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”

The Discovered Diary Trope

Warning: Contains mild spoilers regarding Tana French’s In the Woods.

Screen Shot 2014-11-30 at 1.42.36 PMI was recently reading Tana French’s bone-chilling novel, In the Woods. If you haven’t read it, drop everything and do so immediately. It won’t take you long because it is one of those un-put-down-able, stay-up-to-3am mysteries. Late in the novel, the protagonist/detective finds the diary of the young woman whose murder he has been investigating, which made me think about that old chestnut, “the discovered diary trope.” You know it: a diary is discovered that contains crucial information that allows mysteries to be solved or truths to be revealed. I would characterize it as tired, overused, and narratively lazy trope, one that good writers steer away from.

I’m reminded of a wonderful work of short fiction from the middle of the nineteenth-century, Annie Frost’s “My Experience,” published in 1867 in Godey’s Lady’s Book. The story lambasts the stale conventions of romantic fiction of that era (which aren’t all that different from the stale conventions of contemporary romantic fiction). The narrator is an author who sets out to write her first novel, stocking it full of all the familiar formulas of her selected genre: “My plot was continually tangled into double knots and intricate twists, to be nicely drawn out and wound off in even threads, till every horrible mystery lay coiled in a nice little ball of explanation at the end.”

Here’s my favorite part, when the narrator describes one of the particular challenges with which she confounds her characters:

Heir to a princely fortune, [the male love interest] lives in a garret upon a crust, because his rich uncle’s will, instead of being filed at the lawyer’s, is tucked away in an old-fashioned writing-desk, containing unsuspected drawers. (I wonder it never occurs to heroes and heroines, under these circumstances, to smash all the furniture in the house — it is almost certain to pay.)

I love that parenthetical aside and the image it conjures up of characters across literary history willy-nilly smashing furniture in search of hidden wills that will turn their circumstances from poverty and hardship into wealth and opportunity.

Although Frost speaks here of hidden wills (c.f. the Trope of the Hidden Will), it shares some similarities with the Trope of the Discovered Diary. The discovered diary trope has several embedded presumptions about diaries:

  1. Diaries contain useful information.
  2. Diaries reveal the truth about the authors’ relationships, goals, thoughts, and values.
  3. Diaries solve mysteries.

Of course, diaries generally don’t contain what might be considered useful or truthful information — in the sense of authentically characterizing either the author or her subject matter. Diaries are generally so idiosyncratic, interior, and fragmented that their readers are forced to speculate about their real meaning. (This is what so much diary scholarship boils down to.) It’s hard to imagine an real diary containing a statement such as “If I am murdered, my killer is _____.” (Though I am tempted to write such a sentence in my own journal now.)

Discovered diaries need not be formulaic pap. In the hands of someone like French, the discovered diary trope becomes something else. In In the Woods, French turns the trope on its head (as she does throughout the novel with regards to multiple mystery/detective fiction tropes): the diary is not discovered by the detective but someone else, who hands it over to him; the diary doesn’t solve the mystery (it’s already been solved); and the diary does not guarantee that the guilty party is caught or punished (she isn’t). French’s discovered diary frustrates expectations by failing to provide resolution. In that sense, it is a wonderful citation of the trope, even as it subverts it.

EDITED to add: I’ve been reviewing my notes on diary criticism and stumbled across Abbott’s discussion of the “conceit of the found object” and the common framing device of representing a diary as a real document that is found and introduced by another. While not exactly synonymous with “discovered diary trope” I’ve addressed here, it’s still worth citing this useful source: H. Porter Abbott, Diary Fiction: Writing as Action (1984).

What’s the difference between a diary and a journal?

A diary is a journal but a journal is not a diary.

The dictionary yields this curious logic. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a diary is “a daily record of events or transactions; a journal,” a meaning it tracks back to 1581. But, the OED entry on the word “journal” does not employ the term “diary” except in a sub-entry and as a negative example: The journal is a “a record of events or matters of personal interest kept by any one for his own use” — which sounds an awful lot like a diary, were it not followed by this disclaimer: “Now usually implying something more elaborate than a diary.” Instead of using “diary” to define “journal,” the OED provides a host of other comparative terms including: day-book, record, service-book, itinerary, account book, logbook, daily newspaper, etc.

The journal, it seems, is many things, while a diary is only one thing, though that thing is very like a journal. Which is many things.

“Journal” has a number of other rich, sometimes obsolete associations: religious, nautical, financial, legal, mechanical, related to mining, related to travel. My favorite is the use of “journal” (from the French) to refer to the amount of land that can be plowed in one day. What a wonderful metaphor for the work of keeping a daily diary: how much land did you plow today?

The Google Ngram Viewer yields the following results:

The usage of the word “diary” in print over time:

Screen Shot 2014-10-09 at 9.10.00 PM

The usage of the word “journal” in print over time:

Screen Shot 2014-10-09 at 9.10.54 PM

Insofar as this is reliable data (and I am not sure whether it is*), it would appear that “journal” has had a wider and more consistent usage for a longer period of time, whereas “diary” had followed a track upwards from relatively little appearance in print in 1800 to frequent appearance today. Of course the host of meanings attached to the word “journal” also explains its frequency.

In my own experience, “diary” is a word I long associated with antiquity — something kept with a quill pen — and with girlhood — the pink book with its little key. Neither was an image I could relate to. It was in the 1980s that I started hearing the word “journal” and particularly in the verb form, “to journal” — terms I found engaging. I thought of myself as journaling — I addressed my journal as a journal. It is only recently as I’ve started to study historic diaries that the term “diary” has become a more relevant one. I noticed a shift in my own writing, which is that I now write about my diary as a diary (though not with the “Dear Diary” address). Thinking of myself as participating in a literary tradition with eighteenth- and nineteenth-century women who kept diaries has given me a very different perspective on the diary as a form. But such is the mutability of language that I might again someday think of what I do as “journaling.”

* The Google Ngram Viewer is a great tool for “armchair historians” (as Ben Zimmer writes), but I hesitate to place faith in the Google digital book corpus. Among other things, the privileging of print matter in determining word history is problematic — all the more so if what you are interested in is unpublished or manuscript materials. Does the print history of the word “diary” actually tell us more than the use of the word “diary” in actual — and generally un-digitized — diaries?