“The computer screen has provided a shaft of light that will illuminate, not eliminate, the book.”
I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a joint A&I class session with guest Steve Hindle, the W.M. Keck Foundation Director of Research at the Hutington Library in California. The purpose of the class was to encourage students to think about the nature of digital scholarship today, conceptualizing both its incredible value and some of its shortcomings. For the digital humanities, there are a few points from the class that I think are particularly valuable.
1. Digitization as Means of Conservation: Steve made some very interesting points about the incredible value of digitizing a document as a means of preservation. However, he also pointed out the potential damage that can be caused by high power cameras, as well as the limited guarantee of readability of digital formats in the future.
2. Democratization of Resources: One of the areas of DH that most excites me is the opportunity DH provides to open resources to broader audiences, providing nearly instant access across the world. Here Steve touched on one of my favorite topics, the dominance of English language sources in digital collections (see my post on DH around the world) and the necessity to encourage the digitization of materials in other languages.
3. Monetization of Resources: Along with the rise of access to materials comes the complex question of paying for those sources. Certainly, many of the resources that are currently being digitized are not available to all and require either affiliation with a university or money to access. This raises the interesting question: who should be able to access what? and who should make those decisions?
4. Materiality of Resources: How do we preserve the reading experience of a print text in an online format? Certainly, there are aspects of digitization that enhance reading experience. For example, with digital technology, we can get closer to resources than ever before. High resolution images allow us to zoom in on specific areas of a map and we can handle documents over and over again without damaging them. However, it is crucial to recognize that a 17th century manuscript was created to be read as a manuscript, to be held in someone’s hands, to be leafed through. Preserving that experience is one of the biggest challenges of digitization.
5. Digital Methods of Scholarship: One of the biggest debates currently waging in DH is the question of DH’s role in creating scholarship. Should all projects that use digital resources be classified as DH? Or should projects be required to use digitization as part of the methodology for the research? In other words, is a digital representation of humanities scholarship DH? Or does DH require digital resources as the main tools for creating that scholarship? I think Steve did an excellent job of addressing this question in discussing digital technology in terms of means and ends. Digital technology should be a means to an end, not the end itself. Thus, scholarship must actively engage with digital technology but should not abandon traditional research methods. Merely employing digital technology without critically accessing the results does not create a valuable DH project.
This was a very memorable talk and I greatly enjoyed thinking about some of the questions associated with the digital humanities and scholarship. I think such conversations about the role of digitization in the future are crucial.