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Research & Scholarship

Report from Early Modern Digital Agendas

September 2nd, 2013 by Patrick Williams

I was fortunate to spend most of July at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., after being selected to participate in Early Modern Digital Agendas, a summer institute of the NEH Office of Digital Humanities. This three-week program brought together scholars in Early Modern literature, historians, editors, librarians, technologists, and others to explore the unique ways in which digital approaches are situated in Early Modern studies. Led by Jonathan Hope (Professor of Literary Linguistics, University of Strathclyde), we worked with the Folger’s staff of incredible librarians and curators and an impressive group of visiting faculty investigate the historical, theoretical, and methodological implications of digital scholarship on work in the period.

I took away many lessons from the program, but there are two in particular I feel that are very relevant to the profession of librarianship and that will forever affect how I undertake my day-to-day work.

Digital Representations & the Illusion of Completeness

The first of these lessons comes out of our focus on Early English Books Online (EEBO), the primary electronic resource used by Early Modern scholars. It is a resource that most of us at the institute use on a near daily basis. However, we learned that we all use it differently, with a variety of strategies, habits, and assumptions that can lead to incredibly divergent outcomes. Access to EEBO is quite expensive, and even among the schools represented by institute participants, access to the corpus was not equal; some schools have the ability to search only the metadata of the books in EEBO, some only have access to about half of the full-text items in EEBO, and some schools, who are partners in the Text Creation Partnership, search EEBO through a wholly different interface (thankfully, the Syracuse University Libraries have purchased the highest level of access to this resource). These stratified levels of access can have serious effects on the way claims can be made and criticized in scholarship. In particular, the idea that any one person’s access to the “complete” corpus of Early Modern printed books is an illusion. This is not surprising, but when we are faced with a search interface to this material, it is easy to forget all of the choices and decisions affecting the results our searches return.

Furthermore, we explored the many ways in which the digital representations of the books themselves are incomplete. Since the Folger Library holds one of the most impressive collections of Early Modern printed books on earth, we spent quite a bit of time comparing the experience of working with the actual, physical materials to the experience of using the EEBO database to access, in some cases, the very same copies of books. What we all learned through that process was not at all surprising: that the digital and physical allow us very different levels of focus and attention, and influence our interpretation of the materials in different ways. But what was fascinating was to see a group of 20 scholars finding countless ways in which the digital representations in EEBO fail to capture seemingly fundamental attributes of the printed works– plates left folded, variation in ink color, textual corrections and cancellations, collation issues, annotations and other readers’ marks — that are virtually invisible in the EEBO representations. One tongue-in-cheek refrain that came out of this work was “Never Trust A Database,” that is, we must be as critical of the tools that drive and direct our scholarship as we are of the scholarship itself. This level of information literacy demands not just an understanding of how the database operates, but of how Early Modern books were produced and used. In my teaching of EEBO going forward, I will be much more cognizant of how to point out the types of information the database obscures and will advocate for a much more critical approach to this tool.

Digitally Representing (and Extending) a Discourse Community

The second EMDA lesson that has altered my professional practice comes out of the hyper-public manner in which we as a community shared our discourse. We did so via a very contemporary digital technology: Twitter. EMDA participants were encouraged to live-tweet our discussions and presentations over the whole three-week program (you can see the results of this by looking at the #EMDA13 hashtag on Twitter [though you’ll have to ignore a few tweets about the Swedish soccer matches on the same tag!]).

The steady twitter stream had the effect of creating an archive of our conversations and allowing participants to quickly share and suggest resources for further reading, and I found myself using twitter as my primary note-taking tool.

We also learned, quite quickly, that others were paying close attention to what was transpiring on the hashtag, asking us questions and providing us with answers. Through the twitter feed, we interacted with the scholars whose work we were discussing, solicited real-time clarifications from those involved with the EEBO project, collectively lobbied for resources, and were able connect and engage with dozens of remote scholars whose voices were instrumental to our conversations in the Folger’s Boardroom.

I’ve often appreciated the Twitter backchannel at conferences, but this was something quite different. The sustained connection of the face-to-face conversation with the digital community of Early Modernists on Twitter enabled a diversity of voices in the conversation, something invaluable as we in the institute charted agendas for new directions in Early Modern digital scholarship.

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