Researcher Highlight: Dr. Nico Slate and the Beauty of Textual Data

My regular readers are probably thinking 'Wait, there was a new issue of Tartan Datascapes only last week!' Even though I love Tartan Datascapes, I can safely assume that most folks will not be reading the next-scheduled issue on the 26th, and because I was so excited to close the year out on this researcher highlight, I decided to bump up the issue a week!

Image description: Dr. Nico Slate sits in his office in front of a bookshelf.

This week, I'm proud to feature Dr. Nico Slate, Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of History. Nico's research focuses on the history of social movements in the United States and India, using textual and audio-based data sources. I've been thrilled for weeks to release this feature, as my own research engages with social movements around the Grateful Dead and other popular culture phenomena, and I use many unique data sources to capture how these social movements impact the landscape around us. These data sources, much like Nico's, expand our understandings of what constitutes 'data' and broadens our data universe. 

Similar to a previous Tartan Datascapes feature on Dr. Ebenezer Concepción's research using novels and archival records, Nico's primary data engagement as a historian takes place in the form of texts, including books, articles, letters, speeches, diaries, etc. Nico's favorite dataset (which, as an aside, can I tell you how truly happy it made me to hear that someone else besides me also has a favorite dataset?!) is the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. All of Gandhi's writings—his published works, speeches, letters, diaries, etc.—were gathered and published in some 98 volumes, with each volume containing approximately 500 pages of text. All of those volumes are now available in a searchable format (thumbs up for open access!), which allows a curious researcher to see all of the instances in which Gandhi mentioned chocolate or salt or coffee (which is a particularly useful tool for Nico, who just wrote a book about Gandhi's diet!).

Any readers with a keen eye for data management may currently be wondering how one engages with a text corpus of this size, and manages key insights from the text. Similar to my own strategy, Nico uses Word documents to collect the key evidence from his research, and takes photographs of archival documents when relevant. However, he doesn't store these photographs long-term, and instead types everything up from the documents that he plans to use. This is a great data management strategy for streamlining the amount of research data files within a project by reducing the image files needing to be stored.

Engaging with these rich forms of data led to Nico publishing a multitude of fascinating books, including two in the past year alone! These include Lord Cornwallis Is Dead: The Struggle for Democracy in the United States and India (Harvard University Press, 2019) and Gandhi's Search for the Perfect Diet: Eating with the World in Mind (University of Washington Press, 2019). 

What's next for Nico and his engagement with textual and audio data? Right now, he is working on a book that looks at the relationship between truth and power in the American civil rights movement, which affords him the opportunity to engage with an amazing collection of audio recordings made of civil rights workshops in the 1950s and 1960s. This includes hundreds of hours of civil rights activists discussing and debating their goals and strategies, which, as a historian, is a real treasure trove of data! Want to learn more about Nico and his journey as a historian? Check out his personal website here!

Interested in learning more about the rich world of data within history? We've got you covered at CMU Libraries! Sue Collins, Senior Librarian for Engineering & Public Policy and History, created and maintains a LibGuide called 'Data Management for Historians' here, and is a source of great information on your data needs within history research. You can email Sue here to request a research consultation.

What are three takeaways from this researcher highlight?

1. When studying social movements, making use of a rich text corpus such as the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi can be an extremely useful data source. Taking copious notes in the word-processing platform of your choice as you engage with these sources is a great way to ensure you don't miss anything! Find strategies to organize these notes that work best for your workflow. 

2. Beautiful things can happen when you approach a topic from multiple data sources! Nico uses both textual and audio data to study social movements, including the collection of audio recordings of civil rights workshops in the 1950s and 1960s. This is a rich data source that complements and enhances his textual-based analyses! 

3. Remember, data can take many forms! When we limit ourselves to thinking about data as simply numbers in a spreadsheet, we miss out on all the exciting things within the data universe, such as Nico's text- and audio-based data.

Important Happenings in Research Data Management at CMU Libraries:

We are wrapping up our semester and are planning an incredible lineup of workshops for the Spring 2020 semester (click here to see our full list of workshops for spring), many of which can help you learn new tips and tricks for data collection, analysis, and management. Here's a few that have a particular Tartan Datascapes-flavor, and all are free and open to the CMU community: 

enlightened dSHARP Gerrymandering Series: Understanding Census Data with the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center, Tuesday, January 21st from 12:00 pm - 1:00 pm in the Sorrells Library Den (click here to register!)

enlightened Writing an Effective Data Management Plan (taught by yours truly!), Monday, January 27th from 6:00 pm - 7:00 pm in the Sorrells Library Den (click here to register!)

enlightened Data Visualization Basics, Thursday, February 6th from 12:30 pm - 1:30 pm in the Sorrells Library Den (click here to register!)

enlightened dSHARP Gerrymandering Series: Network Analysis, Monday, February 10th from 12:00 pm - 1:00 pm in the Sorrells Library Den (click here to register!). 

enlightened Data Management for Social Sciences (co-taught by yours truly!), Monday, February 10th from 6:00 pm - 7:00 pm in the Sorrells Library Den (click here to register!)

And of course, please email me at if you'd like some help on your journey as a researcher/scholar/awesome human being here at CMU. Remember, we all use data, regardless of our discipline. If you think something might be data, you are likely correct and I can help you develop good habits for managing it! If you'd like to have your research data featured on Tartan Datascapes, please fill out this Google Form to get in touch!