Visualizing Derrida

A screenshot of the Derrida's Sources visualization. See the interactive version here. Credit: Digital Project Studio at the University of Michigan's Clark Library

For many digital humanities teams, the only thing better than bringing a successful project to life is seeing its underlying data put to use by other scholars. That’s why, when the University of Michigan’s Justin Joque tweeted about a visualization using data from Derrida’s Margins, the CDH developers who built the project were delighted. 

“It’s thrilling!” said Rebecca Sutton Koeser, the technical lead for Derrida’s Margins. “We put projects out there because we want them to be used, we want to enable other scholarship and different ways of looking at things, so it’s very cool to see what someone else does with the same data.” 

Derrida’s Margins uses Jacques Derrida’s personal library, held at Princeton University Library Special Collections, to explore Derrida’s marginal notes and connect his active reading process to the sources he referenced in his published works. Though additional works will be added, the project begins with 1967’s De la grammatologie (Of Grammatology). On the project site, users can connect references in the work to books in Derrida’s library and even browse his handwritten notes.

Last year Joque, a visualization librarian and Derrida scholar, came across the data as he and a team of visualization interns at the Digital Project Studio at the University of Michigan’s Clark Library worked to come up with a group project to start the year. Together, Joque and the interns—Hannah VanWingen, Rheagan Martin, Neil Zhu, Jordan Earnest, Hope Tamabla, and Emily Lin—decided to use the data to create a visualization. “We were really interested in two things,” Joque said. “One, to just be able to see if there were any patterns noticeable in the citations of Of Grammatology and two, to create a nice interface for others to explore the data from Derrida’s Margins.” 

The visualization maps the publication date of sources cited by Derrida and the page number of those citations in Of Grammatology. Users can hover over each data point to see the source title, its author and publication date, and to highlight other references by that author.

The Digital Projects Studio team first cleaned up the data for their project, changing publication years for some of the books to reflect the original publication, rather than the edition in Derrida’s library. “Then we made some static mockups of the graph in R, mostly to get a sense of the distribution of data and how we could make it most legible and also to check if there was any data that seemed really out of place,” Joque said. The final visualization for the web uses D3, a JavaScript library that assists users in creating interactive data visualizations using HTML, SVG, and CSS. 

The visualization yields some interesting insights. “Of Grammatology is a notoriously challenging book, and we were excited to see how clearly patterns were noticeable in the graph of citations,” Joque said. “Looking at the visualization you can see how the first part of the book engages with a broader, more recent collection of texts while the second part of the book engages with a smaller collection of older texts, especially those of Rousseau.”

Koeser noted that the work of Joque’s team helped to improve this and future projects. Joque brought attention to content from the Derrida’s Margins site that was missing from the dataset. Watching how others used the data offers valuable insight for the development team. “You learn a lot more about the limitations of what you’ve done and how to find better solutions once people use things than you could ever find out otherwise,” Koeser said.

If the Derrida’s Sources visualization was your first introduction to Derrida’s Margins, Koeser suggests that you might next want to check out the CDH’s histogram of references by author, with interactive data points that link to digital editions of the books where available as well as to see the page annotations.

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