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Books as knowledge reservoirs

From critical distant reading to networks of ideas


Book hosted as Github Pages

Published as interactive learning resource, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Suggested citation:

Malte Vogl (2020): Books as knowledge reservoirs: From critical distant reading to networks of ideas.


At the core of this online book lies the idea of books as a means of storing knowledge. While we traditionally tap into these reservoirs by getting lost in a good book, the raise of digital methods in humanities gives us new opportunities to have a more quantitative access to textual data. As with any new method and technology, this brings novel types of obstacles, inequalities, and valid criticism. The book aims at empowering readers to understand both the possibilities as well as pit-falls of distant reading methods, both statistical and in the field of machine-learning by providing perspectives from the data science and critical theory.


The book offers a hands-on approach to every step of the process from OCR, data cleaning, and keyword analysis to building networks of words, persons or places and analyzing them. In each step, the specific sources of misinterpretation, finer points of data inequality and current criticisms towards the methods will be discussed. To further open up the black box of digital humanities, readers will be assisted to use open source technologies and encounter aspects of open science, like e.g. data publishing and crowd-assisted humanities.

Target group

The book requires no prior experience in coding or other technical skills. Basic usage of a computer and a personal laptop are required. The interdisciplinary book is aimed at readers from humanities, who are interested in practical knowledge of digital methods, and readers from technical domains, who are interested in critically assessing their digital skills.


The readers will get hands-on experience with the full pipeline of distant reading and learn to critically evaluate digital methods in the humanities. Readers are encouraged to write an interactive, digital paper on a specific research question developed during reading the book, which will bring the acquired digital humanities knowledge to practical use.


This book started as a seminar for the project Vielfalt der Wissensformen at the Helmholtz-Zentrum für Kulturtechnik, Humboldt University Berlin, funded by the Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung.