Archive for January, 2010

Collaboration, Costs, and Digital Resources

January 30, 2010

On February 19 and 20 Yale will host a graduate student symposium, The Past’s Digital Presence Conference: Database, Archive and Knowledge Work in the Humanities. A quick survey of the conference program and available abstracts indicate several topics that dovetail with issues or subjects that have engaged emob. Jessica Weare’s paper, “The Dark Tide: Digital Preservation, Interpretive Loss, and the Google Books Project”, for instance, examines the discarding of material evidence in the process of digitizing, Vera Brittain’s The Dark Tide. Similarly, Scott Spillman and Julia Mansfield’s presentation, “Mapping Eighteenth-Century Intellectual Networks”, discusses their work on Benjamin Franklin’s letters and their relationship within the Republic of Letters. The conference’s purpose also addresses many of the questions we have been posing on this blog:

■ How is digital technology changing methods of scholarly research with pre-digital sources in the humanities?
■ If the “medium is the message,” then how does the message change when primary sources are translated into digital media?
■ What kinds of new research opportunities do databases unlock and what do they make obsolete?
■ What is the future of the rare book and manuscript library and its use?
■ What biases are inherent in the widespread use of digitized material? How can we correct for them?
■ Amidst numerous benefits in accessibility, cost, and convenience, what concerns have been overlooked?

Peter Stallybrass is offering the keynote, and Jacqueline Goldsby will be the colloquium speaker, while Willard McCartney, Rolena Adorno, and others will appear on the closing roundtable. Such a lineup points to the range of perspectives represented. The conference is free to all affiliated with a university.

Among the places this conference has been announced is the JISC Digitisation News section of the UK Digitisation Programme website, and its announcement emphasizes the participation of students “from around the globe.”

Collaboration as it occurs across boundaries is the implicit topic of this posting, and I wish to use reports from the JISC website both as a springboard and as a contrast in the discussing the topic.

A 2008-2009 JISC report, Enriching Digital Resources 2008-2009, Enriching Digital Content program—a strand of the JISC Online Content Program—features a podcast with Ben Showers. Because of the national nature of JISC, the program described offers a unified, coherent approach to advancing digital resources for its higher institutions of education; it represents a collaborative agenda. In this podcast Showers explains the purpose of the program: Rather than fund the creation of new resources, the program invested £1.8 million to enhance and enrich existing digital content while also developing a system for universities and colleges to vet and recognize this work. He then turns to explaining the following four key benefits of this program:
• “unlocking the hidden—making things that are hard to access easy” to obtain and preserve. To illustrate, he uses CORRAL (UK Colonial Registers and Royal Navy Logbooks) project as an example of opening up primary data to make it not only much more available but also to preserve it.
• enhancing experiences of students. Here Showers exemplifies the Enlightening Science project at Sussex that offers students opportunities to watch video re-enactments of Newton’s experiments and read original texts by Newton and others.
• speeding up research—once a document has been digitized, there is no need to repeat the process. The document will now be available for all other researchers to use.
• widening participation—engaging broader audiences including not only faculty and students within Britain’s educational community but also participants globally.

Turning to the new goals for the 2009-2011 program cycle, Showers notes an emphasis on the “clustering” of content, that is bringing various projects together and establishing, when appropriate, links among them. Another focus is further building skills and strategies within institutions to deliver digital content effectively. Finally, he mentions the strengthening of transatlantic partnerships, and here the US National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) is given as an example. Of course, there is a long history of scholarly collaboration between the NEH and British institutions—perhaps most notably the English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC).

Indeed, through collaborative digital grants offered by JISC and NEH several transatlantic projects are underway or near completion, including the Shakespeare Quartos Archive, a collaborative effort involving Oxford University and the Folger Library, and the St Kitts-Nevis Digital Archaeology Initiative, undertaken by Southampton University and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Charlottesville, VA, to advance scholarship on slavery. There are several others as well.

Both the goals and benefits detailed by Showers are ones that would attract the support of diverse parties, and they do parallel many arguments being made on this side of the Atlantic for such work, including ones advanced by the NEH. Moreover, this and other JISC reports suggest that JISC has also helped broker mutually beneficial relationships between British universities and commercial vendors such as Cengage-Gale and ProQuest. Yet another JISC report, The Value of Money, offers arguments that we need to be making and also points the obstacles and divides affecting various types of collaboration in the United States.

After offering the following figures on the return of money invested in the JISC,

• For each £1 spent by JISC on the provision of e-resources, the return to the community in value of time saved in information gathering is at least £18.

• For every £1 of the JISC services budget, the education and research community receives £9 of demonstrable value.

• For every £1 JISC spent on securing national agreements for e-resources, the saving to the community was more than £26.

the report summary offers the following remarks:

These are the figures revealed by a recently-published Value for Money report on JISC services. Although many countries have centrally provided research and education networks, and some have provided supplementary services, no other country has a comparable single body providing an integrated range of network services, content services, advice, support and development programmes.

The cost-effectiveness of JISC is again highlighted in two sidebars:

These figures suggest that for every £1 JISC spent on securing national agreements for e-resources, the saving to the community was more than £26
The added value, equivalent to more than £156m per year, suggests the community is gaining 1.4 million person/days, by using e-resources rather than paper-based information.

The end of the summary further reinforces why investments in JISC benefit the UK as a whole:

The value of JISC activities extends beyond the benefits identified here. Education and research are high-value commodities that play an important role in the UK economy and underpin the UK’s global economic position.

The JISC’s “Value of Money” report contains the types of arguments and data that we in the US need to be making. While our system of higher education does not operate under the centralized system that characterizes that of the UK, the push for more transparent reporting on and assessment of what our various universities and colleges are delivering perhaps provides an opportunity for new forms of collaboration. Through national scholarly societies, the NEH, Mellon Foundation, ALA, and more, we need to supply some “noisy feedback” from a dollars-and-cents/sense perspective about what investing in digital resources means not just for our institutions of higher learning but also for our society.


Randy Robertson’s “British Index, 1641-1700”

January 16, 2010

Randy Robertson has generously made available his annotated Index of Books and Pamphlets Censored in the British Isles and British North American between 1641 and 1700.  Items are listed chronologically by the date of suppression or questioning.  The link above will take you to his account on  That page has a link for the Index.

Plans are in the works for Penn State Press to publish the Index but first the massive Word document will have to be transformed into an Excel document to make all of its fields searchable, a summer project.  For now, however, he is generously sharing the Index with readers and inviting suggestions directed to him for how it might be made more useful.   He hopes to add EEBO links for each item and also a list of relevant secondary sources.

This is the kind of project that suggests how web publishing might be particularly useful to students of book history.  In an excellent article published in Studies in Bibliography 56 (2003-4), 140-170, Michael Suarez wonders whether the web might provide a richer medium than a printed volume for a national history of the book because, in part, it is expandable in a way that the printed text is not.  More generally, Robert Darnton has long held that web publishing provides opportunities of particular interest to scholars.

It would be interesting to hear from readers how Robertson’s British Index might be used in conjunction with the electronic resources we have been discussing, both in scholarship and in the classroom.

Digital Humanities at AHA

January 12, 2010

In an earlier post we covered MLA panels devoted to digital humanities, electronic archives, and electronic tools. Thus, although the American Historical Association annual meeting has already recently concluded, we still thought it would be useful to review the sessions held at this convention. When available, I have included links to papers or abstracts.

Humanities in the Digital Age, Part 1: Humanities in the Digital Age, Part 1: Digital Poster Session
This session will provide participants with an overview of different digital tools and services and how historians are using them for research, teaching, and collaboration. After brief introductions to the various posters, participants would walk around the room spending time at the various stations, talking with the presenters and other participants. This will be followed in the afternoon by a hands-on workshop (session 73) where participants can learn more about how to use these specific tools. Co-sponsored by the National History Education Clearinghouse (NHEC):

  • Blogging, Jeremy Boggs, Center for History and New Media, George Mason University
  • Text Mining, Daniel J. Cohen, Center for History and New Media, George Mason University
  • Student Projects/Websites and Omeka, Jeffrey McClurken, University of Mary Washington
  • Zotero, Trevor Owens, Center for History and New Media, George Mason University
  • Teaching Tools, Kelly Schrum, Center for History and New Media, George Mason University
  • Web 2.0 – Flickr, YouTube/Video, Google Maps, Wikis, Jim Groom, University of Mary Washington
  • (more…)

    Collaborative Readings #5: Lindquist and Wicht on Assessing EEBO in Teaching and Research

    January 5, 2010

    Thea Lindquist and Heather Wicht’s “Pleas’d By a Newe Inuention?: Assessing the Impact of Early English Books Online on Teaching and Research at the University of Colorado at Boulder” claims to be “the first [study] to evaluate systematically how undergraduate students, graduate students, and faculty are using EEBO” (347).  They assessed students in 2005, and much of what they found then reinforces comments made here and on The Long Eighteenth on using online databases in eighteenth-century classes.  Some of the study’s findings can be summarized as follows:

    • Students learned about EEBO through class assignments.
    • Even though almost all students attended library sessions instructing them on the use of EEBO, just over half said they received assistance from a librarian, a clear signal to both librarians and classroom instructors that individual instruction is often essential.
    • Only half of the graduate students and faculty respondents claimed to use EEBO in tandem with ESTC or EEBO-TCP.
    • The downloading/e-mailing function was the preferred function.
    • The least preferred function was online help (now much improved).
    • Graduate students enthusiastically embraced EEBO, but most undergraduates felt challenged by orthographical and typographical differences from the modern printed page.  Advanced undergraduates, however, responded enthusiastically.

    Steve Karian’s excellent guide to EEBO, ECCO, and ESTC lucidly addresses the need to use digital databases in tandem with ESTC. EEBO now has very strong supporting materials on its site.  And by now, faculty will be even more familiar with EEBO’s web site and perhaps better skilled and more practiced at introducing students to it.

    Nevertheless, the look of the early modern page seems to remain a stumbling block for many undergraduates accustomed to modern typography and orthography.  Perhaps we need to concede that there are a variety of teaching uses of online databases. Though my lesson plans frequently use EEBO, I have not yet asked undergraduate students to use these databases, not least because they are still studiously and successfully working at learning how to read early modern English in modern standardized formats.  That does not in the least make EEBO less necessary to me or to my students. Showing students the digitized facsimiles enriches their historical imagination; it also reminds them that what we are reading is alien and requires a carefully recovered context for a proper understanding. I write this simply to complicate, but not to minimize common claims that digitized databases enrich the classroom.  They do, but they enrich them in different ways.