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”

About.com’s “Historical Diaries and Journals Online”

Patrick Sahle’s “Scholarly Digital Editions Catalog”

Paul K. Lyons’ “The Diary Junction”

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CFP: “Materialities of American Texts and Visual Cultures”

Conference Dates: April 9 & 10, 2015
Deadline for Proposals: January 23, 2015

Hosted by: Columbia University’s Department of Art History and Archaeology and Rare Book and Manuscript Library, New York, NY. Co-Sponsored by the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship of Scholars in Critical Bibliography at Rare Book School, the Bibliographical Society of America, and the American Print History Association.

Organized by: John Garcia (jgar@berkeley.edu) and Marie Stephanie Delamaire (mmd2108@caa.columbia.edu)

On April 9-10, 2015, curators, conservators, and scholars from various disciplines will convene at Columbia University to discuss new approaches to American print and visual cultures generated by the recent humanistic interest in materiality.

From current historical work on material and visual cultures, to anthropological research on the social life of things and new approaches to reading and interpretation in historical scholarship, the study of the physical evidence of culture has become a pressing issue. This interdisciplinary symposium will bring together curators, conservators, and scholars of art history, literary studies, book history, and bibliography to discuss common questions and disciplinary challenges in the study of texts and visual cultures produced in the United States during the long nineteenth century. This period witnessed concomitant transformations in book and image production methods as well as in publishing practices and distribution networks that affected every aspect of American society and culture, including the emergence of early African American literary traditions and printed American Indian texts and images. Additionally, the emergence of a mass production of images was largely interwoven with new forms of literary productions such as illustrated novels, and serial publications. Both print and visual cultures were largely built upon practices of reprinting, recycling, and inter-media translation, where the relationships between user and maker, as well as between texts and images were constantly re-negotiated. But how we move from reckoning with these transformations towards making more compelling humanistic interpretations remains an open question. For both literary studies and art history, concerns with materiality interweave familiar interpretive issues of aesthetic, formal, and narrative complexity with the questions of format, presentation, and modes of production and transmission that have long concerned bibliographers and historians of material texts.

To stimulate discussions, and foster productive scholarship crossing between literary, material, and art historical studies, we seek proposals for 20-minute presentations exploring the historical relationships between the materiality of nineteenth-century American printed texts and images.

Materials to be considered might include but are not limited to: illustrated books, periodicals and newspapers, gift books, publishers’ archives, lottery tickets and rewards of merit, scrapbooks, early artist’s books, broadsides and other ephemera, cartography, political cartoons, manuscript cultures, drawing and handwriting in the era of mass print.

Topics and approaches from presenters might include but are not limited to: Redefining the relationships between technology and creative practices, inter-medial translation, cultures of reprinting, embodiment and studies of readers and reading, the temporal and spatial dimensions of images and texts, historicism(s) past and present, economies of scale, distributive processes in the movements of images and texts, the production and subversion of identity and social norms, the material texts and visual cultures of abolition, social movements, and marginalized communities.

Committed speakers include: Jennifer Greenhill (Urbana-Champaign), Elizabeth Hutchinson (Barnard/Columbia), Michael Leja (Penn), Christopher Lukasik (Purdue), Todd Pattison (Rare Book School), Jennifer Roberts (Harvard), Phillip Round (Iowa).

In order to be considered, please Submit proposals for participation by Friday, January 23, 2015 to: 
Marie-Stéphanie Delamaire (mmd2108@caa.columbia.edu) and John Garcia (jgar@berkeley.edu).
Proposals should include:

 1. Preliminary abstract (no more than 500 words).
 2. Letter explaining speaker’s interest and expertise in the topic. 3. A brief 2-page CV with email address. Notifications will be sent by Monday February 23, 2015.

Diary and Diary Fiction at MLA 2015

I’ve been deep in diary research the past few weeks as I prepare a talk for MLA 2015. I organized a panel on diaries and diary fiction, and was gratified by the large number of excellent proposals I received. My fellow presenters represent a variety of critical approaches to the study of diary and diary fiction, as well as different national literary traditions and time periods. I cannot wait to hear their papers.

My own talk is a bit of a stretch for me. Here’s how it came to be:

Me (in my pajamas, reading the New York Times Book Review on a Sunday morning, circa 2013): Huh. There’s another review of another novel that prominently features a diary. Isn’t that strange? (Adds book title to growing list.) I wonder why so many contemporary novelists are relying on the diary? What does it mean? Maybe I could write a paper about this?

Well, a few years later and I’ve been reading contemporary diary fiction and hopefully by Sunday I’ll have something productive to say about a selection of these novels. I will be talking about:

Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl (2012)
Tim Parks, Sex is Forbidden (2012)
Scott Hutchins, A Working Theory of Love (2012)
Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being (2013)
Stephen Lloyd Jones, The String Diaries (2014)

One of the questions I am considering is why, although each of these novels is set in the present, none of the diary writers keeps their diaries on a computer or blog or any other digital format. While I myself am dedicated to my handwritten diary and cannot imagine typing my diary onto a screen, the common theme across the five books of eschewing available technology in favor of the old fashioned manuscript diary really interests me. I have some theories about why this is and how it impacts each novels’ representation of a diverse range of media and technologies.

Something I’ve learned working on the talk: it’s very hard to discuss five novels in 15 minutes. Hopefully the audience will be understanding about my thumbnail analysis.

Here’s the line up …

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Vancouver, here we come!