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Can digital tools always make our research more innovative—or sometimes, do they just get in the way?

At DiSC and the Beck Center, we’ve been mulling over the question of whether the push to “go digital” with a project is always a good thing. Accordingly, we were curious to see what we’d find if we used a bunch of digital text analysis programs, and then we simply read the texts. Would the digital programs offer new insights and save us time? Or would they clutter up an otherwise straightforward textual analysis?

We tested several free, open source tools by using them to analyze 57 sermons given after Lincoln’s assassination. The sermons, which are digitized and housed on the Beck Center’s website, present the perfect opportunity to experiment with digital analysis. Did the digital tools pass the test? We arrived at a typical humanities answer: yes and no. The tools we employed— Voyant, Viewshare, PaperMachines, and MALLET—quickly offered us some potential research questions and highlighted places and subjects that we might look at more closely.

Perhaps most enticingly, the programs “read” the 57 sermons (comprised of 1672 pages and 481,575 words) in mere seconds. Reading them was more tedious; in fact, no one on our team made it through all of them. In this case, I think that actually reading the texts—even just a portion of them—was more valuable than looking at the digital tools’ output.

Digital tools can help us hone in on what questions to ask. They are a way to help us arrive at questions and results, but they aren’t results.

–Sarita Alami