Monthly Archives: November 2011

Aptitude

I’ve been thinking lately about the career aptitude test that my classmates and I took in  high school.  I remember the setting well: the high school cafeteria.  I sat at the second or third table down, on the far left side, facing the stage—roughly the place where my friends and I sat at lunch every day.  (How much of this is genuine memory?)

I have always tested well, so I have a generally positive memory of the test itself.  I remember kind of enjoying the variety of questions, though perhaps having been a bit frustrated with ones that required an ability to imagine how two-dimensional images would look once they had been folded into three-dimensional objects.

And I remember the results of the test, a recommendation that I should do work focused on organizing things, like being a file clerk.  Me and Harvey Pekar, right?

What interests me about this memory of the results (I wish I had the actual results, but I think they’re probably long lost) is how it could be read to be connected to the way that my interest in the kind of document markup I can do with TEI tends towards greater granularity.  I tend not to make use of those best practices for libraries that I mentioned last week.

And this reminds me of how I responded to a question Gerda Lerner asked in the first research seminar I took in graduate school.  She asked whether every person who had ever lived belonged in a dictionary of biography, and I said yes.  Which was the wrong answer because she was asking us to think about how, as historians, we would assess significance and apply that assessment to the formation of a research plan.  I didn’t like the idea of making those kinds of choices.

But one of the things I do like about the idea of what we are doing with the Wheaton College Digital History Project is that we are making available (eventually) documents that have not previously been known.  And I understand this activity to some degree as yet another positive answer to Gerda’s question.  In effect, we are saying that the fact these documents have not been used in the past is less a product of their insignificance than of chance.  Which is one of the things historians know about the documents we use as evidence anyway.  Whatever sources we have available to us come to us as a result of decisions that do not actually reflect their significance in some grand scheme so much as their significance to individuals for reasons that often have nothing to do with our research questions.

Sometimes, when my friends reflect on the work that I have come to be doing over the past seven years, they say that I could do this work as a librarian or an archivist.  (I’m not entirely sure whether I agree with them.)  And I wonder how close that means I have come to following the advice that resulted from that career aptitude test I took in the high school cafeteria all those years ago.

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Digital Humanities, Libraries, and Scholarly Communication

For me, the lines between digital humanities, libraries, and scholarly communication are so faint as to be insignificant.  And my perception of the equivalences among these entities that often seem siloed to my colleagues presents a real challenge as I try to help people–both at my own institution and at other campuses–think about possible futures for higher education in our digital culture.

The source of my perception lies in my having begun to learn about how digital innovations are changing libraries and publishing as a result of my first forays into digital humanities.  In 2004, I participated in a series of workshops at Wheaton College that were sponsored by the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education and funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.  Those workshops focused on two sets of encoding standards that use extensible markup language (XML): the Encoded Archival Description Document Type Definition (EAD DTD) and the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI).  The hands-on workshop sessions focused on TEI, and I attended the workshops out of interest in testing the use of TEI in teaching my undergraduate history students.  But the EAD component of the initial workshops meant that librarians attended too, so perhaps I have found one source of my elision of digital humanities, libraries, and scholarly communication.

Perhaps I have identified also a significant point about how these three often siloed entities are in fact connected.  I don’t mean to claim originality here.  Folks involved in digital humanities have been working on these questions for quite some time, as is clear from the discussion of the development of EAD at the Library of Congress website.  EAD and TEI were both developed in the 1990s.  Both began using Standardized General Markup Language (SGML), and both shifted to use of XML.  And both are used by libraries.

In fact according to the TEI website cited above, “Since 1994, the TEI Guidelines have been widely used by libraries, museums, publishers, and individual scholars to present texts for online research, teaching, and preservation.” A search of the TEI consortium’s website led me to slides from a talk by Susan Hockey of University College London, “Markup, TEI, Digital Libraries.” The talk was presented at the TEI Members Meeting in 2002, and it offers a good overview of issues about the relationships between changes digital innovations were bringing to libraries and digital scholarship at that time.  The TEI has a Libraries special interest group (SIG), and they recently released an update to their recommendations for best practices for use of TEI by libraries.

So TEI–the flavor of digital humanities that I practice–does have clear connections to libraries that can be traced back for at least two decades.  I’m not making that up.  What a relief!

Scholarly communication, the third of my equivalences, belongs in the set as a result of the ways that digital innovations have affected communication in general, that is in the ongoing shift from print to digital formats.  The most obvious example–the one that has received the most public outcry in the past couple of years–is the case of newspapers.  Like many people, I no longer subscribe to print newspapers; I read them online.  And I resented the introduction of a pay wall by my newspaper of choice, the New York Times, as the publisher sought a new way to make the newspaper profitable as a business.  But eventually I gave in, and I pay my fifteen dollars every month.

Like newspaper publishers, university presses have been changing their production practices for at least the past twenty years, as various word processing programs have become the tools of choice for scholars writing articles and books.  I began to hear about changes in scholarly publication when I attended a NITLE meeting on scholarly communication that was held at Pomona College in January 2008.  (I think that’s the right date.)  Like all NITLE meetings, this one gave me plenty to think about, especially the idea of open peer review.  And in the intervening years, I’ve had opportunities to sit in on discussions in which I’ve heard editors talk about workflows and publishing software.  Now, I have an essay in a volume that is undergoing open peer review and that is under contract (the volume, not necessarily my essay) with the Digital Culture series at the University of Michigan Press.

All of this seems perfectly transparent and logical to me, and I understand digital scholarship–which is the term I use to encompass my three equivalences–to be the future of scholarship and higher education.  My greatest challenge lies in parsing out how that is the case for folks who haven’t had the advantages I have had over the past seven years as I’ve learned from my digital humanities colleagues.

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