DH @ #SHARP11

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Thank you to EMOB for inviting me to discuss my experiences with the Digital Humanities at this year’s SHARP conference.  I’m afraid the length of my post reflects my excitement, yet despite its length, I did not hear every paper or witness every panel.  I hope that other attendees use the comments to fill in any gaps. –Lisa Maruca

As technologies change our environments for reading, writing and research, it is incumbent on our scholarly organizations to take note. And what group is better prepared to explore our digital future than the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing (SHARP), dedicated  as it is to the interdisciplinary study of the history of literacy and its changing materials forms, sites and technologies.  This year’s SHARP conference in Washington DC last weekend, organized by EMOB’s own Eleanor Shevlin along with Casey Smith, and sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution Libraries, the Library of Congress, the Folger Shakespeare Library and Institute, and the Corcoran College of Art + Design, illustrated that the field of Digital Humanities, though still in its incunabula stage, is growing at a dynamic rate.  It also made clear that book historians are prepared to enthusiastically explore the new tools and new theories emerging from a variety of DH practitioners, institutions and new partnerships.

My own experience of the conference was infused with new media theories and practices from beginning to end.  I was “tweeting” the conference on my new iPad, and at the same time taking notes on Evernote, an app that synchs my jottings across platforms. The constant access to the Internet provided by the venues meant that I could look up books, websites, or even places for lunch as needed.  This is not the first time I have used Twitter to report on a conference, but a lively backchannel, encouraged by @sharporg (the alter ego of SHARP vice-president Ian Gadd), allowed conversation about the presentations to unfold and real time. It also facilitated meetings in “real life” of those of us who only had met online before: there’s a reason they call it “social media.” Perhaps more importantly, though, the tweets allowed those who could not make it to the conference to “eavesdrop” on the proceedings, thus opening it to a larger group than those able to physically attend–which is precisely why SHARP has been encouraging the use of such tools.

The first panel I attended on Friday morning was a roundtable focused on RED, or the Reading Experience Database site. I actually learned about this site, which allows users to upload written examples of reading practices from historical sources, many years ago–it was a Digital Humanities project before that label even existed.   What I didn’t know, however, is that the site recently received a second grant from the AHRC, which allowed them to upgrade their interface substantially, and add a number of important usability features, such as tutorials and descriptions designed to attract a large audience.  The database, crammed with information  usually culled from diaries, correspondence, and memoirs, but sometimes including fictional representations as well, is searchable by author, reader or keyword.  Because the grant also has allowed them to expand internationally, much of the roundtable was devoted to status reports from the new RED sites, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the Netherlands.  Panelists discussed issues such as what constitutes a national boundary, citizen, or language; whose reading experiences are to be included; and how to usefully delimit or focus the new projects. The extension of RED into these new countries and the consequent gathering of a larger data set enable new research questions and findings about transnational reading experiences.

Another pivotal “techie” event involved a new format for SHARP: a digital projects poster session.  In this informal gathering, presenters stood by open laptops while the audience wandered from station to station chatting with the designers about their online collections or tools.  In the digital tool category, Ian Gadd showed off the Virtual Printing Press, an accurate scale model, complete with moving parts, of a Franklin Press.  Existing in Second Life on its own deserted island (Gadd  plans to have students build a printing house around it), the goal of the press is to teach students without access to original machinery the mechanics of printing.  George Williams demonstrated BrailleSC.org, a site that not only highlights the reading experiences of South Carolina’s blind citizens through recorded oral histories, but also offers plugs-in that web designers can utilize to make their own sites more user friendly to the visually impaired.  In the collection category, Katherine Harris, who also organized the panel, showed off the Poetess Archive Database, which is, to quote the site, “a bibliography of over 4,000 entries for works by and about writers working in and against the ‘poetess tradition,’ the extraordinarily popular, but much criticized, flowery poetry written in Britain and America between 1750 and 1900.”  Troy Bassett exhibited his Database of Victorian Fiction, a description of every multiple volume British novel known to have been published. Jessica DeSpain discussed her project, The Wide, Wide World Hypertext Archive, a searchable collection of the illustrations, cover designs, and textual variants of the over 100 editions of Susan Warner’s nineteenth-century American novel, The Wide, Wide World. Lord Byron and His Times, directed by David Radcliffe (in absentia), is yet another collection, this one (again according to the site) “a growing digital archive of books, pamphlets, and periodical essays illustrating the causes and controversies” surrounding the poet.  Not included in this poster session, but presented at an early panel, was a project similar to these in both its focus on one particular, narrow set of works, and its comprehensiveness of bibliographic detail:  Marija Dalbello and Nathan Graham’s 1893, a collection that traces the history of the foreign titles displayed in the Woman’s Library at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition. All of these projects are labors of love, requiring years of work at a time when tenure committees can still be leery of nontraditional forms of scholarship, and generously making texts, bibliographic information and new constellations of meaning available to a larger audience.

The SHARP conference closed with a look at the future of the reading, writing and research with a final plenary session on Digital Technology. Matt Kirshenbaum highlighted the Deena Larsen collection at the University of Maryland’s Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH), which includes the electronic literature pioneer’s early-era personal computers, software, and multiple versions of writings by other authors of 1980s and ‘90s hypertext  (I will return to some of Kirshenbaum’s larger points).  Next, Brian Geiger discussed the digital future of ESTC, which will rely on user-generated collections of digital surrogates. Ben Pauley then spoke about the Eighteenth Century Book Tracker, which uses crowdsourcing to correct metadata in Google Books.  As discussed on EMOB last year, Geiger and Pauley received a Google Digital Humanities Research Awards to connect ESTC’s online records directly to Google’s facsimiles.  The last presenters, Simon Burrow and Mark Curran, showed off their expansive project on the French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe, due to be released almost any minute (SHARP attendees received a temporary password to play with the beta version).  This project generates and geographically maps statistics on sales, dissemination patterns, editions, clients, genres, prices, etc. of the Société Typographique de Neuchâtel (STN), a Swiss publishing house of the late eighteenth century that sold works by other publishers as well.  The potential of all this data to be put to use to analyze and understand “big picture” trends (dare I say distant reading?) in book consumption and the dissemination of ideas during the Enlightenment gets us back to the original goals and roots of book history.   At the same time, it brings this information to an audience of students and scholars far beyond the privileged few that previously had access to the STN archive.  Katherine Harris, as respondent, hurriedly wrapped up the session, already running over, with comments pointing out the appropriateness of the mash-up of digital humanities and book history, and the inclusivity of both fields.

So far, most of the DH work I have discussed has been focused on making tools and gathering collections that further the study of the book.  This is certainly appropriate for an organization like SHARP.  Yet books are not the only technologies of authorship, reading and publishing.  One of  Kirshenbaum’s key points was that we need to use—and modify as needed—the bibliographic methods developed by book historians to create methodologies for the analysis and, importantly,  preservation of more recent material artifacts of literacy, including computer hardware, software, web interfaces and other born-digital and digital-analog hybrids objects.  The metadata challenges alone are immense, but must be addressed if we want to preserve the future history of new media.

Kirschenbaum’s point was timely, as few papers at the conference addressed digital forms of literacy or contemporary literacy machines.  My own paper discussed the role of the reader in ebook platforms and book apps, while my co-panalist, Marianne Martens, analyzed the economics of publishing multi-platform books for teenagers.  A few other papers undermined our easy acceptance of the facsimile book: Mary Murrell touched on digitization methods in her paper on “Books as Data” and Bonnie Mak also brought the labor of book scanning to the forefront in “From Facsimile to Fact in the Information Age.” Daniel Selcer and Theresa Smith reminded us that even a photographic facsimile is not a transparent rendition of authenticity but an artifact in its own right in their brilliant theoretical analysis of a “black hole” in Eames’ famous Copernicus reproductions.  The papers I heard provided a much needed starting point in answer to Kirschenbaum’s call, but they just scratch the surface of what remains to be done.

It’s possible that papers I missed may have analyzed new technologies as well, but I think that it’s clear that more papers and more studies are badly needed.  This is not just an issue of “including” the Digital Humanities.  The digital age is here, for better and worse, and if book history/bibliography and related organizations want to stay relevant, our contemporary forms of textual dissemination must be the subject of scholarship that draws on and uses these innovative forms of research and publication.  Luckily, I think that SHARP, known for its inclusivity and interdisciplinarity, unafraid to set original scholarly agendas and create new centers of learning, is ideally situated to be the bridge between the past and the future.

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11 Responses to “DH @ #SHARP11”

  1. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Many thanks, Lisa, for this very fine report on the vibrant presence of digital culture and projects at SHARP 2011. As you remark, SHARP is well suited to playing a leading role in dissecting, showcasing, exploring, and reflecting on the age’s digital transformations. SHARP, in fact, is often mentioned as a target audience in grant proposals for digital projects–it was for the 18thConnect, for instance, and I also believe that the 18th-Century Book Tracker mentioned SHARP in its application for a Google Digital Humanities grant.

    The conference had a number or sponsors–and the National Library of Medicine was one as well. Although the opening ceremonies at the NLM did not explicitly feature digital projects, this library has long been involved in the digital. The NLM, in fact, was the first site to employ the Turning The Pages (TTP) software developed by the British Library to allow greater access to rare works. The NLM has now made examples available online.

    SHARP’s incorporation of a digital poster session actually debuted at SHARP 2008 in Oxford, but we were pleased it was resurrected for this conference. Space constraints prevented showing even more.

    Because I was organizing, I actually missed the concurrent sessions, but I have used RED with much success in both my introduction to manuscript, print, and digital culture course but also some of my eighteenth-century courses. From the abstracts, I was pleased that RED has now branched out to include international partners–and, of course, that it has received yet another AHRC.

    One paper that I missed (and I believe you were chairing a session at the time it was being delivered, Lisa) was Harry St. Ours’s “The Future of the Book in Art and Design Education,” which argued that “early-adopting artist, designer and educator who are directing publishing trends” in e-textbooks.

    It was a shame that we had very little time for discussion following the rich remarks made by the Digital Technology plenary speakers. Matt Kirschenbaum’s work drove home points to which we need to give far more thought and attention. Geiger and Pauley’s Eighteenth Century Book Tracker offered an interesting partnership model–three-way exchange, if you will, that links the well-established nonprofit English Short Title Catalog with the individual scholar not at a large research institution and a commercial entity that is Google. This model is instructive, and the project itself also illustrates how the bemoaning of Google Books’s inadequacies for scholars–specifically its inattention to metadata and bibliographic matters–can be better met with action. The French Book Trade project also offers book historians numerous angles to pursue. As you note, Lisa, it does provide a robust database for distant reading (as do some of the projects featured at the poster session, too). Additionally, its wealth of information about sales, titles, distribution, and purchasers (quite detailed) lends itself to varied micro-level historical projects. Finally, its design and open-source design afford a model for other projects devoted to publishing archives.

    These archives are indeed “labors of love, requiring years of work at a time when tenure committees can still be leery of nontraditional forms of scholarship,” and projects that can share its information architecture and lessons learned should only help advance the type of digital resources at our disposal and the time it takes to create these resources. And the process of their creation and the practices their use fosters make it a mistake to consider them merely tools. Rather they offer intellectual laboratories and deserve recognition for value that extends beyond their status as data repositories or “tools.” Yet, as Sheila Cavanagh’s recent article, “Digital Archive Economics” details, larger recognition and academic capital at the institutional level has been slow in coming.

  2. Anna Battigelli Says:

    Thanks, Lisa and Eleanor, for these fine overviews. I’d like to hear more about RED (either about the session or about the project).

    It would also be nice to hear more about the session called “the Future of the Book in Art and Design Education.” Can someone invite the panelists to provide additional information or overviews?

    Also of interest would be more about Kirschenbaum’s sense that bibliographical methods ought to be adapted to respond to the needs of digital archives. Can we hear more about that?

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  4. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    The RED project uses volunteers as well as staff to enter information about reading experiences into its database. If one were working on a diary, for instance,one might collect and record all the references to reading and the reading experience. For example, the diary (or collected letters, journals, and so forth) might make reference to the time of day in which the reading took place (“I read three chapters of Tom Jones before retiring for the evening”) or other issues related to the rhetorical situation in which the reading occurred such as comments indicating that the work was read aloud or that it was the subject of a later discussion or that the reading took place outside or in the library. Mentions of titles, authors, characters, and so forth are also noted. So too are biographical details about the reader. One can search by title, author, reader, and more.

    I will be posting the abstracts for the conference soon on sharp2011.org, so those interested can find out more about the individual papers that way. In the meantime, here’s Harry St. Ours’s abstract:

    Harry St. Ours, Montgomery College, The Future of the Book in Art and Design Education
    At the Apple Distinguished Educator Summer Institute 2010 in Orlando, Florida last July, I was part of a team that presented our ideas about how we think the future of the book should be connected, adaptable, flexible and customized. Publishers, educators and authors are now developing ideas we can use to begin to prepare our students and our schools as books, and textbooks specifically, begin to change over the next few years and decades. Tablet computers and eBook readers are being adopted in education at an amazingly fast rate. The increasing popularity of these devices and their logical connection to education has made them difficult, if not impossible, to disregard. Schools are finding themselves under substantial pressure to deliver coursework not only online (synchronous) but also electronically (asynchronous), shifting the burden of technology to the end-user. Publishers, meanwhile, are being forced to develop frequently untried business models to service these new eCommerce opportunities. Rentals and digital rights management do give publishers an opportunity to explore new markets while retaining intellectual property controls, but increasingly independent artists and designers can self-publish and distribute art books, texts and course materials with ease. It is clear that these devices will profoundly change the way we read, research and create. Tablet computing has become a platform not only for art and design textbooks, professional journals and obscure monographs, but the format provides rich color and enhances appreciation of the art and design experience. A spate of new color touch tablets of every size and feature-set have arrived, and the best of them marry content consumption with content creation. They are sure to be used regularly at all levels in schools teaching art and design. For once, it appears, it is the early-adopting artist, designer and educator who are directing publishing trends. And through trial and discovery in the studio and classroom, developing mechanisms for funding and implementation with local and regional institutional hierarchy, and, finally, actual implementation with rigorous outcomes assessments, it is likely to be the art and design teacher who will help guide publishers toward developing the best practices model. I will begin by taking a look at the current state of books and electronic material for art and design, before discussing future trends and what this means for artists, authors, educators and publishers, as together we forge the future of the book in art and design education.

    As for Matt Kirschenbaum’s remarks about the need to adapt bibliographic methods to account for new media, he is speaking of the different features that characterize digital media and the need to find descriptive terminology to capture that data and also address features of media that print bibliographic practices are ill-equipped to handle . How should we address the hard drive, different files, and so forth? There are also issues with extracting information from hard drives and the like. Steve Enniss discussed some of the issues last year at a WAGPCS talk. I think it was related to Ted Hughes’s computer and hard drives that are now contained in Emory’s collection. I remember many years ago at SHARP (perhaps 1996 in Worcester, MA) that a few bibliographers saw the digital world as offering new opportunities for rethinking and updating bibliographic practices. As for Kirschenbaum’s note about the need for funding to advance and complete projects, the NEH Digitial Humanities program announced this June a new grant program aimed at meeting this need. That said, much more needs to be done to support the development of such projects.

  5. lmaruca Says:

    Anna, Kirschenbaum also has authored a white paper on “Approaches to Managing and Collecting Born-Digital Literary Materials for Scholarly Use” that discusses some of the issues he raised:

    http://www.neh.gov/ODH/Default.aspx?tabid=111&id=37

    RED is a very cool resource! It’s a lot of fun to show this to students (and will be even better now that the interface is DRASTICALLY improved) and explain to them that they can add to it, too. I encourage you to play with it a bit and see how your favorite books and authors are referenced.

    Eleanor, I want to echo and amplify your point about the DH projects I described: “the process of their creation and the practices their use fosters make it a mistake to consider them merely tools. Rather they offer intellectual laboratories and deserve recognition for value that extends beyond their status as data repositories or ‘tools’.” I certainly agree, and admit that my distinction between “archives/collections” and “tools,” though perhaps a useful descriptive rubric, is ultimately artificial. These projects do not merely “store” texts, they recreate and recombine them in fundamental ways. We’re just starting to get a handle on what this new artifact (text on screen within database) might mean. One thing it is NOT is a transparent copy of a book. Sarah Werner from the Folger (who attended the conference as well) has just written a blog post on this distinction, and the conversation in the comments especially is enlightening: http://sarahwerner.net/blog/index.php/2011/07/fetishizing-books-and-textualizing-the-digital

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  7. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Lisa, thanks for bringing Sarah’s very fine post into the discussion. The post and comments are well worth reading. For one, they underscore acknowledging the materiality of the digital. The form/content issue is also under-explored (and sometimes “over-fetishized”). This issue, moreover, manifests itself in multiple ways in the digital environment. One might consider the interface of a given digital project as akin to the form of a printed work. Yet, the information architecture and encoding is arguably an inextricable part of content, though I sense that some might see it as solely as the form through which the content is rendered.

  8. Dave Mazella Says:

    Lisa and all, thanks for making this available to those who couldn’t attend. I, too, think that the distinctions between “tools” or “repositories” and the higher-order intellectual work they make possible are beginning to break down in DH. In my view, this is because of the new possibilities of intellectual collaboration and/or aggregation that they create. Pauley’s 18c BookTracker is a great example of this, because the creation of a virtual archive there makes it possible for more people to refine the metadata that in turn makes the archive better and easier to use.

    I just attended Eighteenth Century Scottish Studies Society meeting in Aberdeen, and some very interesting projects in the history of the book were previewed there: my favorite was Mark Towsey’s work on the reception of Scottish Enlightenment texts by female readers, along with Adam Budd’s ongoing research on the account-books of Andrew Millar. But one of the topics that came up at the meeting was the desirability of projects like these being made as accessible as possible to the broadest number of scholars, through some form of electronic dissemination, so their implications could be fully explored. This is why I think the Simon Burrow approach is absolutely correct.

  9. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Mark Towsey’s project is extremely interesting–he presented his work as one the Bibliographical Society of America’s young scholars three years ago, and then was on the BSA/ASECS panel in Albuquerque on social reading (in fact, he was the one who devised the panel’s topic). It would be good to have intersections between his work and the RED –if such ties do not already exist.

    Adam Budd’s discovery of and subsequent work on Millar’s account books was met with great interesnt at SHARP 2006 in The Hague: “The Interests of Patronage: Assessing Andrew Millar’s Financial Ledgers (1749-69).” As this paper’s title suggests, these books offer more than merely figures (though the numbers in themselves are definitely of great interest), and a digital project capturing the information they contain would be highly worthy of funded. Did you learn where Millar’s books are housed? In 2006 Budd was not yet willing to say. I have been looking for many years to find a late 18th-century publishers’ bank records–I’ve been to the Bank of England archives, and while not having found my subject’s records, the Dillys and others had material there. I’ve also been in correspondence with the multiple banking repository outside of Manchester, but there finding aids suggested that his records were not there. Nancy Mace, however, did have good luck recently in these archives.

  10. Dave Mazella Says:

    Towsey’s work was for me one of the highlights, since it represents really necessary work on the reception of the Scottish enlightenment that otherwise seems quite unexplored. Budd’s work was intriguing, but I don’t want to scoop him, because this work is going into a big critical edition of these account books, if I understood the presentation correctly. He just published a piece in the TLS about his work there. I think I can say that he has been working at Coutts, and has been getting access to records there, but others at the panel indicated that they had attempted in the past to get access to similar records and were denied. I’d suggest you contact him at Edinburgh.

    • Eleanor Shevlin Says:

      Thanks, Dave. Work on SHARP 2011 put a serious dent into my reading, but I will look for Budd’s TLS piece. I was really just interested in the name–and it is very unlikely that my publisher was tied to Coutts. For those interested in doing more with such records, an excellent guide to orienting one to the archives is John Orbell and Alison Turton’s British banking: a guide to historical records (Ashgate, 2001).

      The Bank of England welcomes researchers, but they can accommodate only a few at a time, and if one does not plan ahead, it can be difficult to obtain an appointment. That said, the archivists will call if cancellations arise and a spot opens up.

      Digitizing banking records would be a wonderful but admittedly expensive project.

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