Thank you to EMOB for inviting me to discuss my experiences with the Digital Humanities at this year’s SHARP conference. I’m afraid the length of my post reflects my excitement, yet despite its length, I did not hear every paper or witness every panel. I hope that other attendees use the comments to fill in any gaps. –Lisa Maruca
As technologies change our environments for reading, writing and research, it is incumbent on our scholarly organizations to take note. And what group is better prepared to explore our digital future than the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing (SHARP), dedicated as it is to the interdisciplinary study of the history of literacy and its changing materials forms, sites and technologies. This year’s SHARP conference in Washington DC last weekend, organized by EMOB’s own Eleanor Shevlin along with Casey Smith, and sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution Libraries, the Library of Congress, the Folger Shakespeare Library and Institute, and the Corcoran College of Art + Design, illustrated that the field of Digital Humanities, though still in its incunabula stage, is growing at a dynamic rate. It also made clear that book historians are prepared to enthusiastically explore the new tools and new theories emerging from a variety of DH practitioners, institutions and new partnerships.
My own experience of the conference was infused with new media theories and practices from beginning to end. I was “tweeting” the conference on my new iPad, and at the same time taking notes on Evernote, an app that synchs my jottings across platforms. The constant access to the Internet provided by the venues meant that I could look up books, websites, or even places for lunch as needed. This is not the first time I have used Twitter to report on a conference, but a lively backchannel, encouraged by @sharporg (the alter ego of SHARP vice-president Ian Gadd), allowed conversation about the presentations to unfold and real time. It also facilitated meetings in “real life” of those of us who only had met online before: there’s a reason they call it “social media.” Perhaps more importantly, though, the tweets allowed those who could not make it to the conference to “eavesdrop” on the proceedings, thus opening it to a larger group than those able to physically attend–which is precisely why SHARP has been encouraging the use of such tools.
The first panel I attended on Friday morning was a roundtable focused on RED, or the Reading Experience Database site. I actually learned about this site, which allows users to upload written examples of reading practices from historical sources, many years ago–it was a Digital Humanities project before that label even existed. What I didn’t know, however, is that the site recently received a second grant from the AHRC, which allowed them to upgrade their interface substantially, and add a number of important usability features, such as tutorials and descriptions designed to attract a large audience. The database, crammed with information usually culled from diaries, correspondence, and memoirs, but sometimes including fictional representations as well, is searchable by author, reader or keyword. Because the grant also has allowed them to expand internationally, much of the roundtable was devoted to status reports from the new RED sites, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the Netherlands. Panelists discussed issues such as what constitutes a national boundary, citizen, or language; whose reading experiences are to be included; and how to usefully delimit or focus the new projects. The extension of RED into these new countries and the consequent gathering of a larger data set enable new research questions and findings about transnational reading experiences.
Another pivotal “techie” event involved a new format for SHARP: a digital projects poster session. In this informal gathering, presenters stood by open laptops while the audience wandered from station to station chatting with the designers about their online collections or tools. In the digital tool category, Ian Gadd showed off the Virtual Printing Press, an accurate scale model, complete with moving parts, of a Franklin Press. Existing in Second Life on its own deserted island (Gadd plans to have students build a printing house around it), the goal of the press is to teach students without access to original machinery the mechanics of printing. George Williams demonstrated BrailleSC.org, a site that not only highlights the reading experiences of South Carolina’s blind citizens through recorded oral histories, but also offers plugs-in that web designers can utilize to make their own sites more user friendly to the visually impaired. In the collection category, Katherine Harris, who also organized the panel, showed off the Poetess Archive Database, which is, to quote the site, “a bibliography of over 4,000 entries for works by and about writers working in and against the ‘poetess tradition,’ the extraordinarily popular, but much criticized, flowery poetry written in Britain and America between 1750 and 1900.” Troy Bassett exhibited his Database of Victorian Fiction, a description of every multiple volume British novel known to have been published. Jessica DeSpain discussed her project, The Wide, Wide World Hypertext Archive, a searchable collection of the illustrations, cover designs, and textual variants of the over 100 editions of Susan Warner’s nineteenth-century American novel, The Wide, Wide World. Lord Byron and His Times, directed by David Radcliffe (in absentia), is yet another collection, this one (again according to the site) “a growing digital archive of books, pamphlets, and periodical essays illustrating the causes and controversies” surrounding the poet. Not included in this poster session, but presented at an early panel, was a project similar to these in both its focus on one particular, narrow set of works, and its comprehensiveness of bibliographic detail: Marija Dalbello and Nathan Graham’s 1893, a collection that traces the history of the foreign titles displayed in the Woman’s Library at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition. All of these projects are labors of love, requiring years of work at a time when tenure committees can still be leery of nontraditional forms of scholarship, and generously making texts, bibliographic information and new constellations of meaning available to a larger audience.
The SHARP conference closed with a look at the future of the reading, writing and research with a final plenary session on Digital Technology. Matt Kirshenbaum highlighted the Deena Larsen collection at the University of Maryland’s Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH), which includes the electronic literature pioneer’s early-era personal computers, software, and multiple versions of writings by other authors of 1980s and ‘90s hypertext (I will return to some of Kirshenbaum’s larger points). Next, Brian Geiger discussed the digital future of ESTC, which will rely on user-generated collections of digital surrogates. Ben Pauley then spoke about the Eighteenth Century Book Tracker, which uses crowdsourcing to correct metadata in Google Books. As discussed on EMOB last year, Geiger and Pauley received a Google Digital Humanities Research Awards to connect ESTC’s online records directly to Google’s facsimiles. The last presenters, Simon Burrow and Mark Curran, showed off their expansive project on the French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe, due to be released almost any minute (SHARP attendees received a temporary password to play with the beta version). This project generates and geographically maps statistics on sales, dissemination patterns, editions, clients, genres, prices, etc. of the Société Typographique de Neuchâtel (STN), a Swiss publishing house of the late eighteenth century that sold works by other publishers as well. The potential of all this data to be put to use to analyze and understand “big picture” trends (dare I say distant reading?) in book consumption and the dissemination of ideas during the Enlightenment gets us back to the original goals and roots of book history. At the same time, it brings this information to an audience of students and scholars far beyond the privileged few that previously had access to the STN archive. Katherine Harris, as respondent, hurriedly wrapped up the session, already running over, with comments pointing out the appropriateness of the mash-up of digital humanities and book history, and the inclusivity of both fields.
So far, most of the DH work I have discussed has been focused on making tools and gathering collections that further the study of the book. This is certainly appropriate for an organization like SHARP. Yet books are not the only technologies of authorship, reading and publishing. One of Kirshenbaum’s key points was that we need to use—and modify as needed—the bibliographic methods developed by book historians to create methodologies for the analysis and, importantly, preservation of more recent material artifacts of literacy, including computer hardware, software, web interfaces and other born-digital and digital-analog hybrids objects. The metadata challenges alone are immense, but must be addressed if we want to preserve the future history of new media.
Kirschenbaum’s point was timely, as few papers at the conference addressed digital forms of literacy or contemporary literacy machines. My own paper discussed the role of the reader in ebook platforms and book apps, while my co-panalist, Marianne Martens, analyzed the economics of publishing multi-platform books for teenagers. A few other papers undermined our easy acceptance of the facsimile book: Mary Murrell touched on digitization methods in her paper on “Books as Data” and Bonnie Mak also brought the labor of book scanning to the forefront in “From Facsimile to Fact in the Information Age.” Daniel Selcer and Theresa Smith reminded us that even a photographic facsimile is not a transparent rendition of authenticity but an artifact in its own right in their brilliant theoretical analysis of a “black hole” in Eames’ famous Copernicus reproductions. The papers I heard provided a much needed starting point in answer to Kirschenbaum’s call, but they just scratch the surface of what remains to be done.
It’s possible that papers I missed may have analyzed new technologies as well, but I think that it’s clear that more papers and more studies are badly needed. This is not just an issue of “including” the Digital Humanities. The digital age is here, for better and worse, and if book history/bibliography and related organizations want to stay relevant, our contemporary forms of textual dissemination must be the subject of scholarship that draws on and uses these innovative forms of research and publication. Luckily, I think that SHARP, known for its inclusivity and interdisciplinarity, unafraid to set original scholarly agendas and create new centers of learning, is ideally situated to be the bridge between the past and the future.