Tag Archives: Digital Humanities

“18th-c studies” meets “digital humanities”

This post by George Williams.

The CFP for ASECS 2010 is out, and I can’t help but notice that several of the panel proposals (including one being organized by Lisa Maruca and me) deal explicitly with digital humanities topics.

Details regarding these panels are available after the jump, but before you make that jump, dear reader, please indulge me for a few sentences.

Does it seem to you that the various academic disciplines concerned with the humanities are at a turning point with regard to integrating digital tools into their research and teaching methodologies? It certainly seems that way to me:

And yet, does it perhaps also feel to you that the benefits of these developments have not yet filtered down to our day-to-day academic lives?

  • The Gale Group’s Eighteenth-Century Collections Online is an amazing resource of primary texts, but it’s priced out of reach for all but the most generously funded colleges and universities, especially in light of what the average library budget looks like since the developments of the previous 12 months.
  • With the exception of Eighteenth-Century Life, our most-read journals provide RSS feeds that are practically useless.
  • Most of us probably don’t even know what an RSS feed is or why we would want to use one.
  • The English Short-Title Catalog is freely available online, which is wonderful, but the interface does not provide any advanced data output options such as useful information visualizations.
  • In 2009, most online conversations regarding our field of study make use of the exact same tool that was used 20 years ago: email.

This is not meant to be a list of complaints, mind you. We clearly have some amazing tools at our disposal. However, there are many new and powerful tools (some of them free) that could be available to us if we worked on developing them or advocated to our most influential organizations to help integrate them into existing platforms.

The idea for the panel that Lisa and I are organizing  on “The Digital Eighteenth-Century 2.0″ came out of conversations with several friends at ASECS 2009: many of us have been trained to a greater or lesser extent in digital humanities methods and now work at institutions without major funding for technology. As a result, we’ve learned to improvise quite happily with what happens to be available to us, which often turns out to be tools such as these:

These conversations and our embrace of these tools make me wonder if perhaps we’re entering a new phase of digital humanities research and pedagogy, and so I coined the not-terribly-original term “The Digital Eighteenth-Century 2.0,” playing off of the “Web 2.0” buzz phrase.

  • Is this new phase a good thing?
  • Are we shortchanging what might be possible if we built our own digital tools (a daunting task) rather than using those already created for non-academic purposes? (Zotero, Omeka, and the SIMILE Timeline are, in fact, aimed at academic audiences.)
  • If one is quite happy to work and teach at a smaller, less-than-wealthy, somewhat-teaching-oriented institution, how exactly does one embrace the field of digital humanities with its traditional focus on research and big grants?
  • At what point, if ever, do we internalize the conventions, the strengths, and the weaknesses of digital media such that “The Digital Humanities” becomes “The Humanities”?

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18th connect and the sustainability of scholarly collaboration

An interesting discussion has broken out on Early Modern Online Bibliography (henceforth, EMOB) regarding Bob Markley’s and Laura Mandell’s 18thConnect project.  In their discussion Eleanor Shevlin made an interesting distinction:

Also, it might be useful to distnguish between tools that serve as delivery systems (I regard Project Muse and JStor and the like as such) and those that perform additional, often quite different functions such as acting as finding aids, invitations to reconceive textual landscapes, and more. In this second category I would place ECCO, EEBO, and even, though decidedly quite different, Google Books. When I find and download an article from say, JStor, I do not give too much thought to its printed form that served as the source for the PDF. My response to texts found in ECCO and EEBO is quite different–and I am spurred to ask questions about the materiality, the tactile features lost in digitization, the accuracy of the information provided in notes/records, and much more.

My first thought was that it might be hard to maintain this distinction, which I think is more about varieties of use than about inherent capacities of technologies; we can always use a shovel to stir our tea.  I also remember sitting in a graduate bibliography seminar many years ago with the man described as the “pope of textual editing,” and being told over and over again that xeroxes needed to be checked word-for-word against originals (because of the danger that xeroxes wouldn’t operate simply as “delivery systems”).  And at the time, I thought this was just another example of his Tragic Sense of Life, though nowadays I’m much more sensitive to this question of how media technologies affect our views of “content.” 

But I also understand what she’s talking about, I think: that a breakthrough technology like the ESTC, for example, made possible for the first time very different views of our period’s publishing than ever before (an argument that Paul Korshin, for one, made here in 1998).  And the 18thConnect project is attempting to pull together a group whose impact could have the potential to do what the ESTC did for our scholarship.

One of the obstacles, however, that I think the 18th Connect folks might run up against is something I saw mentioned in Sharon’s EMN post regarding Web 2.0 models of scholarly collaboration and sustainability, where she quotes Cohen and Rozenzweig’s pertinent warning about collecting history online:

Collections created on the web through the submissions of scattered (and occasionally anonymous) contributors do have a very different character from traditional archives, for which provenance and selection criteria assume a greater role. Online collections tend to be less organized and more capricious in what they cover.

None of this is to say that these projects shouldn’t be attempted, but that the scholars involved (and the scholars using it) might reflect further about how to work against the digital media’s inherent tendency towards diffusion by thinking of institutions, structures, protocols that would lend greater cohesion and flexibility to a project like this.  I wish them the best, and hope to hear more soon about the continued development of the project.

DM