All Access, No Index

One of the early rallying cries for Digital Humanities was “access.” Finally, everything will be accessible. No longer will materials be held in specialized archives that are geographically remote to many, attached to elite educational institutions, and restrictive about who can read or handle their most precious documents. Instead, such materials would be available to everyone – openly, freely, democratically – thanks to the magic of digital technology.

While we haven’t quite reached the promised nirvana of universal access (as many people have before me pointed out — far more than I can cite), there are certainly more materials accessible now than in the past. Numerous DH projects have and continue to serve the basic purpose of providing a wide audience access to documents that would otherwise be difficult if not impossible to gain access to (manuscripts, codex, limited editions, etc.).

But, how are you supposed to find those projects?

If you happen to be a teacher, scholar, or general reader interested in William Blake, you can Google “William Blake” and pretty soon you’ll be perusing The William Blake Archive and looking at his line illustrations or paging through his manuscripts.

If, however, you happen to be a teacher, scholar, or general reader interested in African American life writing before the U.S. Civil War, you can Google a variety of search terms and never arrive at The Emilie Davis Diary. Unless you happen to have a serendipitous lead, there is a good chance that this resource will remain unknown to you because there is no good, reliable way of finding it.

Or take my research for example. I am interested in diaries; I want to say something meaningful about the diary as a genre but it is notoriously difficult to generalize about diaries. Diaries are as individual and idiosyncratic as their authors. The best way to prepare to address the diary as a genre is to read lots of different diaries by different people in different time periods, etc. DH would appear to be a salvation in this situation: I can read widely across the genre thanks to the digitization efforts of librarians, archivists, and literary critics. But only if I can find them. If you Google any combination of the terms “diary,” “journal,” “digital,” or “digitization,” you will get some interesting results — while missing almost everything you’re looking for. I can generally only find a source if I search by the author’s name, but that presumes I know he or she authored a diary in the first place.

One issue here is canonicity and the fact that DH is in danger of replicating and reinforcing the old canon. It makes sense: institutions and funding agencies are most likely to provide the resources to support a DH project that is anchored by a well-known historical or literary figure. There is a reason that John Adams’ papers are digitized and the Walt Whitman Archive continues to add more and more materials. These are amazing resources but let us not be blind to the fact that famous white male political figures and authors are the beneficiaries (when their papers were in no danger of being neglected) whereas so many other individuals remain hidden in the archives (if their papers were not lost already). Additionally, if your DH project is built around a well-known person, it is also more likely to become known and used. You’ll get traffic because Google will direct the right audience to your site.

So the canon issue leads us back to the issue I’m interested in, which is indexical: There is no index of Digital Humanities projects and Google (which pretends to be a comprehensive index of the internet) does not always serve us well. Of course there is no index of DH projects — there can be no index of DH because DH exceeds and disrupts the notion of what humanities work can be, and because not all DH projects are open-access websites. But, many are, and surely we want people to find those projects? If you build it but no one can find it or use it, does the project fulfill the basic premise of DH work?

In an essay in the Journal of  Digital Humanities, Trevor Muñoz argues that “data curation” should be considered a legitimate form of scholarly work. He writes:

The work of data curation—“active and on-going management of data through its lifecycle of interest and usefulness to scholarship, science, and education; … activities [which] enable data discovery and retrieval, maintain quality, add value, and provide for re-use over time” (Cragin et al. 2007) —should be legible as “publishing” work for libraries and scholars to do in much the same way that well-understood tasks related to preparing and circulating monographs or journals are already legible as publishing work.

I’m using this blog to host a modest data curation project, in the form of an index of digitized diaries. In the course of my research, I’ve stumbled across a host of amazing digitized diary projects and a recent query to the Society for the History of Authorship, History, and Publishing listserv yielded numerous more. The result is interesting cross-section of resources, indexed in this case by genre.

Data curation has its own limitations, particularly as practiced here: It requires maintenance and frequent updating to remain current, to make sure that the links remain active, etc. I can’t promise to give that kind of sustained attention to my Digitized Diary list – I simply don’t have the time – but I hope it serves others even as it furthers my own research goals.

I will be speaking about digitized diaries at the Texas Digital Humanities Conference in a few weeks, and thinking more about how good, reliable indexes of DH projects might serve as a kind of intellectual work — or, in my case, a step in a larger intellectual project.

Updated: See also the following resources:

Aisling D’Art’s “Historical Journals and Diaries Online”’s “Historical Diaries and Journals Online”

Patrick Sahle’s “Scholarly Digital Editions Catalog”

Paul K. Lyons’ “The Diary Junction”

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