Archive for the ‘Libraries’ Category

Trial Access to ECCO and NCCO for SUNY Colleges + Essay Contests

August 16, 2013

The following announcement from Gale Cengage will interest faculty and students at SUNY schools. It’s a great opportunity to explore these resources and students’ responses to them.

We hope to hear about classroom experiences here on emob.


This fall, Gale Cengage Learning is sponsoring an essay contest for SUNY students. Its purpose is to encourage primary source research using advanced databases like Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO) and Nineteenth Century Collections Online (NCCO). We hope this experience with these key resources will help students prepare for a digital future.

We are offering free access to SUNY schools during fall 2013 through our new platform Artemis, which will contain both ECCO and NCCO. We hope you and your students will explore these tools to see how they enrich the learning environment. We also hope you will encourage your students to submit essays that incorporate these resources as part of the contest.

Two undergraduate essay awards ($250 each) and one graduate essay award ($500) will be offered for the best submissions on 18th-19th-century history and/or literature.

More information can be found at the link below:

Questions can be forwarded to Theresa DeBenedictis:

Theresa DeBenedictis
Gale, Cengage Learning
1-800-877-4253 x 2229
Cell: 732-865-4249

Digital Life Spans and Library Access

August 22, 2012

Today’s Inside Higher Ed has an article by Barbara Fister called “The Library Vanishes – Again” that may be of interest.

Fister reports that EBSCO, which provides the Academic Search Premier database,” no longer offers full access to The Economist due to a contract dispute.  Similarly, the ERIC database, an online database of education research and information, was taken offline because of undisclosed “privacy concerns.”  It will remain offline until the privacy issues are resolved.  Fister conjectures that the privacy issues ailing ERIC might well result from the searchability of digitized databases: now that ERIC’s 360,000+ documents are online, data within those documents, including confidential data, is simply easier to find.  As she puts it,

materials that were publicly available in a pre-web state tended to evade notice; web access  is wonderful, but it exposes things.

Fister’s article confirms the digital world’s double identity of promise and instability.  Digitization makes items accessible and at its best provides full-text searchability.  But until some core values are arrived at regarding how to guarantee digital life spans, a library’s promise of access, ever contingent on library budgets and whims, remains in question.

This fall may be a good time to give thought to the library as it is affected by digitization.

In the meantime, I recommend Fister’s brief article in full at

The Big Bundle Steal: Open Access and Subscription Databases

August 12, 2011

In previous posts we have addressed access to subscription databases. Several recent news items offer a timely reason to revisit the subject.

On July 19, 2011 the New York Times reported the indictment of twenty-four-year-old Aaron Swartz, one of the forces behind the Open Library Project and longstanding internet activist, for breaking into the JStor database and downloading over 4.8 million articles. The material downloaded represented close to JStor’s entire holdings. On several occasions Swartz’s surreptitious activity caused some of JStor’s servers to crash. Once Swartz returned all the hard drives containing the documents and promised not to redistribute them, the nonprofit online journal provider expressed no interest in pursuing legal action. JStor issued its statement about the case the same day that the New York Times’s article appeared. The return of the material to JStor, however, did not alter the government’s stance toward the situation. As United States attorney, Carmen M. Ortiz, noted, “Stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars. It is equally harmful to the victim whether you sell what you have stolen or give it away.” If convicted, Swartz could face a 35-year prison sentence and a fine of one million dollars.

Swartz undertook the downloading while he was on a ten-month fellowship at Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics—a situation some may view as ironic and others as indicative of his strong commitment to open access for all information. Many have viewed the charges as over-reaching by the government, with some regarding the indictment as retaliatory for his internet activism as well as indicative of a lack of understanding about the digital environment. How could Swartz’s actions be called “theft” when the material remained on the JStor server? Isn’t this a matter of simply copying files? At the most wouldn’t his actions more appropriately fall under copyright infringement (although this scenario is complicated by the unwillingness of JStor to press charges)? That Swartz had legitimate access to JStor through his position at Harvard and that he conducted the downloading through unauthorized access of M.I.T.’s servers raise additional questions about illegal actions as well as his motivation. Was his purpose to analyze large data sets as he has in the past? (An explanation many have suggested, yet, as Michael Widner ponders in his recent ”JStor, the Semantic Web, and Bibliopedia” post, what aim could Swartz possibly have had in downloading so much content “that could not have been served via JSTOR’s Data for Research (DfR) API”?) Or did Swartz intend to make the JStor content freely available as the indictment, without citing any evidence, asserts?

A number of blog posts and other online articles have offered opinions about and analysis of the case, but Maria Bustillos’s post on The AWL (3 August 2011) offers a well-balanced look at the case. Besides providing valuable legal context and rejecting the possibility that Swartz would want or need to use JStor’s Data for Research for data analysis, she also helpfully distinguishes between nonprofit journal providers such as JStor and for-profit commercial enterprises such as Reed Elsevier. As Bustillos reminds us, costs, often significant, are involved in digitizing academic journals and maintaining reliable access to them. She also usefully clarifies that

JSTOR is paid (not by the public, but by institutions) for a service, not for content. The money that individuals pay for these articles goes not to JSTOR, but to the publisher that is making the material available.

I would add that a portion of the modest fees obtained by some scholarly societies from licensing their copyrighted journal and annual publications to JStor help defray their publishing costs, keep members’ dues down, and even on occasion provide funds for graduate student travel and scholarships. Bustillos rightly notes that JStor offers free access to nonprofit entities across Africa and other parts of the developing world. On its website JStor states that it furnishes over 600 institutions in the developing world with free access; its factsheet supplies some specifics and also announces the launch of a new alumni-access program. This announcement seems a welcome development and suggests that JStor is responding to a consistent complaint about access being withdrawn upon graduation from an institution.

Yet I should stress that this EMOB post is not meant as a paean to JStor. Like Bustillos, I believe that JStor should arrange for free access to the public domain material it provides. Rather this post is an effort to draw attention to the distinctions between nonprofit providers and for-profit providers of online materials. Indeed, I second Bustillos’s hope that “[i]f the Aaron Swartz case clarifies the position of open access advocates with respect to nonprofit services like JSTOR, that at least will be a good thing.”

JStor provides access through bundling—the practice of selling online access by assembling a number of journal titles as a package that libraries purchase for their patrons. Yet not all bundlers are alike, and it does seem odd to me that Swartz decided to copy JStor’s collections as opposed to those of other bundlers. In a 2008 piece, “Collection Sales: Good or Bad for Journals?”, Mark Armstrong evaluates the practice of bundling in terms of its effects on the journals (as opposed to readers). While he sees bundling as positive practice for journals, he does not see bundling by commercial publishers as salutary for nonprofit journals and interestingly sees JStor as a possible model that nonprofit journals may wish to emulate:

In the historic regime of stand-alone journal sales there was little tension when a nonprofit journal was published by a highly commercial publisher. Now, though, there is a tension, and non-profit journals might benefit from gradually disentangling themselves from the more commercial publishers. Both for-profit and non-profit journals, however, should surely make full use of the powerful instrument of bundling. In particular, relative to any stand-alone sales strategy, a non-profit journal will be better off if it joins the collection sales programme of a noncommercial publisher. The current example of JSTOR, which distributes a collection of largely non-profit journals (with a lag), might be a possible guide for how to disseminate the current output of non-profit journals. (21)

In the footnote that closes this paragraph Armstrong further explains,

JSTOR ( distributes a large number of journals from several disciplines, with a preponderance of non-profit and society journals. Articles are distributed with a lag of several years, so as not to unduly cannibalize a journal’s library subscriptions. JSTOR is available to libraries on a bundled basis (with scope for libraries to choose only particular subject areas). Since JSTOR has always distributed collections rather than individual journals, there is no issue about basing its library prices on historical individual subscriptions. JSTOR is a non-profit enterprise and sets relatively low prices to libraries, and pays relatively low prices to participating journals for distribution rights.

Ted (Theodore C.) Bergstrom, an economics professor at the University of California Santa Barbara, has been studying academic journal pricing for more than two decades, and his work supplies an additional context for assessing the differences between for-profit and nonprofit journals and the practice of bundling. In a co-authored 2006 article that appeared in ”Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment” [4.9 (Nov. 2006): 488-495], he and Carl Bergstrom compare “The Economics of Ecology Journals,” and their findings seem to be in keeping with larger trends. One of the several graphs they furnish affords a visual view of the stark pricing differences and citation costs of journals published by for-profit entities, by commercial and scholarly partnerships, and by nonprofit publishers (p. 489).

Figure 2. For-profit publishers (yellow) charge institutions more per page for journal subscriptions than do non-profit publishers (blue), such as scholarly societies and university presses. Journals published jointly by scholarly societies and for-profit publishers (red) are typically priced intermediately. Solid lines indicate linear regression through the origin (Non-profit: slope = 0.25, r2=0.67. Joint: slope = 0.86, r2=0.83. For-profit: slope=l38,^=0.90. Note that the regression slopes are not equal to average prices per pages, because the latter effectively weights each journal by its size.) From Carl T. Bergstrom and Theodore C. Bergstrom, Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 4.9 (Nov. 2006): 488-495, p.489.

As the authors explain, this chart shows that the

average cost per recent citation for journals published by non-profit societies is $0.78. Journals published jointly between a scholarly society and a for-profit publisher cost on average $2.42 per recent citation and those produced by for-profit publishers without an affiliated society cost on average $433 per recent citation (Figure 2). Thus, whether we measure cost as price per page or price per citation, for-profit journals are approximately five times as expensive as their non-profit counterparts.

Given that one of their findings reveals that the “price differences between commercial and non-profit publications do not reflect an underlying difference in quality as measured by citation rate” (488), the cost-per-citation analysis should cause serious pause.

Bergstrom’s ongoing work with other collaborators in the Big Deal Contract Project charts the stranglehold that for-profit outfits such as Elsevier and Springer have held over academic libraries. Also notable are the widely different fees that libraries might pay from one of these providers for the same material. A posting on a 2009 talk Bergstrom gave at the University of Michigan reports that “as an aside, almost, [Bergstrom] tells us that while UMich and Illinois pay Elsevier about $2.25M for the “Freedom Collection”, Wisconsin pays about $1.2M for the exact same collection.”

Bergstrom has consistently concluded his articles with suggestions of how to address the various problems stemming from commercial publishers’ bundling practices. In the previously cited 2006 ecology article, he and his co-author stress that faculty should not abdicate purchasing decisions to librarians, noting that librarians depend on faculty and graduate student input in making such decisions. They forcefully conclude

The fraction of library budgets that is currently going to the shareholders of large commercial publishers could instead be used to provide services of genuine value to the academic community. Professional societies and university presses could help by expanding their existing journals or starting new ones. Individual scholars could advance this process in many ways: by contributing their time and efforts to the expansion of these non-profit journals, by refusing to do unpaid referee work for overpriced commercial publications, by self-archiving their papers in preprint archives or institutional repositories, and by favoring reasonably priced journals with their submissions. (495)

Over the years Bergstrom has adjusted his recommendations to address the shifting landscape effected by the ever-increasing move to digital access. In his 2010 essay “Librarians and the Terrible Fix: Economics of the Big Deal” essay, published in Serials, 23.2 (July 2010): 77-82, Bergstrom presents an array of possibilities. In this piece he now sees merit in the “sale of institutional site licenses for non-profit journals” (80). As he explains, unlike commercial entities that have made the most of price inelasticity [that is, when an increased price “results in a less than proportionate decrease in demand”—a situation Bergstrom describes as “a paradise for monopolists” (77)], “[n]on-profit institutions have no incentive to charge prices significantly higher than average costs, even if demand is price inelastic” (80). Moreover, he emphasizes that libraries should engage in hard bargaining with commercial publishers who charge prices that far exceed average costs. Nor should libraries be afraid of abandoning entirely the “big deal” if not satisfied with the price. Although he acknowledges that libraries should make their own decisions about the refusing the big deal, Bergstrom encourages such action by offering successful examples. Stanford’s and Cal Tech’s decisions to forego overpriced big deals exemplify prestigious research institutions who have benefitted from this stance.

Evidently more libraries are doing just that. In “Libraries Abandon Expensive ‘Big Deal’ Subscription Packages to Multiple Journals” (The Chronicle of Higher Education, 17 July 2011), Jennifer Howard reports on efforts by the University of Oregon library and other Oregon academic libraries as well as those by Southern Illinois University at Carbondale to abandon or fiercely renegotiate the “big bundle deals” offered by commercial publishers such as Elsevier, Wiley, and Blackwell and to return to purchasing individual subscriptions.

As this discussion has indicated, the big bundling deals that have received the primary criticism are those provided by commercial publishers such as Elsevier, Springer, and the like. As Bergstrom observes, “[A] library that signed its first big deal contract [with Elsevier] in 1999 would be paying 80% more in 2009 than it did in 1999” (79). Moreover, while Elsevier and Springer increased their 2010 subscription rates in 2009, numerous non-profit societies either froze or reduced their prices in response to widespread library budget reductions (79). Especially in light of ongoing financial cuts, that almost half of university library serial budgets is spent on these big bundle deals should concern us all. Open access is an ideal for which we should strive, but JStor does not seem to be the kind of villain in this larger narrative of access and bundling that some responders to Swartz’s case have painted it as being. According to JStor’s factsheet, “Since our launch in 1997, JSTOR has never raised archival collection fees for participating institutions. In addition, because we have added new content to each collection every year, users have access to more content for the same fee.” Frankly, I am puzzled by Swartz’s choice of bundle.

A Digital Public Library of America

March 8, 2011

Robert Darnton has championed the concept of a national digital public library through a series of galvanizing essays in The New York Review of Books.  In October 2010, he convened a community of what Harvard Magazine described as “forty-two leaders of research libraries, major foundations, and national cultural institutions” in Cambridge to discuss strategy for building a digital public library of America.  That same month, Darnton’s opening talk at that conference was published in the New York Review of Books.  His The Library: Three Jeremiads, appeared in NYRB in December, further delineating the complex relation between digital libraries and their brick-and-mortar counterparts.  Details of the conference were published both by Jennifer Howard in the Chronicle of Higher Education and by the Harvard Magazine, which cited Darnton as describing the project as

the digital equivalent of the Library of Congress…bringing millions of books and digitized material in other media within clicking distance of public libraries, high schools, colleges, universities, retirement communities, and any individual with access to the Internet.

Responses to the concept of constructing a national digital public library have been positive.  In December, David Rothman published “Why We Can’t Afford Not to Create a Well-Stocked National Digital Library System” in the Atlantic, arguing that one of the benefits of the project is that it digitizes more than the commercial selections offered by Kindle’s and iPad’s digitization projects: significantly, it digitizes library books.  Referring to a digital public library, Rothman claims it’s a cause

I’ve publicly advocated since 1992 in Computerworld, a 1996 MIT Press information science collection, the Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, the Huffington Post, and elsewhere, including my national information stimulus plan here in the Fallows blog?

Rothman departs or seems to depart from Darnton, however, over the issue of access.  Rothman wants the digital public library to be a genuine public library, open to all citizens, not simply those affiliated with research libraries.

Details of the plans continue to emerge.  Michael Kelly provides an overview of Harvard’s Berkman Center for the Internet and Society and its plans for a year of workshops regarding the project in Library  Recently (Feb. 18th), Jennifer Howard again interviewed Darnton for the Chronicle of Higher Education to obtain updates on the progress made by Harvard’s Berkman Center for the Internet and Society on the Digital Public Library of America.

Now that Oxford and Cambridge are making plans to digitize their backlists, this may be a good time to discuss the benefits and consequences of having a national digital public library.  Will digital books be read?  Do readers need POD (Print-on-Demand) options?  Is this project getting the attention it deserves?

ASECS 2011 Sessions on Electronic Resources and Related Topics

February 16, 2011

Below are sessions related to the digital humanities, electronic resources, or book history at the upcoming annual meeting of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies in Vancouver.  If you would like a session included in the list below, please let me know.

8-9:30 Thursday, March 17

9. “Media Technologies and Mediation in Intercultural Contact”

(Roundtable) Pavilion Ballroom D

Chair: Scarlet BOWEN, University of Colorado, Boulder

1. Mary Helen MCMURRAN, University of Western Ontario

2. Neil CHUDGAR, Macalester College

3. Jordan STEIN, University of Colorado, Boulder

9:45-11:15 Thursday, March 17

19. “Scholarship and Digital Humanities, Part I: Editing and

Publishing” (Roundtable) Grand Ballroom BC

Chair: Lorna CLYMER, California State University, Bakersfield

1. Timothy ERWIN, University of Nevada, Las Vegas

2. Christopher MOUNSEY, University of Winchester

3. Eleanor SHEVLIN, West Chester University

4. Christopher VILMAR, Salisbury University

23. “Britain 2.0: The New New British Studies?” (Roundtable)

Chair: Leith DAVIS, Simon Fraser University Cracked Ice Lounge

1. James MULHOLLAND, Wheaton College

2. Michael BROWN, Aberdeen University

3. Eoin MAGENNIS, Eighteenth-Century Ireland Society

26. “Eighteenth-Century Reception Studies” – I Port Hardy

Chair: Marta KVANDE, Texas Tech University

1. Alise JAMESON, Ghent University, “The Influence of Gerard

Langbaine’s Seventeeth-Century Play Catalogues on Eighteenth-

Century Criticism and Authorship Ideals”

2. Diana SOLOMON, Simon Fraser University, “Sex and Solidarity:

Restoration Actresses and Female Audiences”

3. Jennifer BATT, University of Oxford, “The Digital Miscellanies Index

and the Reception of Eighteenth-Century Poetry”

4. Michael EDSON, University of Delaware, “From Rural Retreat to Grub

Street: The Audiences of Retirement Poetry”

29. “Bodies, Affect, Reading” Parksville

Chair: David A. BREWER, The Ohio State University

1. Amelia WORSLEY, Princeton University, “Lonely Readers in the Long

Eighteenth Century”

2. Amit YAHAV, University of Haifa, “Rhythm, Sympathy, and Reading

Out Loud”

3. Wendy LEE, Yale University, “A Case for Impassivity”

11:30-1pm, Thursday, March 17

38. “Scholarship and Digital Humanities, Part II: Authoritative

Sources” (Roundtable) Grand Ballroom BC

Chair: Christopher VILMAR, Salisbury State University

1. Katherine ELLISON, Illinois State University

2. Ben PAULEY, Eastern Connecticut State University

3. Adam ROUNCE, Manchester Metropolitan University

4. Brian GEIGER, University of California, Riverside

5. Lorna CLYMER, California State University, Bakersfield

2:30-4 Thursday, March 17

56. “Scholarship and Digital Humanities, Part III: Materials for

Research and Teaching” (Roundtable) Grand Ballroom BC

Chair: Bridget KEEGAN, Creighton University

1. Mark ALGEE-HEWITT, McGill University

2. Anna BATTIGELLI, State University of New York, Plattsburgh

3. Ingrid HORROCKS, Massey University

4. John O’BRIEN AND Brad PASANEK, University of Virginia

59. “The Private Library” Pavilion Ballroom D

Chair: Stephen H. GREGG, Bath Spa University

1. Laura AURICCHIO, Parsons the New School for Design, “Lafayette’s

Library and Masculine Self-Fashioning”

2. Nancy B. DUPREE, University of Alabama, “The Life and Death of a

Library: The Collection of John Joachim Zubly”

2. Meghan PARKER, Texas A&M University, “Private Library, Public


3. Mark TOWSEY, University of Liverpool, “‘The Talent Hid in a

Napkin’: Borrowing Private Books in Eighteenth-Century Scotland”

66. “Editing the Eighteenth Century for the Twenty-First Century

Classroom” (Roundtable) Junior Ballroom B

Chair: Evan DAVIS, Hampden-Sydney College

1. Joseph BARTOLOMEO, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

2. Linda BREE, Cambridge University Press

3. Anna LOTT, University of North Alabama

4. Marjorie MATHER, Broadview Press

5. Laura RUNGE, University of South Florida

9:45-11:15 a.m, Friday, March 18

102. “The Eighteenth Century in the Twenty-First: The Impact of the Digital Humanities” (Digital Humanities Caucus) (Roundtable)

Grand Ballroom BC

Chair: George H. WILLIAMS, University of South Carolina, Upstate

1. Katherine ELLISON, Illinois State University

2. Michael SIMEONE, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

3. Elizabeth Franklin LEWIS, University of Mary Washington

4. Kelley ROWLEY, Cayuga Community College

11:30-1 p.m. Friday, March 18

130. “Writing and Print: Uses, Interactions, Cohabitation” – II

(Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing,

SHARP) Junior Ballroom D

Chair: Eleanor SHEVLIN, West Chester University

1. Shannon L. REED, Cornell College, “The Enactment of Theory:

Literary Commonplace Books in the Eighteenth Century”

2. Miranda YAGGI, Indiana University, “‘A Method So Entirely New’:

Female Literati and Hybrid Forms of Eighteenth-Century Novel


3. Shirley TUNG, University of California, Los Angeles, “Manuscripts

‘Mangled and Falsify’d’: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s ‘1736.

Address’d T –‘ and The London Magazine”

4. A. Franklin PARKS, Frostburg State University, “Colonial

American Printers and the Transformation from Oral-Scribal to Print


132. The Eighteenth Century on Film Orca

(Northeast American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies)

Chair: John H. O’NEILL, Hamilton College

1. Elizabeth KRAFT, University of Georgia, “The King on the Screen”

2. Natania MEEKER, University of Southern California, “Le Bonheur au

féminin: Passion and Illusion in Du Châtelet and Varda”

3. David RICHTER, Graduate Center, City University of New York,

“Writing Lives and Telling Stories: The Narrative Ethics of the

Jane Austen Biopics”

2:30-4 p.m., Friday, March 18

146. “New Media In the Eighteenth Century” (New Lights Forum:

Contemporary Perspectives on the Enlightenment) Port Alberni

Chair: Jennifer VANDERHEYDEN, Marquette University

1. Lisa MARUCA, Wayne State University, “From Body to Book: Media

Representations in Eighteenth-Century Education”

2. Caroline STONE, University of Florida, “Publick Occurences and the

Digital Divide: The Influence of Technological Borders on Emergent

Forms of Media”

3. George H. WILLAMS, University of South Carolina, Upstate,

“Creating Our Own Tools? Leadership and Independence in

Eighteenth-Century Digital Scholarship”

8-9:30 a.m., Saturday, March 19

156. “The Circulating Library and the Novel in the Long Eighteenth

Century” Orca

Chair: Hannah DOHERTY, Stanford University

1. Lesley GOODMAN, Harvard University, “Under the Sign of the

Minerva: A Case of Literary Branding”

2. Natalie PHILLIPS, Stanford University, “Richardson’s Clarissa and the

Circulating Library”

3. Elizabeth NEIMAN, University of Maine, “Novels Begetting Novels—

and Novelists: Reading authority in (and into) Minerva Press Formulas

9:45-11:15, Saturday, March 19

170. “Will Tomorrow’s University Be Able to Afford the Eighteenth

Century? If So, How and Why? (Roundtable) (New Lights Forum:

Contemporary Perspectives on the Enlightenment) Parksville

Chair: Julie Candler HAYES, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

1. Downing A. THOMAS, University of Iowa

2. Daniel BREWER, University of Minnesota

3. Melissa MOWRY, St. John’s University

4. Albert J. RIVERO, Marquette University

173. “Colloquy with Matt Cohen on The Networked Wilderness” (Roundtable) Port Alberni

Chair: Dennis MOORE, Florida State University

1. Birgit Brander RASMUSSEN, Yale University

2. Bryce TRAISTER, University of Western Ontario

3. Cristobal SILVA, Columbia University

4. Jeffrey GLOVER, Loyola University, Chicago

5. Matt COHEN, University of Texas at Austin

6. Sarah RIVETT, Princeton University

177. “Crowding-sourcing and Collaboration: Community-Based

Projects in Eighteenth-Century Studies” Grand Ballroom D

Chair: Bridget DRAXLER, University of Iowa

1. Margaret WYE, Rockhurst University, “The Challenge and

Exhilaration of Collaboration: From Post Grad to Undergrad, It’s All

Research, All the Time”

2. Victoria Marrs FLADUNG, Rockhurst University, “Undergraduate

Research: How I Learned to Love Irony in Jane Austen’s Mansfield


3. Laura MANDELL, Miami University, “Crowd-sourcing the Archive:”

Respondent: Elizabeth GOODHUE, University of California, Los Angeles

2-3:30 p.m., Saturday, March 19

181. Evaluating Digital Work: Projects, Programs and Peer Review”

(Digital Humanities Caucus) (Roundtable) Grand Ballroom BC

Chair: Lisa MARUCA, Wayne State University

1. Holly Faith NELSON, Trinity Western University

2. Bill BLAKE, University of Wisconsin, Madison

3. Allison MURI, University of Saskatchewan

4. Laura MCGRANE, Haverford College

5. Gaye ASHFORD, Dublin City University

6. Anne Marie HERRON, Dublin City University

184. New Approaches to Teaching the Great (and not-so-great) Texts of

the Eighteenth Century” (Roundtable) (Graduate Student Caucus)

Chair: Jarrod HURLBERT, Marquette University Junior Ballroom B

1. Christian BEDNAR, North Shore Community College

2. Ann CAMPBELL, Boise State University

3. Christopher NAGLE, Western Michigan University

4. Peggy THOMPSON, Agnes Scott College

5. Deborah WEISS, University of Alabama

193. “Marketing and Selling Books in Eighteenth-Century France: People, Places and Practices” Orca

Chair: Reed BENHAMOU, Indiana University

1. Thierry RIGOGNE, Fordham University, “Marketing Literature and

Selling Books in the Parisian Café, 1680-1789”

2. Marie-Claude FELTON, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales,

Paris and Université du Québec à Montréal, “Cutting out the

Middlemen: Self-Publishing Authors and their Autonomous

Commercial Endeavors in the Parisian Literary Market, 1750-1791”

3. Paul BENHAMOU, Purdue University, “Le Commerce de la lecture à

Lyon dans la seconde moitié du 18ème siècle: Le cas du libraire-

imprimeur Reguilliat”

Digital Resources and Ethics

November 19, 2010

While numerous EMOB postings have discussed issues of access and quality surrounding digital resources, we have yet to discuss these issues extensively within the context of ethics. A September 30th post on Barbara Fister’s Library Babel Fish, “The Great Disconnect: Scholars without Libraries”, spurred me to think more about the ethical side of questions that we’ve been raising. Fister’s post was inspired by the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) blog’s post, “Underground Resource Sharing”, that in turn was motivated by other posts, including one by a blogger who, upon graduating, suddenly discovered he lacked access to JStor” (ACRL blog). As the ACRLblog post’s title indicates and Fister’s post explores, there is an underground market for commercial subscription, password-protected databases. The post by the dismayed blogger who found himself without access to JStor generated numerous comments that offered the underground market as an obvious solution to his problem. For instance,

Virtually everyone I know who’s not employed by a top-tier R1 has a bootlegged EEBO account: through friends who are still grad students, advisors, or friends with cushier jobs.”

These comments prompted Fister to respond:

Comments on his post pointed out that, duh, you just get a friend to send articles to you, or you join a Facebook or FriendFeed group dedicated to swapping articles or just get somebody’s login. Too bad we spent so much on EEBO – apparently everyone has a bootleg login.

The notion that “everyone has a bootleg login” as well as the remark, “Too bad we spent so much on EEBO” gave me pause. While I have known a case in which someone shared his login with a few former students (now colleagues elsewhere), I was frankly surprised to hear that this practice is seen to be so widespread. Am I being naive? And, as Fister’s reply suggests, if it is so common, then the practice certainly has financial implications not only for the commercial owners of these resources but also for the institutions that allocate funds (often student technology fees) to purchasing these resources. As Fister also noted, these databases are not free, and it is telling that the surprised blogger could have spent several years if not many earning an advanced degree and remain clueless about the economic issues, costs, and licensing terms associated with these resources.

The exchange also raised questions about sharing an article or a text with a colleague at another institution that lacks access. I have done so on occasion and had considered the gesture a favor to another colleague. I have also performed a quick search and sent title results to a friend. While I can count on my hand the number of times I have done so, this post made me realize that this good-will gesture has another side to it as well if practiced regularly–and perhaps even if practiced only rarely or at all. So, is the use of bootleg logins rampant? What do others on emob think about this underground trafficking, the sharing of passwords and articles or texts? Is the rare sharing of an article or text unethical ultimately? Are these questions of degree? Or are all of these activities equivalent? And how do we view and balance these questions of ethics against those related to the ethics of the digital access divide separating the scholars who have these resources from those that don’t?

On the POD reprint-publishing front, I just discovered this week a new level of ethical low. A student came to me for help in finding a copy of Frederic P. Miller, Agnes F. Vandome, John McBrewster’s Fan Fiction: Fan Labor, List of Fan Fiction Terms, Legal Issues (2010) for a paper she was writing on copyright issues. Well, we couldn’t find the title in WorldCat, etc. though it did come up in Amazon and Google Books. The work was published by Alphascript Publishing, which, as Wikipedia’s Signpost reports, sells free articles as expensive books”, and this title is just one of many they are “publishing.” A general Google search revealed the scam being perpetuated by this outfit:

An book search on 9 June 2009 gives 1009 (6 August, gives 1,859) “books” from Alphascript Publishing.[nan 1] 1003 of the books are described as “by John McBrewster, Frederic P. Miller, and Agnes F. Vandome”. They are called editors in the book listings. It seems the only content of the many books is free Wikipedia articles with no sign that these three people have contributed to them.

The Wikipedia article also notes:

The articles are often poorly printed with features such as missing characters from foreign languages, and numerous images of arrows where Wikipedia had links. It appears much better to read the original articles for free at the Wikipedia website than paying a lot of money for what has been described as a scam or hoax. Advertising for the books at Amazon and elsewhere does not reveal the free source of all the content. It is only revealed inside the books which may satisfy the license requirements for republishing of Wikipedia articles.

The piece concludes by noting that “PrimeHunter has compiled a list of the 1009 titles,” and this list was as of June 2009. The specific title that led to this discovery sells for $49.00 on Amazon.

On a happier note, this week I received an invitation for a trial subscription to InteLex’s “The Eighteenth Century”, part of its Past Masters English Letters series. InteLex, a corporation located in Charlottesville, VA, publishes “highly accurate full text databases in the humanities.” Its Past Masters English Letters series series, produced in association with Oxford University Press, features “scholarly electronic editions of the correspondence, journals, notebooks, and memoirs of the most important figures in English literature and other fields from 1100-1950.” Although I have yet to arrange for a university trial subscription, what seems encouraging about this series is the following testimony:

In the world of scholarly electronic publishing, InteLex continues to get it right, as they have from the beginning: working closely with scholarly editors, selecting high-quality editions to digitize, marking them up carefully and well according to international standards, and permitting libraries either to rent them over the Internet or to purchase, own and locally house them, as we do print editions–all at reasonable prices. I recommend InteLex databases to libraries wholeheartedly, not only because they are superior publications and a good deal, but also because InteLex is the kind of electronic publisher that academic libraries need most in the 21st century.

—Scott Dennis
Humanities Librarian and Coordinator
Core Electronic Resources
Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library
University of Michigan

As Scott Ennis’s words suggest, resources offering well-chosen texts that are marked up using recognizing standards, produced with scholarly input from start to finish, and sold for a reasonable, fair price are the types of tools we do need for the 21st century. In light of this post’s topic, this list of characteristics also outlines an ethical template that publishers would be wise to follow in making digital products available.

Based on the list of authors (Gay and Swift, both Fieldings, Humphrey Wanley, Humfrey [paleaographer, Anglo-Saxonist, librarian, 1672-1726] and many more figures including late eighteenth-century ones) and its extensiveness (the series contains forty-eight volumes of correspondence) this offering appears to be valuable; in a future report I will report on my experiences using it.

“Why Books?” Conference at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute

October 31, 2010

Why Books?“–a two-day conference sponsored by Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute, October 28-29–promised to “bring[] together speakers from a variety of disciplines–from literature and history to sociology and computer science–to probe the form and function of the book in a rapidly changing media ecology.”  It did just that.  The conference’s first day offered a broad variety of site visits allowing for detailed discussion of a given topic; day two gathered a series of plenary speakers to discuss the future of the book from their disciplinary perspective.

The two site visits I attended were splendid.  The first was Lindy Hess’s “How to Get Published,” in which Susan Ferber (Executive Editor at Oxford University Press), Lindsay Waters (Executive Editor of Humanities at Harvard University Press), and Janet Silver, (Literary Director of the Zachary Shuster Harmsworth agency), discussed the features of successful book proposals, addressed determining whether a manuscript belongs with a trade or university press, when to use an agent (when approaching a trade press), the need to use word counts rather than page counts, and the need for consistently good writing.  Both Waters’ Enemies of Promise and “A Call for Slow Writing” should be mandatory reading for all academics.   Susan Ferber shared valuable and detailed advice from her experience editing manuscripts and disseminated “Tips for Book Proposals” and has since added “An Editor’s Book Publishing Tips for the Uninitiated.”   She also recommended William Germano’s Getting It Published: A Guide for Scholars and Anyone Else Serious about Serious Books (University of Chicago Press, 2nd ed., 2008).  Silver helped distinguish between trade books and university press monographs but also acknowledged that some manuscripts might function as a bridge between academic and trade publishing.   This kind of sane and honest discussion, full of lucid advice from those who understand the publishing business is something we should see more often at annual meetings of professional societies.

In a second session, called “Preserving Web-Based Digital Images,” Andrea Goethals discussed the need to preserve web content, showed participants the complexity of doing so, and demonstrated web harvesting in progress.  She distinguished between domain harvesting and selective harvesting.  The former might include sites from France with the “fr” domain; the latter might be organized around a theme, say, Olympics 2012, or Katrina, or Obama.  This was a useful introduction to the complexities of preserving the human record now contained on the web.

The series of talks on Friday are summarized below:

Opening Conversation: “Future Formats of Texts: E-books and Old Books”

Robert Darnton noted that old books and e-books need not represent contradictory extremes along the spectrum of communication.  Though he first saw Melville’s copy of Emerson’s Essays at Houghton’s reading room as an undergraduate, it is now online for free.  Additionally, the new digital technology allows (as he discusses extensively in The Case for Books) for monographs to be accompanied by online archives.  His forthcoming book, Poetry and the Police: Communication Networks in Eighteenth-Century Paris (Harvard University Press) will be accompanied by online recordings of the ballads that Darnton argues Parisians used to record and disseminate information, suggesting that forms of “going viral” existed long before the internet.   These examples demonstrate the utility of a hybrid combination of the book and digital sources, and provide models for the future of the scholarly monograph.

Stuart Shieber provided a detailed comparison of what readers appreciated in books and what they appreciated in e-readers like the Kindle.  He distinguished between the functionalities of e-book readers and those of e-books.  The Kindle might have an edge over the codex in its weight, its search function, its reference access, its aid to the poor-sighted, and its ease of acquisition.  But the codex still seems preferable to the e-book.  His conclusion nicely summarized the conundrum at the heart of his talk: “ebook readers are preferred to books, but books are still preferable to e-books.”

Session 1: “Storage and Retrieval”

Adrian Johns looked at the final purposes of universal libraries, tracing the history of copyright with its obligatory deposit requirement to argue that the current trouble Google is experiencing with orphaned works originated in ever-expanding term of copyright and an increasingly exhaustive claim to the right to copies on the part of deposit libraries.  He also wondered whether the public use of reason–something he connected to the mission of deposit libraries–required a degree of privacy that e-reading might diminish.

Matthew Kirschenbaum detailed the kinds of things scholars of the future might want to explore when looking at, say, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom: A Novel.  Will scholars of the future want not only Franzen’s desktop, his 100s of saved drafts, but also a record of his Windows use and his iTunes playlists?  Turning to the kind of digital forensics necessary to study such material, he suggested that some kind of computational analysis of these records will be necessary as will skill sets  in both the sciences and the humanities.

Session II: “Circulation and Transmission”

Isabel Hoffmeyr looked at the Indian Ocean Book trade to suggest models for modes of production and consumption that depart from print capitalism theories of circulation.  She suggested that the cosmopolitan networks made possible by the Indian Ocean’s trade routes, with their dismissal of copyright and libraries, more closely resemble today’s new print environment than standard theories of circulation.

Meredith L. McGill looked at the printed poetry of Francis Ellen Watkins Harper and asked two related questions: 1) what print occurs outside the book? and 2) what would it mean to sift books by format?  A printer’s decision to use one format over another directs our attention to the kind of circulation envisioned.  In that sense, circulation might be considered as occurring, or being envisioned, before textual production.

Session III: “Reception and Use”

Paul Duguid reflected on the limitations of digital projects such as Google Books, which contains what he called “splendidly corrupt editions” and suffers from a naivete about both bibliography and books that hinders its goals.  A work like Cotzee’s Diary of a Bad Year, in which page design enriches meaning, simply cannot be adequately scanned onto the limited format provided by Kindle.    Eventually, the digital world will need to move away from a narrative of liberation that posits a world of endlessly digitizable texts to a more carefully corralled world, in which the overload of information is sifted and constrained.

Elizabeth Long pondered reader’s experiences with e-readers, finding that readers liked e-readers’ storage capacity, portability, downloading powers, reduction of bookshelf space, and their instant gratification.  Readers were less satisfied by the experience of flipping back and forth, the impossibility of writing marginalia,  the difficulty of note taking, of viewing maps and illustrations, of measuring how much was left in a given chapter, their lack of page numbers, and the difficulty of citing etexts.

In closing remarks, Peter Stallybrass noted that the expected oppositions had not come up in the day’s talks.  He reminded us that technologies do not displace one another and that targeted binaries, such as oral vs. literary, or print vs. manuscript, often impede rather than enrich discussion, though this was not an issue at this conference.  That reading rooms at libraries are more packed than ever before suggests that whatever else the digital world may do to the future of the book, it has not made the book of less interest or less valued.

Classification and Interpretation, and the Construction of Digital Resources

September 28, 2010

In “The Alchemy of Turning Fiction into Truth” (Journal of Scholarly Publishing, [July 2008]: 354-372), David Henge examines the LC classification system and its treatment of “historical” works. Noting that works catalogued under the LC classification system’s D-DX, E and F categories are generally assumed to be factually based, Henge demonstrates the error of this assumption. He opens by discussing four types of works devoted to studying the past—“history based on solid evidence and argument, history based on less acceptable forms of these, pseudo-history, and counterfactual history” (354)—but his key concern is with the cataloguing of the last kind of history. Counterfactual histories or “pretend histories”

immediately and unabashedly depart from accepted versions of the past in order to hypothesize about what the course of the past and present might have been., if only different events and outcomes had taken place. They never quite pretend that these alternative histories did occur, but they clearly often wish they had. (357-58)

Despite addressing themselves to a past that never occurred, these counterfactual works are more often than not given LC designations that place them among works of actual history. Such placement seems all the more odd if we consider that the LC system does have other categories that would better signal their status. For example, the HX806-HX811 call numbers represent Utopias, the Ideal State, and these categories often seem a far better fit for the titles Henge discusses (368). Although most of these works end up in history, a few have been correctly placed under the classification designations for fiction. That some do end up in fiction ironically boosts the factual nature of those fictional works that remain classified as history. Further clouding the status of these “pretend histories” is their frequent adoption of the trappings of authoritative scholarly work—the appearance of “maps, footnotes, numbers, and pictures with false captions” (362) as well as the imprint of a university press.

While Henge identifies general readers as the population at greatest risk for viewing titles bearing D-DX, E or F designations as credible and factually based, his study does address issues relevant to the creation of scholarly digital resources. Henge notes that although “guides to the LC classification scheme spend considerable time classifying history, they ignore the equally important task of defining it” (363). Similarly, building digital resources entails designing classification schemes, and it is important to make the logic of those systems transparent. Henge’s article usefully reminds us that classification is an exercise in interpretation and that users must understand the rationale and assumptions behind the interpretative processes employed in the various classificatory designations. Even a cursory look at the description of the TEI header on the Text Coding Initiative’s website makes the link between classification and interpretation abundantly clear.

From another, less technical perspective, the desired feedback sought by Julia Flanders and John Melson for “Exploring Reception History in Women Writers Online” represents the type of forethought necessary for anticipating users’ needs and assumptions effectively and for creating the type of supporting contextual documents that will help lay bare the thought processes involved in creating a digital resource. In the process of discussing visionary failures of the LC classification designers, Henge points out that its originators assigned the essentially the same amount of classification space to the history of Asia as they did to the history of gypsies and labels this case “the most egregious example in the D-DX (history properly speaking) classes of the failure to anticipate growth” (360). While this decision seems inexplicable, generally it can be very difficult to predict future needs and build a resource capable of growth. This difficulty is compounded by the potential of digital resources to create new perspectives and new areas of inquiries not yet imagined.

The cataloguing of “pretend histories” as actual history that Henge identifies underscores that even accepted authorities like the LC classification scheme are not infallible. A parallel to Henge’s critique, work by Jim May, Stephen Tabor and others on problems with the ESTC have already received attention on emob, and both cases suggest a healthy dose of skepticism is often warranted even when dealing with respected and well-established resources.

Karian’s Chapter 6: The Authorial Strategies and Material Texts of “Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift”

August 2, 2010

Steve opens his final chapter with the frank confession that “as complicated as the textual histories of ‘On Poetry: A Rapsody’ and ‘The Legion Club’ are, that of ‘Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift’ (1739) is even more complicated”: “the early texts of this poem survive in a bewildering array of print, manuscript, and blank space” (166). Given that this chapter is likely to get more use than the preceding two (simply because it’s the only one which discusses a poem that makes it into the undergraduate classroom with any regularity), one might think that such bewilderment would be off-putting: a limit case, perhaps, from which we would gladly back away. I’d like to contend something close to the opposite. That is, the real utility of Steve’s patient survey of the “bewildering array” of versions of the “Verses” (beyond its lucid sketch of a ridiculously complicated phenomenon) lies precisely in the picture it paints of a world in which print, manuscript, oral performance, geography, and the varying degrees of knowledge and interest which readers bring to a text all not only intersect, but conspire to produce a situation in which “variability” is “integral to the work’s existence” (184). The “Verses,” for all their complications, are thus not a limit case so much as what Italian microhistorians like to call the “exceptional normal,” an instance whose apparent oddity lays bare the norms and rules of a much more widely played game. Steve doesn’t go this far and perhaps for his purposes he doesn’t want or need to do so. But the potential to use the “Verses” as a means of better grasping the “variability” “integral” to all sorts of eighteenth-century texts certainly exists and I, for one, would like to see what happens if we presume the normality, even the quotidianness of “bewildering arrays.”

I think the best way to launch, however speculatively, this line of thought is to start with the second half of Steve’s chapter, in which he reconstructs the busy life led by the “Verses” across the 1730s. Here’s the short version. It would seem that Swift first showed a manuscript of the “Verses” to his friends in Ireland, some of whom (like Laetitia Pilkington) memorized significant chunks of it and then repeated them around town to, in Swift’s words, “provoke peoples curiosity and a longing they had to see it in print” (Swift to Lord Carteret, 23 April 1733, quoted on 175). Then, once the poem had some oral currency in Dublin, Swift wrote a burlesque of it, “The Life and Genuine Character of Doctor Swift” and got it published, first in London and then in Dublin, with all sorts of non-Swiftean poetic and typographic flourishes, like italics, dashes, and triplets, in order to throw off those who might suspect its true authorship. Here, obviously, geography matters: Swift was attempting to trick those “Dubliners” who had “heard parts of the poem recited” into thinking that they “recognized the ‘Life’ as an inept reconstruction of the ‘Verses’” (179), whereas readers elsewhere would most likely regard it as a clumsy stand-alone attempt to ventriloquize the Dean. Several of Swift’s English friends then arranged for an edition of the “Verses” themselves (in part to counter the supposedly fraudulent “Life”), but, for various reasons, altered or omitted a number of lines and all of the notes from the text as, we think, Swift had written it, and inserted several (typographically glaring) passages from the “Life.” Finally, George Faulkner brought out a Dublin edition which included some of the material left out of the London edition. However, the printed editions all contained extensive blanks, both in the verse and in (in Faulkner’s version) the notes, which were to be filled in with some combination of guesswork and copying from various quasi-authorized manuscript additions to other copies in circulation. The result, as Steve’s figures 9 through 14 show, is indeed “variability”: “no two of the thirty-seven known annotated copies are exactly alike” (184).

Now Steve does a splendid job sifting through this mess (which is far more complicated than my little summary can convey) and showing what is lost when we read or teach the “Verses” in a modern edition which supplies all that in the initial editions was left blank or completed by hand. For example, Faulkner’s edition insists that “The          S—-, if you nam’d, / With what Impatience he declaim’d!” Depending on the copy one consults, these blanks are filled in as the “Irish Senate,” the “British Senate,” the “Bench or Senate,” the “cheating South-Sea,” or the “Whiggish Spirit.” All fit the meter; all are plausible objects of Swift’s “Impatience.” “Irish Senate” is probably what Swift actually wrote, but to simply print that in a modern edition forecloses the other possibilities in a way that is profoundly unfaithful to the experience of anyone encountering the poem in the late 1730s. So far, so good and it would certainly be enough to stop here, having (once again) demonstrated the abiding inability of most modern editorial practices to accurately represent the complexity of early modern textuality. But we’ve heard that critique before and most of the remaining problems are sufficiently intractable that I suspect further critique isn’t going to get us very far, so I’d like instead to see if we can push a little harder and come up with some useful ways of thinking about what I take to be the real implications of Steve’s work, the places Jonathan Swift in Print and Manuscript can take us (whether or not Steve wants to come along for the ride).

As an initial gambit, I’d like to pose two questions which come out of what Steve does in the second half of this chapter: 1) “When presented with a printed text (full of blanks or otherwise), what could induce readers to pick up their pens and write?” and 2) “Why should they do so so dramatically more with the ‘Verses’ than most other texts?” Seriously considering the first can, I think, help us better grasp the sheer “variability” at work here. It’s not just a matter of differing levels of knowledge or access to an authorized- or authoritative-seeming copy which one can transcribe; it’s also a matter of will and desire. If one gets a reference (say, that the two-syllable blank which rhymes with “Thing” and refers to someone who has a consort can probably be filled in with “the King”), then why bother writing it down, especially given the less than spontaneous technology of eighteenth-century pens? That is, Peter Stallybrass is probably right that print’s “most radical effect was its incitement to writing by hand,” but that incitement is remarkably variable. Compare Steve’s Figure 9 (from a copy at Penn) to the same page in a copy owned by Ohio State and to the British Library copy which was filmed and scanned for ECCO:

The Penn copy plausibly fills in the asterixed-out lines, but leaves the dashed-out names and the triple asterix standing in for “the Queen” blank. The Ohio State copy completes the names (perhaps incorrectly), but not the royal title or any of the whole lines of verse. And the British Library copy remains resolutely blank. How can we even begin to explain the differences between these copies, given that they are differences not simply of degree but of apparent interest as well? Yet it’s exceedingly difficult to gauge that interest on the basis of what made it onto the page, since there’s no reason to presume that, say, the readers of the Penn and British Library copies were incapable of coming up with a trochaic woman’s name beginning with S (whether it be “Susan,” “Suffolk,” or anything else). Perhaps they were; perhaps the allusion was so obvious as to be unworthy of being written down; perhaps actually recording one’s guess verged too close to libel (note how the Penn copy is still dashing out some of its more charged words); perhaps something else. I suspect that in most cases we can’t ever know with any certainty, but until we try, however speculatively and tentatively, to account for not only the complex relationships between “Print” and “Manuscript” as totalized entities, but also the emotionally fraught, idiosyncratic, geographically and generically varying reading, writing, and listening practices out of which those abstractions are created, we will continue to fail to do justice to “arrays” far less ostentiously “bewildering” than the “Verses.” Such an endeavor will, of course, be the work of many hands and it’s wholly unreasonable to expect Steve to have fully cleared the path. But he’s gone further than a casual reading of this chapter might suggest and I think that at least the beginnings of the kind of work I’m calling for (and, I hope, in my other writing engaging in) can be seen in his wonderfully shrewd passing comments on the ways in which the sheer size of the blanks (e.g., in figure 12) solicits a roughly proportionate amount of penmanship, even if it’s only squiggles as a kind of “etc.” by other means:

Perhaps we could start with something like “the blank proposes, but the pen disposes” and then start to figure out the circumstances under which such proposals are compelling or attractive (and when a blank even registers as such)?

Doing so will, of course, require us to pay close attention to the generic and rhetorical occasion of the blank-filling, since, as anyone who’s ever gone trawling for marginalia can testify, manuscript additions to printed texts are, shall we say, distributed rather unevenly. There are far more annotated almanacs and arithmetic books out there than annotated works of the sort which people in English departments tend to care about. But even within the latter category, the distribution is far from uniform: topical and satiric works, especially verse, get a lot more scribal attention than, say, most novels. Here’s where I think we could usefully bring in the otherwise anomalous first part of Steve’s chapter: his discussion of “Authorship in the ‘Verses on the Death’.” It’s an insightful account of the structure of the poem and usefully explains many things which have long puzzled us (e.g., why the speaker at the Rose should claim to be “no judge” of Swift’s “works in verse and prose” and yet spend most of his 180-plus lines praising their effects). But it’s curiously unintegrated into not only the rest of the chapter, but the book as a whole, unless (and this remains almost entirely implicit) we presume that it is no accident that the work which incited so much writing by hand was a work which meditates on the ways in which authors are entangled with and ultimately dependent on their publishers and readers. If so (and this is very much the ledge on which I want to go out; Steve need not accompany me if he doesn’t want to), then it would seem that one of the factors which might predict a particularly “thick” clustering of manuscript augmentations would be whether or not a text is concerned with authorship or otherwise rhetorically doubling the situation of its own reading. That is, it would seem (on the basis of Steve’s findings and my own ongoing research) that authors were particularly good to think with and that, in turn, seems, at least in some cases, to have translated into their being good to write with. Determining the logic underlying which cases were or were not useful or compelling in this way is a project still beyond us, but once again, I’d like to suggest, Steve’s work can at least cast some light down the proper path if we take seriously his closing contention that the various ways in which readers filled in the blanks of “The           S—-” “may reflect the readers’ own sense of which objects deserved the most abuse” (203), since the structure of not only that line but the entire poem makes the blank-filling tantamount to enlisting Swift on one’s own side, whether it be against Parliament, the Bench, the Bubble, or Sir Bob. If so, then one of the ways in which we can make sense of the “bewildering array” we find is to try to reconstruct not only the actual sociability which produced a given copy (e.g., who jotted down what after encountering which other copy or recitation), but also the imagined sociability between a particular reader, other readers, and the author—which obviously can, but need not, overlap with “what really happened.”

So how, ultimately, after taking Steve’s “bewildering array” and piling conjecture upon conjecture on it (perhaps making it all the more “bewildering” in the process), can I claim that the “Verses” represent a case of the “exceptional normal”? Two answers. The first is simply by fiat: as with all forms of conjectural historiography, the proof of the pudding will lie in the eating. If we can see things about “the normal” state of early modern textuality which we would not have otherwise been able to notice by treating the “Verses” as if they were the key to all (or at least some) mythologies, then they’ve done their work and so are “exceptional,” at least in this sense. And if we can’t, then they’re not, at least in this line of inquiry or these hands. But I would also appeal to the archival experience of the readers of EMOB (including Steve himself) and ask them to recall how many times they’ve encountered a printed text marked by an eighteenth-century hand or an account of a somewhat garbled oral transmission as a part of polite (or impolite) sociability or the trace of a reading which is clearly shaped by the uneven geographic dissemination of information. Such things have been a routine part of every visit to every rare book room I’ve ever made, not to mention a good chunk of my use of full-text databases, my perusal of countless letters and diaries, etc. In short, the world of the “Verses” looks a lot like the world of eighteenth-century reading practices, as I’ve come to understand them over the last decade and a half. If that corresponds with your own sense of this world, then I hope you’ll join me in applauding not only Steve’s very substantial accomplishment in this book, but also the even more promising vistas that his inquiry opens up. Like, apparently, the figure of “Dr. S—-, D.S.P.D.,” he’s awfully good to think with.

Does Surfing the Net Change How We Think?

June 17, 2010

It does, claims Nicholas Carr, in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains (Norton, 2010).  Expanding his famous 2008 Atlantic piece, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” Carr delivers a measured but disturbing conclusion regarding the effect of long-term internet use: the brain’s cognitive activity is re-routed to skim, rather than to read deeply.

He opens with a confession that may sound familiar, especially to those of us who find increased resistance to deep-reading, either in the classroom or in our own work:

Over the last few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory.  My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing.  I’m not thinking the way I used to think.  I feel it most strongly when I’m reading.  I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article.  My mind would get caught up in the twists of the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose.  That’s rarely the case anymore.  Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two.  I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. . . the deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle (5-6)

Tellingly, Carr became unwired to write the book: he put his blog, Rough Type, on hold, moved from Boston to Colorado, and limited his social networking, including e-mail.  The Shallows appeared a year and a half later.

The Shallows probes how the Internet transforms cognitive activity by repeatedly “seiz[ing] our attention only to scatter it” (118).  The plasticity of the adult brain means that its circuitry adapts to the repeated pattern of having its attention splintered by competing demands from ads, e-mail, list-serves, hyperlinks, Twitter, Facebook, and the infinite possibilities of a Google search.

The brain’s plasticity can be positive.  For example, the area of the sensory cortext that processes signals from the left hand is larger in right-handed violinists than it is in right-handed non-violinists.  As violinists practice, the stimulation from their left hand physically changes the shape of their brain.  Similarly, victims of brain injury or illness can often use the brain’s adaptability to compensate for injury.  Even the neurons of sea slugs change, both biochemically and anatomically, in response to cognitive stimuli.

But neuroplasticity has a downside, too.  The “repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive” cognitive stimuli delivered by the internet “have been shown to result in strong and rapid alterations in brain circuits and functions” (116).  As Carr puts in the May 24 issue of Wired,

When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning.  Even as the Internet grants us easy access to vast amounts of information, it is turning us into shallower thinkers, literally changing the structure of our brain.

Catering to the brain’s hunger for information and novelty, the internet provides an environment of  “constant distractedness”  (119).   Repeated heavy use of the Net has, as another neurologist, Michael Merzenich, notes, “neurological consequences” (120).  The time we spend on the internet is time away from reading linearly-driven narratives requiring concentration.  The disused neurons and synapses once dedicated to deep reading get recycled into the work of distracted skimming.  Carr concurs with Maryann Wolf’s conclusion that as we read online

we sacrifice the facility that makes deep reading possible.  We revert to being ‘mere decoders of information.’  Our ability to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction remains largely disengaged (122).

Michael Merzenich puts this more strongly, arguing that internet multitasking may be “deadly” for our intellectual lives (142).

Repeated internet use results in what Carr calls  “The Juggler’s Brain,” the title of a chapter that should be mandatory reading for all teachers.   Study after study is cited demonstrating that multitasking interferes with memory.  A Cornell study reveals that students typing on a laptop during a lecture perform more poorly on tests of the lecture’s content than students without laptops—even when the web pages visited pertain to the material discussed.

Similarly, a Kansas State study notes that students watching a CNN broadcast loaded with color graphics and a “textual news crawl” remembered less about the broadcast’s content than students who were given the the same program stripped of the graphics and news crawl.  This information might be useful the next time someone discusses multimedia teaching techniques.  And when a printed text becomes a hypertext, as it does on Kindle, comprehension is, studies suggest, compromised.

Carr’s most interesting chapter may be on memory.  He distinguishes between “primary memories,” which vanish soon after they come into being, and “secondary memories,” which can be recalled indefinitely.  When a boxer gets knocked out, his recent memories disappear, suggesting that it takes time for a “primary memory” to become a “secondary memory.”

Short-term memories don’t become long-term memories immediately, and the process of their consolidation is delicate. Any disruption, whether a jab to the head or a simple distraction, can sweep the nascent memories from the mind.  (184)

So while surfing the Net can yield a giddy confluence of ideas and connections, few of those connections are actually retained because the Net’s distractions interrupt their migration into secondary memory.  While computer memory is a database, pure and simple, human memory relies on processing information: “Biological memory is alive.  Computer memory is not” (192).

Behind all of this is a concern for deep reading, which is currently dividing the humanities and widely discussed by the media.  Recently, both  Stanley Fish and David Brooks argued for the need for deep reading in the humanities to cultivate wisdom.  A week earlier, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a story about Stanford University’s Literature Lab, which features data-mining that allows students to “read” 1200 novels for one class.  Clearly, the latter kind of reading differs from the kind called for by Fish and Brooks.

As we consider the new kinds of reading made possible by the internet, including important practical questions, such as Laura Rosenthal’s recent query on The Long Eighteenth regarding how to read a long book in a screen-based medium like ECCO, we would do well to imitate Carr by remaining open to both old and new technologies.  An engaged Net surfer, with a clear understanding of the merits of being plugged in, Carr easily cites poetry and literary anecdotes that reflect his immersion in the world of printed texts.   That he is fully aware of the many advantages the Net offers makes his warnings about the erosion of concentration among internet surfers all the more alarming.  Intrepid internet boosters, like Clay Shirky, downplay the value of printed books as “just a side-effect of living in an environment of impoverished access.”  Shirky famously dismissed Tolstoy’s War and Peace as “too long, and not so interesting” (Carr, 111).  Carr eschews such extreme positions.  Though he put his blog on hold to complete his book, he has now returned to it.  He is not urging that we ban use of the internet.  But he provides extensive evidence for the need to be mindful of the internet’s transformative effects on our cognitive life.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 121 other followers