Archive for the ‘outreach’ Category

Digital Questions, pt. 1

Thursday, January 6th, 2011

About Aaron McCollough

English Literature Librarian, University of Michigan

Although I’m a little hesitant to post my first blog entry while a significant portion of the LES group is immersed in the ALA Midwinter Convention, I’m sure many others like me will be staying put this week and looking on virtually.


It is significant for us all, certainly, that the MLA convention is also taking place just up the road in Los Angeles, and today’s panel session there (3:30-4:45) sponsored by the new Libraries and Research in Languages and Literatures discussion group gives me an excuse to broach a subject many of us are thinking about. The panel is called “Literary Research in/and Digital Humanities” and features six presentations on the potential and problems of collaboration in digital environments between Literature Librarians and Literary Scholars. A nice group of presentation abstracts is available in a LibGuide set up by panel organizer Jim Kelly at:


I wish I could make it to this panel, as I find myself thinking about digital scholarship more every day. In lieu of that though, I’d love to get comments from those who are able to attend. I’m sure other readers would be interested, as well. I’d also like to hear non-presenters (those who were or weren’t able to make it to the MLA panel) about how this panel corresponds to ongoing or anticipated activities at their home institutions.


My questions are several. But most basically I’d like to hear what kinds of digital Library/English department collaborations are happening around the country right now. The panelists at the MLA event give us a glimpse at some, and I’m aware of many others via my work with the EEBO-Text Creation Partnership. Still, it seems to me that a more categorical list of what is happening would be helpful to all English Literature Librarians as they work to develop their sense of the digital services the discipline is starting to demand.


There have been plenty of efforts to pin down a sense of what the elusive “Digital Humanities” are (or can be). As a useful first step, there seem to be many discussions floating around about what Humanists (and by inference Literary specialists) do with the objects of their study. Digital Humanists presumably do those same things but with the help of digital prosthetics. Two brief and rather elegant accounts of what Humanist do may be found, in fact, in a piece by Mary Claire Vandenburg in the most recent issue of our own BiblioNotes.


Mary cites John Unsworth’s short-list of common humanities activities: “discovering, annotating, comparing, referring, sampling, illustrating and representing” (7). She then goes on to suggest that the Humanities is really “a set of skills or ‘ways of doing’ which allows us to make sense of our world” (8). Here again, one infers that the digital addition to this set of practices would be in keeping with our increasing immersion in a world that is digitally mediated — or, that the Digital Humanities is a set of ‘ways of digital doing’ that allows us to make sense of our digital world).


Given all this, I’m very curious to hear more about what these digital “ways of doing” look like or entail in specific cases and how they make use of the skills/resources we have to offer as Literature Librarians.


My sense is that, currently, most digital literary scholarship fits roughly under the rubric of curatorial and/or editorial work. Do others share this sense? I notice, for example, that Unsworth’s list does not include words like “analyze,” “interpret,” or “explain.” Perhaps he covers this territory with his “illustrating or representing,” however.


Of the abstracts for the MLA panel, Manuel M. Martin-Rodriquez’s project strikes me as the most explicitly inquiry-driven use of digital tools insofar as it seeks to capture and manipulate literary information in a way that would be hard to accomplish without computers. It seems to have what we might call a literary research question built into it from the outset and to be using digital methods to “discover” (to use another of Unsworth’s terms) an answer or answers to the question. I don’t mean to say this is a more proper way of proceeding than the curatorial/editorial approaches. Each has its benefits and limitations. I would imagine Martin-Rodriguez’s work would be a less flexible tool for other, future scholars precisely because it is asking a question from inception. Projects like Heather Bowlby’s and Marija Dalbello’s might well have broader applicability because they have fewer built-in assumptions about the kinds of inquiry pertinent to their study.


What do you think? Did elements come to light in the panel that I could never anticipate from reading only the abstracts? And, what’s going in your departments? Are the digital scholars you work with more interested in inquiry or edition-making? If this is a false binary, then how do you see things shaping themselves? What are the objects of digital literary study and what digital tools are required to make sense of them?