Online Humanities Scholarship: The Shape of Things to Come

In March 2010 a distinguished group of people involved in digital humanities gathered in Charlottesville to review the state of the field and to look ahead to future prospects. The conference, entitled “Online Humanities Scholarship: The Shape of Things to Come,” was funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which has given generous support to many of the major online humanities projects of the last two decades.

It was organized by Professor Jerome McGann, John Stewart Bryan Professor of English at the University of Virginia and creator of the Rossetti Archive, one of the earliest projects to show the promise of online humanities scholarship.  Jennifer Howard reported on the conference in the April 4, 2010 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, “New Forms of Scholarship in a Digital World Challenge the Humanities."

For those interested in the full proceedings, Rice University Press has published the conference papers and formal responses via online open access and print on demand (http://rup.rice.edu/shapeofthings).  A court reporter was present to take down the discussion, and these informal remarks will be included later in the free online version of the publication.  A sign of the times, several people in the audience were tweeting about the papers as they were being given, inviting comments from interested observers.  These tweets may also be included in the online version.

Nine people were invited to give presentations on their Mellon-funded digital projects to a group that included senior Mellon Foundation officers, representatives of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, scholars from humanities disciplines, information technology experts, librarians, and publishers.  I was asked to speak about Virginia’s experience with establishing our digital imprint, Rotunda, which publishes original digital projects and develops digital versions of some of the great documentary editions published by university presses. A few others from AAUP member presses were in attendance (Frank Smith, Cambridge; Fred Moody, Rice; David Nicholls, Modern Language Association; and Wendy Queen, Johns Hopkins).  Paul Courant of the University of Michigan and Mike Keller of Stanford, who both have dual responsibilities as University Librarian and Publisher of their university presses, responded to my paper and reflected on the issue of perpetual stewardship and who should have responsibility for the preservation of digital projects. Of all the papers at the conference, I expect the presentations of most interest to AAUP members will be those by Robert Darnton, Paul Courant, and Mike Keller, as well as Chuck Henry’s reflections on what would be needed for university presses to work together to adopt a common digital platform for scholarly publications.

Most of the major digital humanities projects of the last two decades have been developed without  participation by traditional scholarly publishers and have been supported by grant funding, university digital humanities centers, and a great deal of effort on the part of faculty and students. Various ways to sustain digital projects have been carefully examined in a November 2009 Ithaka report, “Sustaining Digital  Resources,” but the issue of sustainability inevitably recurred here. McGann titled his introduction, “Sustainability: The Elephant in the Room.” (“Love will find a way,” as one of the participants said). Many of the projects presented have become crucial tools for their disciplines, such as Greg Nagy’s Homer Multi-Text Project, Roger Bagnall’s Integrating Digital Papyrology, and Kenneth Price’s The Walt Whitman Archive. Other more recent projects use digital tools for a fresh look at familiar materials, such as Alison Muri’s The Grub Street Project. Alan Burdette’s EVIA Digital Archive Project sets out to annotate ethnographic field video created by scholars as part of their research, using contemporary tools to address the problem of organizing and preserving several decades of audiovisual documentation that is “now in danger of being lost forever.”

Kenneth Price, current president of the Association for Documentary Editing, discussed an idea for a Civil War Washington project that had grown out of his team’s work on the Whitman Archive. He writes, “More than most types of humanistic scholarship, editing has been significantly altered by the digital turn, though perhaps even editing has not been sufficiently altered. The monumental scholarly edition, our marvelous inheritance from print culture, still tends to focus on individual figures.”  He advocates “topic-based approaches that employ a tightly integrated combination of editing, collecting, interpreting, and tool building. We might even end up producing scholarship that could restore the standing of editing in English and History departments, whose faculty, paradoxically, often use and admire scholarly editions even while they are unwilling to hire, tenure, or promote a scholar who produces that work.”

The published report will give links to the nine featured projects as well as some that were developed by respondents.  Most of these projects could not have been published in print, and some take advantage of tools that were not available even six years ago.  My vote for the coolest project is Todd Presner’s Hyper Cities Project: Berlin and Los Angeles, developed at UCLA in collaboration with USC.  Some time ago the University of Chicago Press took a look at the possibility of publishing a historical atlas of Chicago showing the various townships with developments over time—could we do overlays, or would the atlas need to have dozens of repetitive spreads that a reader would flip through, looking for points of change?   We abandoned the idea as impossibly costly. Now the problem is imaginatively solved by the use of Google Maps and Google Earth.  The Hyper Cities Project uses these tools to provide historical layers of city spaces. UCLA has prepared a narration through time and place for Berlin and Los Angeles.  Other developers have been able to adapt the tools to add to the Hyper Cities collection.  Presner said that more than 90% of the material in the project is on external servers and was not originated by UCLA.

While much of the conference dealt with matters that are not on the current agenda of university presses, there was also much useful discussion that will give us some insight into the “shape of things to come.”

For more on digital humanities and scholarly publishing, check out plenary session “Digital Humanities is not an Oxymoron” at the AAUP Annual Meeting in Salt Lake City (Saturday, June 19, 1:45-3:00).

Penelope Kaiserlian
Director, University of Virginia Press