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Using the MINERVA System for Study of Literary Texts in a Collaborative Environment

The Art of Project Planning

Dr. Cora Angier Sowa

(presented at the second Chicago Colloquium on Digital Humanities at Northwestern University in October, 2007)


Title page

Steps to enlightenment. The Systems Analysis Tutorial is a sort of Gradus ad Parnassum of a method to design and carry out a project. (Illustration: Temple of Athena Nike, or the Wingless Victory, Athens, from a pre-1907 postcard.)


  1. Abstract
  2. Sample screen images

1. Abstract


Dr. Cora Angier Sowa
Minerva Systems
Croton-on-Hudson, NY

The MINERVA System:

The MINERVA System, which was demonstrated at last year's Colloquium, provides a set of tools for planning and carrying out a project in literary study. It borrows techniques of Systems Analysis from the scientific and business world, emphasizing modularity, extensibility, and diagramming techniques, and applies them to the needs of traditional literary criticism. A project is defined as an enterprise that has a goal and an organized way of achieving it. Last year, in keeping with the theme "What to Do With a Million Books," the presentation emphasized the need to have an intrinsically interesting literary problem in mind before embarking on the use of the computer. This year, the emphasis is on using the MINERVA System in a collaborative (and potentially online) environment, with multiple scholars pursuing a variety of goals and using different physical platforms.

Definition of the problem

With vast amounts of data being collected -- literary, pictorial, auditory, moving image -- the task remains of what to do with it all. Tools have also been developed for searching, counting, and arranging the data. The temptation is to let the tools drive the research: You count syllables, for example, just because you can. Humanists try to out-scientize the scientists, losing track of the true interests of literary criticism. Systems Analysis, with its emphasis on setting goals, can, paradoxically, lead back to a more fundamental view. To analyze the verbal wizardry of a Pindar, a Vergil, a Melville, or a Toni Morrison we must find the quantifiable in the apparently vague and elusive. Following this year's theme, we also ask: With all the data that is available, how can it all be worked on by multiple scholars pursuing multiple goals? Collaboration by a large number of people in distant locations is common in science and industry.

How MINERVA fits in:

MINERVA is modular and extensible. Not only can each part be used separately, but source code (in Visual Basic) is supplied so that anyone can write new programs in it. Programs written in languages other than Visual Basic can also be called from the MINERVA framework. The MINERVA programs can be used on any ASCII-coded text, so that no proprietary format is required. No prior markup in XML or other format is needed.

In Classics, an example of a modular, extensible system, which may be familiar to some, is David Packard Jr.'s Ibycus System. It is best known for its use in the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, but it had many other applications. Stephen V.F. Waite's Logoi System, with which the camera-ready copy for my book Traditional Themes and the Homeric Hymns was created, used a typesetting program that ran on the Ibycus System. Ibycus had its own machines, its own operating system, and its own programming language, so that anyone could write new applications. In the industrial environment, project-planning software such as the Catia System, used by both Boeing and Airbus to design their new airplanes, is a common tool. It is used in all phases of the Project Life Cycle: engineering design, manufacture, sales, maintenance, and eventual retirement. It coordinates the development of the project when parts of the product are manufactured at different plants and in different countries.

Parts of the MINERVA System:

The parts of the MINERVA System are linked so that one can start either with the text chapters (read with a standard browser) or with the programs, as explained by the text chapters.

  1. Systems Analysis Tutorial/Project Planner. Takes the user through the steps of the Project Life Cycle: Feasibility Study, Analysis, Design, Program Preparation, Testing, Execution, Evaluation. Screens are linked to sections of Chapter 2 of the text (see 4 below).
  2. Minerva Program Suite. Includes programs to make concordances, perform statistical studies, perform cluster analysis of recurring words, "compose" original sentences, etc. Screens are linked to sections of Chapter 3.
  3. OwlData programs. Allow the user to create or download new data for the MINERVA programs. Screens are linked to sections of Chapter 4.
  4. The Loom of Minerva text chapters. Every discussion of a program is illustrated by an actual problem in literary criticism, including examples from Vergil, Coleridge, Shelley, Baudelaire, Gertrude Stein, and others.

Different ways of planning a project:

Different scholars prefer different ways of working. We emphasize top-down planning (beginning with a big idea and breaking it down into smaller parts), but there are other methods. One can, for example, start with a lot of little insights, letting them gradually coalesce into a larger idea. Various methods are illustrated in The Loom of Minerva. In testing, we always advocate a bottom-up approach, testing little pieces (of text or program) before going for the "big bang."

Different ways that a project can grow:

A small project can grow in different ways. Functional decomposition (hierarchical) charts and system flow charts are among the charting methods that can be used for tracking this process. Where there are multiple users, we can also use a so-called "bubble" chart (with nodes connected by lines), that show what must be done before what else (for example, the same text must be made available to all users before work on it can begin). Projects should always start small, on limited test files where results can be verified by hand. Here are some strategies:

In a collaborative environment, there are bound to be conflicting requests from different users. While these sometimes need to be sorted out, disseminating different views among the various users broadens everyone's horizons. A modular structure makes it easier to accommodate a variety of uses.


2. Sample screen images:


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