Archive for the ‘Libraries’ Category

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.

Libraries through Students’ Eyes

February 15, 2010

One thing we have not discussed on this blog is the role of libraries, and particularly of reference rooms, in colleges.  Today’s  NY Times forum titled “libraries through students’ eyes” suggests some predictable student responses  to the question of whether libraries are needed:  students enjoy the tactile feel of books and the quiet of a space dedicated to reading.  Very few, if any, however, discussed the printed reference works to be found there. The value of the reference room was not mentioned.

The NYTImes forum pointed to twin pedagogical and institutional problems faculty, librarians, and students now face.  Forced to hunt for more space to accommodate computers, librarians look for printed texts that can be deleted from the reference room.  Are there rigorous strategies in place for what to do when an electronic source replaces a printed reference work?  Do colleges that subscribe to the new online Oxford Dictionary of English Biography, for example, simply throw out the older printed multi-volume set?  Does the online Encylopedia Britannica adequately replace its printed forerunner?  How do we evaluate an online “updated” version of a printed reference work to decide whether it ought to replace or merely supplement the older printed version?

Secondly, how can faculty best remain up-to-speed on the reference works students most use and, more importantly, be helpful in directing them to the sources, both printed and electronic, that are most appropriate for their work?  What strategies exist for encouraging greater and more transparent dialogue between instructors and librarians?  How do we help students make use of the two reference rooms–material and virtual–to which they have access?

Lastly, will the promising platforms of the future like 18thConnect include first-phase research tools, like encyclopedias, dictionaries, or the ODNB?  Will these platforms acknowledge printed resources that are also essential to research?  To what extent will these platforms be designed as introductions to research?