Digital Humanities in 2007 [Part 2 of 3]

In my previous post, I highlighted some of the major developments in digital humanities in 2007, focusing on the creation of organizations such as centernet and the Digital Americanists, journals such as Digital Humanities Quarterly, and funding programs such as the NEH’s Digital Humanities Initiative. Now I’ll broaden the scope to look at conducting and disseminating research: mass digitization, the future of reading, scholarly communications, and notions of authority and expertise in Web 2.0.

  • Debates over mass digitization. What effect will mass digitization projects such as Google Books have on scholarship, intellectual property, reading practices, etc? Will the quality be sufficient for research?
    • Apparently Google has already digitized over a million books, but several observers have criticized the quality of the work thus far. For instance, Robert Townsend’s Google Books: Is It Good for History? describes three problems: “(1) the quality of the scans is decidedly mixed; (2) the information about the books (the “metadata” in infospeak) is often inaccurate; and (3) the public domain is narrowly and erroneously construed, sadly restricting access to materials that should be freely available.” Paul Duguid echoes these concerns in Inheritance and Loss: A Brief Survey of Google Books, using errors from two Google Books versions of Tristram Shandy to illustrate problems in scanning quality and metadata. But, as Dan Cohen argues in Google Books: Champagne or Sour Grapes?, Google is making a defensible trade-off between rapid, mass digitization and quality control; quality issues can be addressed by measures such as allowing readers to mark errors and selective rescanning. Likewise, in his exchange with Duguid, Patrick Leary argues that massive digitization projects entail trade-offs and that the scale, accessibility and searchability of Google Books outweigh problems in quality. In “Google’s Moonshot,” Jeffrey Toobin raises another issue, suggesting that future massive digitization efforts may be harmed if Google were to settle with the publishers suing it for copyright violations. Although I, too, have found errors in Google Books and share the concern that Google may set back the cause of fair use, I’ve been stunned by the range of materials that I’ve found. I agree with Cohen that the key challenge will be in developing tools to search, analyze and manipulate data in Google Books.
    • Although it’s important to be aware of Google Book’s limitations, that shouldn’t keep us from speculating about the impact that it and other mass digitization projects will have on scholarship. How will researchers deal with the problem of information abundance? How will research change with the ability to search across such a range of resources? In “Future Reading,” Anthony Grafton gives historical perspective to the emerging “information ecologies” and contends that digitization will bring us not a “universal library,” but “a patchwork of interfaces and databases, some open to anyone with a computer and WiFi, others closed to those without access or money.” True, there is no single database of or interface to the world’s knowledge, but to what extent can we develop tools and methods to search across databases and find what we need?
  • Speculations about the future of reading. As the culture shifts from print to the screen, what will happen to reading?
    • The NEA’s report To Read or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence contends that leisure reading has declined (even as time spent viewing TV has increased) and, not surprisingly, links that decline to lower test scores on reading tests. According to the NEA, “literary readers lead more robust lifestyles than non-readers” and are more likely to volunteer, vote, attend cultural events, and play sports. As a former literacy volunteer and a devoted bookworm, I by no means wish to diminish the importance of reading. However, as Matt Kirschenbaum argues in his smart essay “How Reading Is Being Reimagined,” the NEA report oversimplifies what it means to read by focusing only on leisure reading, overlooking modes of reading such as skimming and “lateral reading” across texts, and minimizing the importance of online reading, where reading and writing come together as readers comment on blog posts, share annotations and links, etc. Even as the report cites Neil Postman and Sven Birkets on the value of reading, it ignores proponents of screen literacy such as Henry Jenkins and Elizabeth Daley. I also wonder what 21st century skills literacy tests are not measuring.Whereas the NEA found that reading has declined, the OCLC’s report on Sharing, Privacy & Trust in Our Networked World reached the opposite conclusion, perhaps because OCLC’s survey took into account online as well as print-based reading. According to OCLC, “Respondents read and indicate that the amount they are reading has increased. Digital activities are not replacements for reading but perhaps increase the options for expanding communication and sharing content.” For a fascinating analysis of the NEA report and Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid (an account of the history and biology of reading), see Caleb Crain’s “Twilight of the Books.” Crain suggests that reading print books may become an arcane hobby and speculates that mental processes will change as we shift from print to the screen. Some of Crain’s conclusions are debatable, such as his claim that reading promotes comparison and critical thinking more than viewing does, but it’s a stimulating essay nonetheless.
    • The release of the Amazon Kindle wireless ebook reader sparked many speculations about the future of reading, including a cover story in Newsweek. Citing Kevin Kelly, Peter Brantley, and Bob Stein, the article anticipates authorship becoming a collaborative process with readers and books becoming open portals to associated information rather than closed containers. I’ll defer commenting on the Kindle until I actually get one in my hands (and the iPhone ranks higher on my gadget wish list.)
  • Transformations in scholarly communications: Increasingly researchers expect to find what they need online, and new researching and publishing environments are emerging. But university presses with tight budgets are finding it difficult to keep up.
    • In University Publishing In A Digital Age, Ithaka acknowledged the crisis in university publishing and called for presses to reinvent themselves by moving content online, collaborating with libraries, aligning themselves with the university’s strengths, and adopting a common technology platform to support digital content. The report notes the strengths of academic presses–they have expertise in reviewing, editing, and marketing scholarly works and disseminate research in more narrowly focused areas than would interest commercial publishers. Yet university presses lack resources, are generally tradition-bound, and often deviate from their core academic focus to bring in revenue. For me, the most interesting part of the report is its prediction that scholars will want to work in integrated, online digital research and publishing environments, which “will provide them with the tools and resources for conducting research, collaborating with peers, sharing working papers, publishing conference proceedings, manipulating data sets, etc.” Already journals such as Digital Humanities are trying to realize this vision by allowing for comments, integrating search and analysis tools, and making available draft versions of essays. But if this vision is to be fully realized, much remains to be done. Authoring multimedia content can be time and resource-intensive–to what extent will journals or other groups provide support to authors? Will this integrated publishing and research environment be organized at the level of the discipline, the university, or the publisher? (Paul DiMaggio has a compelling blog post about why the university is likely not the best organization for planning new approaches to scholarly communications.) How will all of this dynamic digital content be preserved? How will versioning be handled?
    • The Ithaka report sparked a fascinating online symposium on the future of scholarly communications featuring thinkers such as Stan Katz, Paul DiMaggio, Ed Felten, Laura Brown, and Peter Suber. Whereas Ed Felten argues that in computer science a “new system” of scholarly communications is emerging whereby an author posts a paper, the community comments, and then it submitted to a journal for formal peer review, Stan Katz notes that the humanities is still bound by the “tradition of individualism, privatism and secrecy.” Although I think that our ideas only get better and have a greater impact if we make them available for public discussion, I confess that I, too, fear that if I self-publish something online it will be less likely to be published by a mainstream publisher–yet this concern is allayed somewhat when I search SHERPA ROMEO and find that journals such as American Literature, Critical Inquiry, and New Literary History allow self-archiving. What will it take to change the culture of the humanities–more success stories from scholars who do take on more of a public role? assurances from tenure committees? clear statements from leading publishers that you can provide pre-prints online? I’m hoping that the MLA’s report on tenure and promotion, issued at the end of 2006, will make a difference in validating digital scholarship.
    • The open access movement scored a victory at the end of the year when Pres. Bush signed into law the omnibus spending bill requiring the NIH to mandate that all journal articles resulting from research it funds be made available as open access through PubMedCentral.
  • Debates over expertise and authority in a Web 2.0 world. With the controversies over the reliability of Wikipedia and other Web 2.0 sources, cultural commentators are discussing what constitutes expertise and authority.
    • Andrew Keen stirred up debate with The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture, which decries the “amateurism” of Web 2.0, as “professional” mediators of taste are displaced by “monkeys” pounding out narcissistic blog posts and uploading stupid videos to YouTube. In response, David Weinberger contends that the Web facilitates the “collaborative process” of knowledge building, points out that most cultural gatekeepers are driven by profit rather than quality, and argues that amateurs challenge orthodoxy and gather data difficult for experts to compile. Likewise, Emily Bell argues that the Internet enables high-quality, original work to be discovered and that people can discern authority by exercising critical judgment in reading online content, reviewing comments on blog posts, and using tools such as Technorati’s authority index. Keen’s attack on amateurism overlooks the history of valuable contributions that amateurs, those who work for the love of it, have made to science. Although I think Keen is totally off-base, the debate does raise important questions: How do we evaluate quality information? How can scholars harness Web 2.0 technologies to conduct and disseminate research? Given that the theme of this year’s MLA convention was “The Humanities at Work in the World,” what might be gained (and lost?) by bringing academics and amateurs together through the web?
    • To what extent is the collaborative approach to producing and disseminating knowledge embodied by Wikipedia reliable? As Virgil Griffith’s WikiScanner showed, corporations and interest groups have made egregious edits to Wikipedia entries to advance their own agendas. Developers are creating other tools, such as WikiDashboard and WikiTrust, to reveal how trustworthy a Wikipedia entry is, computing, for instance, the “reputation” of a contributor. As Jonathan Dee shows in “All the News That’s Fit to Print Out,” Wikipedia admins quickly delete “biased” statements as they pursue a “Neutral Point of View”–but it’s not clear that objectivity equates to truth or insight. Several projects–Scholarpedia and, more recently, Google’s Knol–try to improve on the Wikipedia model by having experts write entries, associating entries with author’s names rather than allowing anonymous authorship and edits, and using peer review. Although Wikipedia may challenge academic practices by allowing anyone to make a contribution anonymously, it also furnishes a model for collaborative production of knowledge and openness and raises fascinating questions about transparency and authority. As we face information overload, I wonder if the academic community can adapt the tools and methods for evaluating reliability developed for Wikipedia and related projects.
    • In Michael Jensen’s excellent “The New Metrics of Scholarly Authority,” he contends that information abundance and web technologies are giving rise to new ways of measuring authority. Among the metrics for what he calls “Authority 3.0″ are the prestige of the publisher, peer reviewers, and commentators; number of links to and citations of the article; number and quality of comments on the article; the author’s reputation; tags; and more. According to Jensen, succeeding in the Authority 3.0 world requires the “digital availability” of the article for indexing, tagging, commenting, etc. As Jensen argues, to ensure that work is visible, a scholar should “[e]ncourage your friends and colleagues to link to your online document. Encourage online back-and-forth with interested readers. Encourage free access to much or all of your scholarly work. Record and digitally archive all your scholarly activities. Recognize others’ works via links, quotes, and other online tips of the hat. Take advantage of institutional repositories, as well as open-access publishers.” Much of this advice echoes that given to a beginning blogger–to make an impact, make your stuff freely available and participate in the community.

Coming up in the third and final post: virtual reality, the database as genre, social networking, green digital humanities (?), and statistics on the number of delicious bookmarks and blog citations of the articles and web sites mentioned in this series of posts.

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One response to “Digital Humanities in 2007 [Part 2 of 3]

  1. Pingback: Tapera » Digital Humanidades en el 2007 [parte 2]

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