Archive for April, 2012

Digital Humanities and Archives II: ‘Archival Effects’ of Digitization

April 29, 2012

In an earlier EMOB post, “Digital Humanities and the Archives I: Economics and Sustainability”, we discussed the varied connotations that the term “sustainability” evokes. Yet the concept of “archives” also engenders a multiplicity of meanings as does the word “database.” In some circles “archive” and “database” are used interchangeably, while for others the terms signal distinctions between the past and the present. As Marlene Manoff has observed,

When scholars outside library and archival science use the word “archive” or when those outside information technology fields use the word “database,” they almost always mean something broader and more ambiguous than experts in these fields using those same words. The disciplinary boundaries within which these terms have been contained are eroding. Scholars use the terms metaphorically, appropriating them from the professional experts. (Manoff, “Archive and Database as Metaphor: Theorizing the Historical Record.” portal: Libraries and the Academy, 10.4 [2010], 385)

The submissions for the “Digital Humanities and the Archives” roundtable at ASECS 2012 attest to the varied meanings scholars ascribe to “archive” as a digital entity. While some proposals viewed commercial textbases such as ECCO or EEBO as archives, others considered non-commercial digital projects (some of which were designed to perform additional roles beyond being a repository), as falling under the “archival” designation. Still others proposed topics that were not tied to specific digital collections or projects. Reflecting this diversity, the selected presentations featured two papers on the nature of searching within digital environments (Randall Cream, West Chester Univ., and Bill Blake, New York Univ.), another on the coding issues encountered in building a performance history database (Mike Gavin, Rice University; University of South Carolina, Fall 2012), a fourth on the potential evidence that can be derived from negative results (Sayre Greenfield, Univ. of Pittsburgh, Greensburg), and the last on a digital archive aimed at facilitating exchange between scholars facilitating exchange between scholars and those outside the academy (Jessica Richard, Wake Forest Univ.). In his post on the many Digital Humanities sessions at ASECS, Stephen Gregg offers a fine overview of this roundtable, so the following comments supplement his summary. In addition, they serve as a springboard for discussing digitization’s broader “archival effects,” a term coined by Marlene Manoff to “suggest the ways in which digital media bring the past into the present” (386).

Contrasting the old and the new, Randall Cream noted that unlike traditional archives whose contents are not always fully known, digital archives and databases afford more certainty because their creation involves detailed and defining–an encyclopedic naming of their various parts. For Cream, this difference has also meant that searching the digital archives lacks the serendipitous discovery that scholars often experience when working in brick-and-mortar archives. He suggested concept-linked searching as a possible means of fostering chance discoveries within digital environments, a suggestion that provided a fitting segue to Bill Blake’s talk on crafting more effective digital searches. Blake argued for thinking beyond topical keyword searches aimed solely at retrieval. Instead, he called for adopting more quality, conceptually-based searches that will yield better results; such searches will counter the drift and spread that occur when the aim of retrieval replaces the goal of discovery. (Given earlier EMOB discussions of semantic- or meaning-based searches, it should be noted that Blake was referring to the ways users select and fashion search terms and not to the new search platforms that enable semantic or meaning-based searching such as Mimas used in JISC’s Historic Books collection.)

Cream’s and Blake’s remarks point to what could be termed a remediation of research practices as print and digital interact, and both their talks highlighted searching as perhaps one of the most significant reconfigured practices. And indeed the concept of searching has undergone major reformulations in the digital environment. While accessibility and quickness of obtaining results are often seen as digital archives’ main advantage over print, a key benefit of digital collections resides in their enabling users to traverse immense areas of texts multi-directionally. Put another way, what seems radically different about searching in the digital world is not merely unprecedented access and speed, but rather the ways one can alter search strategies instantaneously, shifting not only the search terms employed at a moment’s notice but also the temporal and spatial coordinates in which those terms are placed. This capability expands the ways we are approaching the search as a strategy, opening up new conceptualizations even as we retain the habits and training we acquired working with print. As Wired magazine’s Kevin Kelly has observed: “What search uncovers is not just keywords but also the inherent value of connection…Search opens up creations. …As a song, movie, novel or poem is searched, the potential connections it radiates seep into society in a much deeper way than the simple publication of a duplicated copy ever could” (Kevin Kelly, “Scan this Book!” New York Times, 14 May 2006).

The searching enabled within digital archives reorients our thinking about what constitutes relevant information and exposes the kinds of connectivity that we would likely miss or overlook working with print and manuscript in traditional environments. This reorientation, moreover, possesses its own opportunities for serendipity. While serendipitous discoveries made when working in a traditional archive or even browsing in the stacks typically occur within a bounded space and a pre-selected range of call numbers, digital archives and databases enable virtual movement throughout their holdings to uncover relevant but unforeseen connections not bounded by categories of expectations. In short, capable of serving as far more than text delivery systems and repositories, these digital archives and databases function as “discovery aids.” Fostering a culture of connectivity, these intellectual laboratories of sorts can provide access not only to individual titles but also to a larger, dynamic field of textual and sociocultural activity.

Sayre Greenfield’s paper demonstrated the kind of discoveries that this rethinking of relevant information can yield. Noting that assessing negative findings requires caution, Greenfield explored the ways in which a lack of search results—negative evidence—can translate into meaningful information and concluded that “absences are most useful when measured against positive results found elsewhere, in different genres or different periods.” In offering examples of the different hits obtained from performing the same search in ECCO and Burney, he drew attention to the importance of knowing the scope of a given database and the value of working across databases.

Mike Gavin’s paper also underscored the importance of understanding the operation of digital archives and the rethinking that such understanding can prompt. As Gavin recounted, creating a digital archive of dramatic works that incorporates their performance history has necessitated adapting TEI coding to facilitate searching. While his comments reflect the perspective of those constructing the archive, they also hold significance for users of digital archives. The tagging examples he provided illustrate the significant intellectual labor that goes into the creation of digital databases and archives; encoding a document, after all, is an interpretive practice requiring careful thought and subject expertise. His illustrations are a cogent reminder that the archives–whether traditional or digital–are never neutral but always are rooted in the views and principles of their creators. In the case of digital archives or databases, users benefit from being cognizant of their “constructedness.” Having an awareness of a digital archive’s creators, the circumstances surrounding its creation, the quality of its metadata, and the idiosyncrasies of its search engine will almost certainly enhance a user’s search process and, in some cases, even his or her analysis of results. Unfortunately, it is not always possible to uncover such details about digital archives and databases. Plus, even when there is transparency and one can familiarize oneself with a digital archive’s encoding principles and information architecture, the tagging can still limit the what results searches return. On a different note, it seems worth mentioning that the tasks of coding and organizing the contents of a traditional archive will, in turn, often enrich knowledge of its physical material. And this physical material remains important, for the digital and the material are not one and the same.

Unlike the first four papers that focused on either existing archives or ones nearing completion, Jessica Richard’s paper dealt with the early planning stages of a digital project. The incarnation for the project was a desire to foster exchange between eighteenth-century science studies scholars and a non-academic readership; creating a web-based site seems an ideal medium for the public-humanities thrust of this project. Notwithstanding its differences from the other talks, Richard’s topic very much reflects how the digital is transforming our traditional conceptions of archives. The project’s rethinking of audience, attention to wide access, and desire to translate scholarship for an interested general public all exemplify aspects of this transformation.

As these five talks illustrated, digital media are transforming our theoretical conceptions of “archives”; creating new paradigms and inspiring shifts in existing models as the digital and traditional archival cultures interact; and shaping the kinds of archival projects being undertaken, the methodologies used, and the types of research questions posed. Early in her essay Manoff suggests that “our current moment reflects the convergence of two phenomena–new technical capacities and an age-old impulse to gather and preserve. The ease of capturing digital data is an incitement to archive” (386). In light of the linguistic history of “archive,” connections between new technical capacities and the desire to collect and preserve have perhaps an even longer history. The word “archive” does not appear until after the invention of hand-press printing. While its use as a noun to denote either a historical document that is preserved or the place in which such documents are kept dates from the late 1630s/early 1640s, its verbal form–to archive–does not enter the lexicon until the twentieth century. Whether coincidence or not, this verb does not gain wide currency until the 1980s, a timing that corresponds with the growth in the use of computers and related technologies. In the past two decades the extensive adoption of digital technologies has dramatically spurred efforts to assemble large-scale collections of visual, verbal, and even oral materials and make them virtually available, either freely or commercially.

For Manoff, metaphorical appropriations of “archive” are not only useful for theorizing the ever-increasing growth of these collections but also for theorizing the digital in terms of its archival effects on our conceptions of history and the cultural record (385-6). As Manoff observes at the close of her essay, “archive” especially lends itself to such theorizing because the concept “carries within it both the ideal of preserving collective memory and the reality of its impossibility” (396). The musings about traditional and digital archives presented here touch upon only a few of the archival effects that digital transformations are exercising on our research practices and broader relationships with the history and knowledge. I hope others will add their thoughts about these changes and the explanatory power of “archive” to address our cultural moment.

ASECS Conference Report: THATCamp

April 4, 2012

This year my trip to the American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies (ASECS) annual meeting was a little different.  I started by heading off to camp!  Alas, this camp didn’t involve bug spray, stories around the campfire or overindulging in marshmallows—but I did get to play with computers.  My camp was THATCamp, also known as The Humanities and Technology camp, or “unconference.”

Started in 2008 by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, the THATCAmp movement has expanded into a number of regional, international and topic-specific meetings.  THATCamps are informal, non-hierarchical get-togethers that privilege hands-on learning and impromptu discussion (see the THATCamp site for a more detailed description).  This year’s ASECS THATCamp was organized by George Williams and Seth Denbo of the ASECS Digital Humanities Caucus, in conjunction with the Initiative for Digital Humanities, Media, and Culture (IDHCM) at Texas A & M.  Held the Wednesday before ASECS started in the conference hotel, the day-long workshop was free of charge.

As is customary for a THATCAmp, ours begin with a collaborative organizational session.  Many participants had posted ideas for discussion on the THATCamp/ASECS site ahead of time; other proposals for sessions were soon added to the mix, written up on a shared Google Document and projected on the wall. Participants then voted on the final topics and the schedule for the day was set.  There were enough participants and ideas to run two concurrent meetings.

It was noted early on that the sessions seem to have naturally divided themselves into tool-based and idea-based streams, though this is a dichotomy that I personally reject (along with the over-used designations “hard” and “soft”). Because these were held at tables in the same room, there was no shame in switching midstream.  Some participants kept collaboratively written notes on a Google Document, while others (including me) tweeted the sessions using the hashtags #thatcamp and #asecs12 (unfortunately, I don’t think these were specifically archived and may now be lost in the Twitterverse).

The first session I attended was “Remixing Scholarship,” a discussion of the new forms and possibilities of collaborative research we might embrace in the digital age, as well as the new problems that arise with these practices.  Romantic, singular forms of authorship are still the norm in the academy, and many T&P committees are wary of non-print publications.  We discussed not only how to change this institutional prejudice, but also acknowledged the real personal barriers that must be overcome, admitting that frankly, some work does not need to be shared until it is complete and that some research projects are best tackled by one individual.  The point is to have options, of course, and to have a wide variety of practices and products acknowledged as valuable.  Organizations such as ASECS can play an important role in setting standards and creating benchmarks by which to evaluate digital work in our field.  In the meantime, we can continue to share the T&P criteria adopted by departments who are open to work in new media.

The next session, “Brainstorming a Professional Organization’s Online Presence” focused on thinking about ways that the ASECS website might become more user-friendly, interactive and reflective of contemporary digital design principals.  We also briefly touched on the ways the Digital Humanities Caucus can best serve the organization and communicate with its members.  We wrapped up with several action points, including an ASECS member survey that the DH Caucus will be working on in the next months.

Pedagogy is always a valued and popular topic at THATCamps, and the ASECS one was no exception.  Our table’s discussion centered mostly on the often overlooked area of graduate students and DH.  Many treatments of this assume high interest and high skills, but not all students come to graduate programs with digital experience.  Yet because the digital humanities are becoming in many ways just the humanities, it seems ill advised for grad students to enter their fields (much less their respective job markets) ignorant of the new methodologies (much less burgeoning forms and structures of knowledge) available to, and perhaps eventually demanded of them.  I don’t think we solved this problem in our hour of talk, but it was useful to begin to exchange ideas.

The last session I attended was a workshop led by Tonya Howe on Omeka, a digital archiving tool.  Again, the short time period allowed us only to scratch the surface of this tool.  However, introductions such as these are useful in that they enable one to pursue a tool or technology more completely in his or her own time.  I may do so, or I may not; I haven’t yet decided if Omeka is something I’d use in my classroom or for my research.  However, next time I am talking to a grad student or colleague about their digital archiving needs, I’ll have something to suggest, and next time a fellow scholar tells me about her Omeka collection, I’ll know what she means.

THATCamp was followed by a demonstration of 18thConnect by Director Laura Mandell.

I was exhausted by a day of intense computing and even more intense discussion.  But that’s what makes THATCamp an unconference.  You never get talked at; every session is what each participant makes it.  And whether the topic was DH theory or hands-on hacking, my fellow participants made the  #ASECS12 #thatcamp almost better than campfires and marshmallows.


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