing a set of maps that illustrate the spatial distribution of cheese, butter, and other industrial dairy factories across the province between 1871 and 1931.  While previous historians have focused on mapping within a handful of individual counties, this work has not been geographically expanded or digitized.  My second, related goal is to begin a database of these factories because many of the sources I encounter are quite rich but disparate and fragmented, and thus not readily or frequently used.  Such a database would go a long way to providing future scholars of food, rural, labour, and business history, among others, with a wealth of information on Ontario’s agricultural and industrial past.

Genetic Vector Glyph Analysis for Ancient Buddhist ManuscriptsChristopher Handy

Recent manuscript discoveries, coupled with increasing technological capabilities, have led to a proliferation of publicly-available ancient Buddhist texts, preserved mainly in Sanskrit, Classical Tibetan and Classical Chinese. A vast majority of these texts are available only as digital images, and cannot be parsed directly by computer programs. Because traditional optical character recognition (OCR) methods do not work particularly well with these languages, conversion of Buddhist texts to UTF-8 and other computer-readable formats is often done by hand. This process is tedious and prone to errors. My project is an attempt to apply the concept of genetic algorithms to these texts as an alternate method for making error-free UTF-8 versions of the original manuscript images. Instead of beginning with a template of characters we hope to find in the manuscript, as in traditional OCR, my technique involves vectorizing individual characters of a manuscript without any regard for meaning, and then attempting to replicate these vectors using sets of digital genes. This method effectively creates a fractal description of the manuscript that tells us about any single glyph in terms of its relationship to that particular image, instead of to an imagined absolute set of perfect glyph forms. Evolving a standardized set of vectors based only on what actually occurs in the manuscript image avoids human bias about what to expect in terms of individual glyph shapes, allowing for wide variations in handwritten character styles while also reducing the manuscript to a small, finite set of individual glyph categories. A human user can then assign a UTF-8 string to each individual glyph category, enabling the computer to perform the final conversion of the glyphs to a standard text format.

The Making of the Meadowlands: How Ancaster’s Fields Became Hamilton’s Fastest Growing SuburbJeremy Parsons

In my research I am tracing the growth Hamilton’s fastest growing suburb—the Ancaster Meadowlands—from a set of ideas and drawings to what it is today: a completed residential and commercial community. To do this I am examining municipal archives, collecting interview data, and mapping the growth of the area. I hope to learn more about the planning process, uncover some of the contours of the community’s land-use conflicts, and explore time-lapsed alterations to the area’s physical geography.

Deficits or Differences: Are People with Autism Spectrum Disorder Pragmatically Impaired?Mackenzie Salt

One of the hallmark symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is difficulty with social communication and pragmatic language. Previous research into this area has focused exclusively on interactions between people with ASD and non-autistic (neurotypical) people. Some of the pragmatic impairments attested to in the literature include: difficulties with eye contact, difficulties with indirectness as a politeness strategy and frequent interruptions. By themselves, these behaviours are seen as acceptable in some cultures and as norms in other cultures. For this reason, I am investigating whether pragmatic difficulties including some of those listed above are present in communication between people with ASD as opposed to between a person with ASD and a neurotypical person. I have recorded conversational sessions of groups of people with ASD and groups of both people with ASD and neurotypical people. I will be coding, transcribing and analyzing conversational data using open-source software and I will be comparing the performance of the participants between the two types of groups. I hope to discover whether the pragmatic language impairments attributed to people with ASD are actual impairments, and thus would be present in both types of conversational groups, or are more like communicative differences than actual impairments.

Noun countability in world EnglishesDaniel Schmidtke

The significance of mass noun pluralisation usage (e.g. luggages, violences and informations) among non-native speakers of English is salient only when contrasted with native-speaker norms. Despite the fact that the overall frequency of this lexico-grammatical phenomenon is still negligible among non-native speakers of English, the extent of its usage varies across countries and across mass nouns. Using a 1.9 billion word corpus of global web-based English from 20 different English-speaking countries, this research aims to provide a quantitative approach to the plurilithic nature of the English language. Using corpus linguistic analysis techniques, the project aims to identify a system underlying the variability of mass noun pluralisation.

Academic Social Work and Justice-Oriented Social Change ProjectsTina Wilson

As an applied profession resting on an interdisciplinary knowledge-base, social work is a porous discipline. My program of study attends to the ways in which academic social work attempts to advance justice-oriented social change projectsand how political, cultural, and theoretical shifts influence this type of disciplinary imagination and work in ongoing ways.  I therefore am also exploring the uptake of critical theory within the academy, and I aim to take stock of the various places we might say we find ourselves today.

For this interdisciplinary project, I weave together history, traditions of feminist, Queer, and literary criticism, and forms of digital scholarship as a means to connect social work’s recent past with broader disciplinary shifts over the last 100 or so years. More specifically, I will conduct a type of digital distance reading of the discipline’s broader published knowledge-base, identify and read more closely selections from our critical cannon, and gather an oral history of our recent past from retirement aged justice-oriented social work academics. This combination of activities offers a means to cycle between the aggregate and the individual, the past and the present, categorical data and the messy meaning-making of real people in the world. At this early stage, I expect much of this work to come together through the process of experimenting with digital platforms, with my learning and analysis shaped by doing, building, and visualizing.

I am extremely appreciative of the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship that allows me engage in this learning, and the support afforded by a research residency in the Sherman Centre for Digital Scholarship.