blackwell companion to digital literary studies online

Thanks to Sharon at EMN and Kristine at Serendipities, I just saw that the Blackwell Companion to digital literary studies, after an initial, somewhat baffling release in paper, has been posted online here. I’m not going to attempt a full-scale review, but I did want to share a few quick reactions, to see if others felt the same way I did.  (this kind of response-gathering, incidentally, is one of the major appeals of digital scholarship, though of course it brings its own problems with it)

Overall, the site itself is disappointingly un-interactive, especially considering the content (uh, digital scholarship?) of the Companion.   You can email suggestions to someone, and that’s about it.  When you consider the number of contributors involved, the hours they invested in this project, and the speed with which this kind of scholarship decays, it seems to me that the smartest thing would be to invite others to help you update the material, and turn it into an ongoing source of discussion.  But Blackwell, despite this gesture toward digital release, still seems uncomfortable with some of the implications of digital scholarship, not least those aspects of digital authorship and dissemination that remain at odds with those of “scholarly publishing.”  (A good example, which I will not discuss here, is its very dated take on blogging in general, which has no references beyond 2005-6, though I fully understand this kind of delay is not uncommon in contemporary scholarly publishing)

Peter Damian-Grint‘s chapter on the eighteenth-century resources in English and other languages is a thoughtful and well researched piece, though I would add that his essay is sometimes vulnerable to the same charge that he repeatedly directs towards others–that the thought or the execution of this foray into digital scholarship sometimes lags behind the promise of the new medium, or betrays its origins in the unexamined assumptions and practices of print scholarship.

DG’s dual focus is on two categories of materials found on the web: the kind of teaching materials that one might use in secondary or undergrad literature survey classes, and the kinds of resources specialized scholars might use in their own research.  (Incidentally, there is not much on the uses of digital resources for undergraduate research, or their implications for pedagogy)

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, he finds most of the material in both categories hopelessly below true expert or scholarly standards.  Here is a characteristic description of what he finds “out there”:

As is generally true of the present generation of electronic resources, there is a clear focus on quantity over quality. Most available digital resources connected with eighteenth-century literature appear to be aimed at the secondary-level (high school) student, and the materials provided are generally unimpressive in both substance and presentation. There is little attempt at scholarship; critical annotation is often absent or basic, and the text itself (when it does not consist simply of page images) is frequently error-strewn. Even leaving aside the actual accuracy of the text, it is common to find that no information has been provided about the printed source from which it has been taken; when the source is known, it often proves to come from an uncritical popular edition of the nineteenth or early twentieth century — i.e., the digitizer has gone for material in the public domain, without any regard to reliability or accuracy. Texts are provided without contexts, and in their rawest and most technologically unsophisticated state; even the visual presentation is frequently uninviting.2 Clearly we are still in the early stages of electronic provision, and more recent sites show the promise of more usability and a more sophisticated approach to literary works and their creators.

DG does acknowledge the value of a few resources, like Jack Lynch’s justly celebrated Eighteenth-Century Resources (though DG’s link information was, unsurprisingly for a book of this nature, out of date and useless), and the Oxford-based Thomas Gray Archive.

However, I think that DG misunderstands the kind of labor that goes into most digital scholarship, which to a great extent is the unpaid work of individuals in their spare time and for their own incidental purposes.  He sniffs, for example, that “Bibliography sites often seem to be the work of individuals and to suffer from the effects of hobbyist’s myopia: i.e., because the builders of such sites are so close to their subject, they can find it hard to appreciate that the information needs to be mediated in a way that makes sense to the non-expert.”  There is a surprising degree of embarassment, considering both the period and the media we are discussing, about the mingling of amateurs and professionals in scholarly activities.  You would never think that such a thing as antiquarian scholarship existed in the eighteenth century.

Bibliography sites may indeed be difficult to read and largely unhelpful to most surfers, but DG seems to be missing an important point here: some of the most interesting stuff on the web is useful precisely to the extent that it is not mediated by someone lecturing us.  Instead, the model seems to be that of scholars–professional, semi-professional, and amateur–sharing information that was once useful for them in their own projects and activities, and leaving the results of their ongoing researches in the open for others to pick through for their own purposes.  This vagrant model of information-sharing, to a large extent, represents the entire rationale behind scholarly blogs like this one, which emerged largely because of the sluggishness and unresponsiveness of the scholarly publishing industry, which still sees fit to publish expensive, soon-to-be out-of-print books about the web complete with dead links.

So DG seems to be working with text-based notions of authorship and the transmission of scholarly authority, a set of assumptions unsuited for describing the strengths and weaknesses of web-based scholarship.  Collaborations, for one thing, help to make up for the “hobbyist’s myopia” described here, as well as the lack of institutional support for scholarly work.

It also seems to me that only a tiny minority of web-based scholarly projects (Voice of the Shuttle, Gallica, etc.) will ever get the full-scale support DG proposes for the future of digital scholarship.  The rest of us will have to scramble, as we have already learnt how to do.  So rather than pursue a top-down, centralized model of “scholarly publishing” that does not even exist in book publishing anymore (go ask Blackwell how many humanities monographs and scholarly editions they publish nowadays), we might think instead about how to use the strengths of this medium to full advantage.


5 responses to “blackwell companion to digital literary studies online

  1. This is a great point about the limited interactivity of Blackwell’s digital edition – and to the extent that this lack forecloses direct and immediate revision and development, it’s great to see blogs like this one offering exactly the kind of information-sharing space that is so vital to these lines of inquiry. Thanks!

  2. Thanks, Rachel. Were there any other aspects of the Blackwell, positive or negative, that you’d call our attention to?


  3. Well, I haven’t really explored the Blackwell just yet, but I’m still thinking about its limited interactivity.

    This morning I came across a posting by Sonja Drimmer over at IF:Book discussing the publication of Orwell’s diaries in a blog format (entries will be posted on the same day 70 years later). Her post is here:

    Although Drimmer acknowledges the additional resources available to readers in the sidebar of the Orwell blog, her perception of the project is that “the blog format is being used here to replicate the printed book, with a few bonus add-ons,” and asks what I think is an interesting question about the digital existence of print texts: “if one is going to remediate Orwell’s work, why not translate it creatively instead of using the web as a book with heightened intelligence?”

    The same, or at least a similar question can be asked of Blackwell’s digital publication, which is also not taking full advantage of its medium.

    I think Drimmer’s sense of a “creative translation” applies most immediately to the current state of scholarship in the digital humanities, where Blackwell’s “Companion” first comes out on paper, and then online. The relative safety and stability of the paper version should allow a more creative digital version, the doubled release a perfect opportunity to experiment with more interactive and dynamic formats.

    But of course, even as I indulge in this utopic vision of new models of interactive scholarship,
    I am also a little *too* connected and overwhelmed with information, with 11 tabs open in my browser and hundreds of unread subscriptions awaiting my attention in Google Reader.

    And, of course, I should read the Blackwell!

  4. [x-posted to Rachel’s blog, the Cynic Sang]

    Hi Rachel,

    I read the Drimmer piece and more or less agree with it, though I think that “blogs” like the Orwell diaries are only using the bloggish day-by-day format to mimic the annalistic perspective of the diary. There’s a kind of conceit going on there, in other words. there are other examples of such pseudo-blogs out there who similarly exploit that perspective.

    From my perspective, the most important aspect of the scholarly blog is its inherently collaborative dimension–even if you’re a single person (me) writing a post, you are potentially addressing the entire interweb. In a historical moment where the audience of, and support for, print scholarship is vanishing, this potential new audience and its perspectives seem very important to me.

    So for me, the interactivity is crucial for ensuring a continually updated, refreshed resource for the maximum number of potential users.


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