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(distributed as a handout at the third Colloquium on Digital Humanities at the University of Chicago)

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


  1. Abstract
  2. Sample screen images

1. Abstract


The MINERVA System: tools for building a literary project

The MINERVA System for Study of Literary Texts is a set of automated tools for planning and carrying out a project in humanistic, and specifically literary, study. It uses methods of Systems Analysis borrowed from the scientific and industrial world, emphasizing modularity, extensibility, and the use of diagramming techniques. A project is defined as an enterprise that has a goal and an organized way of achieving it. In the industrial world, project planning software, such as the CATIA System, which controls all phases of a product's life from design to manufacture, sales, maintenance, and eventual retirement, is in common use by such companies as Boeing and Airbus, whose airplanes require that parts and modules made in many parts of the world must fit together.

The MINERVA System was demonstrated at the DHCS Colloquium in 2006 and 2007. In the 2006 presentation, where the theme was "What to do with a Million Books," the emphasis was on having an interesting literary problem in mind before embarking on the use of the computer. In the 2007 presentation, the emphasis was on using MINERVA to coordinate the activities of many scholars and/or students working together in one or more locations, in person or on-line. In keeping with the theme for 2008, "Making Sense," the focus this year is on the use of MINERVA to clarify the scholar's aims and understanding of a chosen subject. A top-down method is used for the most part, starting with a vague idea and making it more precise, although a bottom-up method could also be used, by starting with a lot of little ideas and letting them coalesce into a big picture. MINERVA includes both planning software and programs for specific applications, such as concordances, statistical analysis, and clustering of word stems. All programs are linked to chapters of an e-textbook, which is included.

This year the focus is on a revised Build Your Own Project module, where the scholar or student can fill in blank forms at each step to create a total project plan, which can be used for a single user or a group of users. One of its aims is to make explicit the project planning that goes on, implicit and unnoticed, in the most literary and non-technological of studies.

The new culture gap, or the new Luddites, the rocket scientists, and the unserved middle ground

When C.P. Snow wrote The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution1 in 1959, he lamented the hostility between literary intellectuals and scientists, especially physical scientists, each of whom refused to learn anything about the other discipline. Today, non-computer people no longer hate technology; in fact, they love it. But they don't want it to look like technology. They love their GPS, their HDTV, their IPod, but the less it looks like a machine, the better. Meanwhile, computer people develop more complex and arcane systems, about which they commmunicate only with each other, in order to create simplified products for the other group. Microsoft exemplifies both, having replaced the original Basic language, which could be learned in an afternoon, with the incomprehensible Visual Basic.NET, while its Vista operating system has been dumbed down for the general public. Nor is the problem only with computers. Where most car owners could once make basic repairs to their own cars, now even garage mechanics are hard put to service automobiles whose gadgets make drivers feel that they no longer have to remember to think. MINERVA itself, while making use of mathematical and statistical formulations, tries to put a friendly and understandable interface before its public.

But there is a middle population, that, while not being professional programmers, scientists, or mechanics, still is attracted to the technological part of technology. We see this in the popular summer movie, WALL-E (a robot love story with echoes, among other references, of Karel Čapek's 1921 play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots), which gave us the word "robot"). In its affecting climax, Eve, the sleek modern robot, heals the wounded WALL-E, the mechanical, clunky, awkward, and lovable trash compactor hero, by replacing his burned-out circuit boards, then holding his square robotic hand.

The MINERVA System as college course

MINERVA was developed out of classes and lectures that I gave at the College of Staten Island, Queens College, and in particular, St. John's University in New York. At the time, there were a number of courses being given in various colleges in the use and understanding of computers for non-scientists. (There was in one college even a course in Systems Analysis for humanists!) In my course, the term paper consisted in developing one's own project. Each week, one step was assigned: 1. Choosing a topic; 2. Describing the problem; 3. Creating a worksheet of key ideas; 4. Dividing the project into modules; 5. Drawing a flow chart; and so on. Since the principles of project planning are actually exercises in logical thought, equally applicable to non-computer projects, students were encouraged to choose non-computer topics, if they wished, such as bathing the baby or changing the oil in a car, as well as computer topics such as tracking test scores of a teacher's students or teaching English composition. While MINERVA has evolved into a self-study course, I would like to see such classes given again, to encourage a new generation to appreciate the value — and the aesthetic satisfaction — of learning to define in an exact way the object of one's interest.

The MINERVA System and advanced scholarship

With advanced scholars, the problem is a little different. The scholar who already is engaged in his or her own research is likely to say, "Who need Systems Analysis? I already know what I want the computer to tell me." However, like Molière's M. Jourdain, who found that he had been speaking prose all his life without knowing it, the scholar has generally been using project planning methods all along. This comes out in the form of questions, whose answers are the steps of project planning. The scholar asks, "How do I know what program to use?" (Answer: Define the problem exactly; define your desired outputs.) I ask the scholar, "Have you prepared your input text?" and he replies, "How do I do that?" (This is another step.) He says, "Nothing happens; it doesn't work." (Answer: things don't usually work the first time; that's why we need a test plan.) He says, "The programmer doesn't have the program completed; is there work I can do on the project in the meantime?" (Answer: planning for system dependencies is another step.) MINERVA provides an organized way of doing these tasks.

Bridging the gap

The word "analysis" comes from the Greek ana-luo, "to break apart," and Systems Analysis is the art of breaking part a problem into its constituent parts, of figuring out what you really mean. Analyzing the true meaning of something does not mean using more and more obscure jargon. It means describing it with clarity. A quotation attributed to the legendary physicist Richard Feynman (but sometimes attributed to Einstein) says, "If you can't explain something to a first year student, then you haven't really understood it." The discipline of logical thinking does not necessarily have to do with computers, but it implies describing a thing precisely enough to use a computer. To quote Marvin Minsky, "Any procedure which can be precisely described can be programmed to be performed by a computer."2 The trick is to discover what is to be described.


  1. C.P. Snow, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, the Rede Lecture, 1959, Cambridge University Press, 1959.
  2. Marvin Minsky, Computation: Finite and Infinite Machines, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967, p. 104.

2. Sample screen images:


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