The Walt Whitman Archive – Warwick 4
4What other issues or questions relating to The Walt Whitman Archive most intrigue you?
Reader in Digital Humanities, Department of Information Studies; Director, Centre for Digital Humanities – University College London
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 In the following section I would like to reflect on some questions about the nature of digital resources, humanities scholarship and the uses to which such material may be put. One of these is the still-contentious issue of whether the creation of such resources is regarded as scholarship in itself or as a way of facilitating the work of other scholars. Even the most recent studies indicate that opinions still remain sharply divided about whether the creation of digital resources such as the Whitman archive is considered to be scholarship and worthy of being rewarded us such by promotion, tenure or in the UK Research Assessment Exercise.[ref]D. Harley, S.K. Acord, S. Earl-Novell, S. Lawrence, and C.J. King, “Assessing the Future Landscape of Scholarly Communication: An Exploration of Faculty Values and Needs in Seven Disciplines” (UC Berkeley: Center for Studies in Higher Education, 2010).[/ref] There is an understandable tendency in digital humanities to regard this as an outrageous undervaluation of what we do, and to wish to advocate for our work to be better understood. Yet if we can resist this temptation, the question at issue is an important one. The argument against granting digital resources scholarly status equivalent to a journal article, monograph or critical edition must surely be that such resources are performing a service, akin to that provided by an archive or library in the analogue world: that of bringing together useful materials for other scholars to use.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 It has long been the case that as Melissa Terras has argued so eloquently, in order for our digital work to be valued we must publish in traditional media.[ref]M. Terras, “Present, Not Voting: Digital Humanities in the Panopticon Digital Humanities” (plenary presented at Digital Humanities 2010 Conference, Kings College London, 2010). http://melissaterras.blogspot.com/2010/07/dh2010-plenary-present-not-voting.html[/ref] However, this is about to change, at least for some of us. In the forthcoming Research Excellence Framework in the UK, digital resources will be assessed in all subject areas as a comparable output to print. This is a vitally important change, carrying with it the implication of a re-evaluation of the scholarly value of the digital; but it places ever more emphasis on the need for us to consider in a rational, not evangelistic, fashion what may distinguish a digital scholarly work from that which renders a service.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 In this context, nomenclature is not a useful guide. The Whitman project’s creators chose to call their creation an archive, perhaps because like the Rosetti Archive or Valley of the Shadow it contains a collection of various different types of material. However, McGann himself describes Rosetti as a digital edition.[ref]Jerome McGann, “Electronic Archives and Critical Editing,” Literature Compass 7:10 (2010): 37-42.[/ref] While I do not mean to imply that creating and curating an archive in the analogue world is not an intellectual exercise, it is not in itself something for which scholars gain credit. Thus the metaphor would hold that if scholarship done as the result of the use or creation of a physical archive as opposed to in its curation is recognised, then it should be similar in the digital sphere. But is this really appropriate, and does the name ‘archive’ under value the complex nature of what is being achieved in digital resources such as this? Conversely, why is it then that creating a critical edition, whether print or digital form is considered to be a scholarly activity worthy of credit in its own right?
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 It may be because in the print world editors are called upon to make selections and decisions about the best possible copy text, and which textual variants to include. Yet as Gabler argues, as digital technology progresses, digital editions increasingly try to make as many different texts and variants available to readers as possible, to the point that while we may choose to read a literary text in print, the digital medium is most appropriate for complex comparison and study of variants.[ref]H. W. Gabler “Theorizing the Digital Scholarly Edition,” Literature Compass 7:10 (2010): 43–56.[/ref] The theory of social editions also suggests that the literary text should be presented with reference to its broader social and intellectual milieu.[ref]Jerome McGann, A Critique of Modern Textual Criticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983) and D. F. McKenzie, Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts(London: The British Library, 1986).[/ref]
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 The Whitman archive provides page images and transcriptions of all six printed editions of Leaves of Grass, as well as manuscript material and newspaper copy. It calls itself an archive, yet could as easily be considered an excellent example of the digital social edition, where users are encouraged to become part of the scholarly process by comparing transcribed manuscripts with the page images or making judgements about which version of a given poem to use. So this is this, an edition (scholarly product) or an archive (service for others)? I would argue that this distinction is no longer meaningful in the digital sphere where boundaries between what we consider to be editions and archives have become blurred.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Even if we assert that this is a resource for others to use, that could as easily describe a scholarly edition. It is also arguable that the value of such a resource as a scholarly product in its own right is in the choices made about what types of different materials should be brought together, and how contextual material about Whitman’s life, work and even disciples should be presented. Once again, these are just the kind of decisions that editors of scholarly editions also make. As all digital humanists are aware, the act of marking up text is in itself one of scholarly interpretation, which is why it is so vital that the full marked up texts are presented here. This, like the decision to present page images alongside transcription is an act of intellectual openness: it allows other scholars to understand, and if necessary question the decisions that have been made in their presentation. Far from being a sub-scholarly process, digital resources such as Whitman achieve a lustration of the decision making processes that are the silent underpinning of the task of editors or literary scholars in general. In this sense, digital humanities is ahead of many other fields. Science is only beginning to discover the potential of using digital technologies to link experimental data to articles written as a result of its analysis, so that other scholars may use such data to replicate the experiments that are reported on.[ref]C. Bizer, T. Heath, and T. Berners-Lee, “Linked Data – The Story So Far,” International Journal on Semantic Web and Information Systems (IJSWIS), Special Issue on Linked Data, ed. T. Heath, M. Hepp, and C. Bizer, (forthcoming). http://linkeddata.org/docs/ijswis-special-issue[/ref] Yet resources such as the Whitman archive have been providing this kind of functionality for some time. Texts are the primary data of literary scholars after all.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 There is, it appears, a good case to be made for the scholarly robustness of digital resources, even those which modestly refer to themselves as an archive. The other question we must address, however, in making the case for our discipline is not just whether such resources constitute scholarly activity, but what kind of new types of research they make possible which would not have been achievable in an analogue world. This is surely the main criterion by which digital humanities must be judged. At present this is much less clear.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 We know that the digital medium presents many new possibilities for editors and resource creators themselves, but we still know too little about whether research and scholarship themselves are changing as a result of their use. Vanhoutte, for example, has argued that most users simply require a reading text despite the fact that digital resources make a deeper kind of scholarly engagement possible.[ref]E. Vanhoutte, “Every Reader His Own Bibliographer – An Absurdity?” in Text Editing, Print and the Digital World, ed. Marilyn Deegan and Kathryn Sutherland (London: Ashgate, 2002): 99-112.[/ref] Even the most recent study of humanities users of digital resources[ref]C. Madsen, “Communities, Innovation, and Critical Mass: Understanding the Impact of Digitization on Scholarship in the Humanities through the Case of Tibetan and Himalayan Studies” (PhD diss, Oxford University, 2010): Chapters 6-7.[/ref] suggests they still make relatively simple uses of digital resources, which they value as a way to access greater amounts of primary texts without the need to travel, to search them faster, and ultimately, overwhelmingly, to read them. Digital humanists may be using computational analysis or visualisation techniques on huge data sets, (for example Dan Cohen’s recent studies of Google Books[ref]Patricia Cohen, “Analyzing Literature by Words and Numbers,” New York Times, December 3, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/04/books/04victorian.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all[/ref]) but it appears that resources such as the Whitman archive may be more transformative of scholarship from the point of view of their creators than of most of their users. Digital Humanities has have moved on from writing evangelising articles and prescribing more training to writing use cases that, arguably, only the converted digital humanists ever read (for example a recent paper on the Monk project[ref]C. Plaisant, T. Clement, R. Vuillemot, S. Steger, and K. Uszkalo, “Use Cases Driving the Tool Development in the MONK project” (paper presented at the Digital Humanities 2009 conference, University of Maryland, USA, June 22-25, 2009).[/ref]) Yet the results appear the same, such excellent resources as Whitman may find that only a few expert users make best use of the potential of what they are being offered.
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 This may seem rather a depressing vision, but social networking theory may offer a more positive interpretation of this. We know that in most online communities only 10% of the participants post, the others may read, enjoy, but not take part.[ref]B. Nonnecke and J. Preece, “Lurker Demographics: Counting the Silent” in Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (Proceedings of the SIGCHI, 2000): 73-80. http://portal.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=332040.332409&type=series [/ref] It is also an often repeated law of software development that 80% of users make use of 20% of a given application’s features. Thus if we apply such metrics to digital humanities it seems perverse that we somehow feel we have failed unless all users are making the most extensive use of every last piece of potential a resource has to offer. This is why it is important that, as I argued above, digital resources should be accessible for the interested amateur as well as the academic expert and why we should not be disappointed if most people search for quotations for their college assignments or print out poems to use to teach a class, or to read when writing an article. Digital resources have different types of user, and to expect them all to be expert is a kind of techie arrogance of the worst kind.
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Social networking is also relevant in another context when consider digital resources. The possibilities of a very different kind of social edition are only beginning to be explored by projects such as UCL’s own Transcribe Bentham project. Yet the popularity of crowd sourcing has been proven in science, and we know that users will support, explore and exploit more fully resources that they help to create.[ref]Claire Warwick, M. Terras and C. Fisher, “iTrench: A Study of User Reactions to the Use of IT in Field Archaeology” (paper presented at Digital Humanities 2008 conference, University of Oulu, Finland, June 25-29 2008).[/ref] Thus it may be that an alternative way of involving users in digital humanities is not only to consult them about what they would like to do, design resources so that they can do it as well as possible, or suggest ways in which a resources might be used, but also to encourage them to take part in their creation.
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 It can be seen therefore that the metaphysics wrought by the digital transformations inherent in the Whitman archives take us well beyond the limitations of books. We can appreciate the new potential inherent in digital production for the scholars who produce such resources, but further work remains to be done on exactly how such editions or archives may transform the lives of their users. Part of this work will be undertaken in the coming year by researchers from the INKE project, when we will consider digital scholarly editions. However, in a more general sense it will be fascinating to see whether and how far any kind of crowd sourced content may be integrated into serious scholarly resources such as Whitman. Until that experiment is tried in earnest, we are still some way from utilising the potential of the truly social edition.