Archive for the ‘Connected Histories’ Category

Preserving Digital Archives

April 28, 2013

Most attendees at the Beinecke Library’s recent conference on digital archiving–Beyond the Text: Literary Archives in the 21st Century“–arrived equipped with the idea that there is no preservation without loss.

What may have given some attendees pause, particularly those who work primarily on the first two centuries following the Reformation, is how much 21st-century digital stuff is being preserved–and how idiosyncratic the process of selection can be.

Faced with the data deluge of a contemporary literary figure’s electronic correspondence, for example, how do archivists determine what gets archived and what gets tossed?  Now that archiving can begin during a writer’s or publisher’s lifetime, without a family member’s interference (think Cassandra Austen), who shapes the archive?  And if digital archivists shape the archive, what principles of retention do they use?  Where do their loyalties lie? With the author?  Or with the data-hungry and feverishly scandal-mongering scholars of posterity?

The two-day conference raised unresolved and provocative questions, many of which focused on the problem of selection.  Fran Baker, the Assistant Archivist for John Rylands Library at the University of Manchester, discussed the complexity of archiving the Carcanet editorial papers, including email.  Hearing about the decision-making process determining what stays and what gets tossed may not seem new to librarians familiar with the problem of sorting and discarding, but in the context of shaping an archive, that decision-making process and its likelihood of error takes on urgency.

There were stories of forensic success, the most notable of which is Matthew Kirschenbaum’s narrative of the extensive and collective effort tracking down William Gibson’s electronic poem, “Agrippa,” which was designed to encrypt itself after a single reading.  That a text programmed to go away can be recovered suggests both the value of collaborating on large digital projects like The Agrippa Files and the perils of assuming that an author has control over her or his electronic archives.  Similarly, Beth Luey’s account of the rich storehouse of data contained in publishers’ records–sales data, copies printed, copies sold, print runs, design decisions, contracts, marketing files, legal disputes, reviews, book jacket design, subsidiary rights, and so forth–both encouraged work on publishers’ records and raised ethical and legal issues.  In the discussion that followed, for example, it became clear that though some publishers did not retain rejected manuscripts, others did, including pertinent correspondence and readers’ reports.

The Keynote talk by David Sutton noted that literary manuscripts are like no other manuscripts in that they offer insights into the act of creation.  He showcased ongoing projects that promote an awareness of digital literary archives:

Hazel Carby’s eloquent, harrowing, and culturally resonant account of tracing her family genealogy back to a slave owner’s carefully archived records, reminded everyone that archives preserve both the beautiful and the monstrous.

Diane Ducharme drew on her experience at the Beinecke to warn that however much we may desire an unmediated past and a pristine archival order free from editing and explicating, all archives arrive shaped and selected.  Her discussion underscored the importance of searching for the traces of a previous archivist’s work.

Micki McGee described her experience with the Yaddo Archive Project, which aims at providing visualizations of the social network of writers who worked at Yaddo.  She described the process of seeking a relational database with social network mapping and a visualization widget.  Though the project, Yaddo Circles, requires authentication and is not yet available for public view, this vimeo provides an overview.  Clicking here reveals the kind of relational visualization this project might produce.

McGee also recommended looking at the following projects:

These projects have potential for helping us recover the intensely sociable and highly competitive literary worlds of the long eighteenth century.   Like the many other provocative and interesting papers and introductions to sessions, they point a way forward even as they raise methodological, logistical, and even ethical questions.

This conference made clear the value of a longer conference, with sessions focusing on specific problems posed by digital archives of material both old and new.  I welcome contributions by others who attended the conference to help complete this cursory overview.

Aggregating Resources and Building Digital Humanities Networks

June 11, 2012

The ever-growing interest in digital resources for humanities research and teaching has coincided with an increased desire for central sites that enable scholars to learn about appropriate digital tools, applications, and software. Bamboo DiRT (Digital Research Tools), inspired by Lisa Spiro’s DiRT wiki and part of Project Bamboo, is one site that fulfills this desire. Among the strengths of this directory of digital tools is the multiple ways to find resources. Clicking on the “View all” link, for instance, will take users to the site’s complete, annotated list of tools, from Adobe-based resources to Zotpress. The categories and tags page, accessible by clicking “Browse,” enables users to click on terms such as “data analysis” or “bibliographic management” and be taken to a descriptive list of relevant resources. On the I-want-to-do-X page, users can search for tools that will allow them to tackle particular tasks. These tasks range from analyzing data, to making screencasts or maps and transcribing handwritten or spoken texts. And users can also perform standard or advanced searches via keywords or phrases. More than just a directory, Bamboo DiRT allows registered users to comment on resources as well as share and recommend their own.

Perhaps because Bamboo DiRT is relatively new (publically debuting in 2012), comments and tips from users of various tools have, thus far, been sparse. Such contributions would complement the very brief yet still quite serviceable descriptions. Offering another variation of a digital clearinghouse, Josh Honn, a Digital Scholarship Library Fellow at Northwestern University’s Center for Scholarly Communication & Digital Curation and admiring user of Bamboo DiRT, has built his own resource hub, a Delicious “stack”. Currently consisting of 131 links to digital research software, applications, and tools, Honn’s Digital Scholarly Research Tools offers more commentary on various resources than Bamboo DiRT presently does, and it also often provides videos on specific tools. Although the stack benefits from its dynamic format, it lacks Bamboo DiRT’s multiple paths for finding tools.

Another development is the networked site. One such network is the UK’s Connected Histories. A collaborative project undertaken by the University of Hertfordshire, the Institute of Historical Research, University of London, and the University of Sheffield, this site currently contains fifteen separate resources including London Lives and John Strype’s Survey of London Online. A recipient of JISC funding, Connected Historiesenables cross-searching across the various databases. Some of its resources (for example, the 17th and 18th Century Burney collection), however, require subscriptions, so although US and other non-UK users can access much of Connected Histories, searching some databases are limited to subscription holders. This video offers an introduction to this network.

A similar development is the extended network that takes NINES, the nineteenth-century resource hub, as its inspiration. 18thConnect, discussed most recently in the previous post, was the first period resource to expand NINES coverage beyond the nineteenth century. Now, inspired by NINES and often funded by Mellon, other digital resource hubs devoted to particular historical periods are being created: Medieval Electronic Scholarly Alliance (MESA), REKn (Renaissance English Knowledgebase) and ModNets (Modernists). These sites are still in the planning and development stages, so there does not seem to be that much information available at the moment. Yet, one can read about REKn in this piece “Prototyping the Renaissance English Knowledgebase (REKn) and Professional Reading Environment (PReE), Past, Present, and Future Concerns: A Digital Humanities Project Narrative” and in this University of Victoria blog announcement REKn Joins World-leading NINES Initiative, ARC. Similarly, information about MESA, directed by directed by Dot Porter from Indiana University and Timothy Stinson at North Carolina State University, is available in a North Carolina State University’s blog announcement,“Modernizing the Medieval”, and in this announcement of a MESA – ARC (Advanced Research Consortium) meeting this past fall.

What do EMOB readers think about these developments? Would readers like interoperability among the various segments of the extended NINES network similar to that found in Connected Histories? Should professional scholarly organizations do more to publicize these clearinghouses for new resources, tools, and software and to promote these networked sites of databases and archives? Especially given the increasing eye towards transatlantic studies and more comparative global approaches, should our national professional societies do more for the scholars it represents by playing a leading role in encouraging the networking of international projects and resources?


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