CCR 633: Archives, Scribes, and History

Doing readings that draw from history, particularly history connected to literacy, always makes me more reflective about my own practices and assumptions.

In Trithimius’ “In Praise of Scribes,” he comments that parchment lasts longer than paper (35), that copying is a form of manual labor (49), that one who cannot write should still read (85), that books should be protected (93), and that the copyist gets some level of longevity and fame beyond the author alone (97). Many of these are things that I don’t really think about as my current print/writing culture differs.

As a teacher and scholar, I often glibly talk about literacy, particularly drawing from the idea of multi-literacies from the New London Group: the role of circulating languages, shifting modalities, new genres and materials, etc. I often get stuck in a contemporary tunnel-vision and forget the socio-technical systems that underscore literacy.

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Reading without Principle

Along the banks of the Allegheny River on a tepid September day in 2009, a college freshman decided to read the complete works of Henry David Thoreau.

Needless to say, he never reached his goal.

Reading the entire corpus of an author is pretty difficult. Not only for the sheer volume it contains, but also for the access it requires, with some books relegated to expensive collections. It’s also a question of utility: Why read an entire author’s oeuvre, when you’ll probably forget most of it?

But in digital humanities, the use of technology allows a range of new practices–new “reading” and analysis–that makes this act a little more feasible. Franco Morretti’s “distant reading,” for example, can allow a scholar to sift through millions of texts, using different data-driven lenses to pry out patterns.

And while this ability to access large swaths of text is helpful in itself, technology can play with texts in other ways, highlighting certain words, collecting certain patterns, making visualizations. As Tanya Clemens points out, such methodologies “defamiliarize texts, making them unrecognizable in a way (putting them at a distance) that helps scholars identify features they might not otherwise have seen.” This defamiliarizing lies at the heart of literary scholarship, finding new ways to understand texts.

But for now, I want to get back to my freshman self, sitting on the riverbank, reading an old library book of Thoreau.

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Archive, bro

I’m still a newbie to the world of digital humanities (DH), gradually wading into its tide of terms and tensions. At this stage, as I stand ankle-deep, I couldn’t help but think that some of the contention surrounding terms like “archive” come from the many uses it has.

As Trevor Owens points out, the word itself is already stretched and multivalent, ranging from tape decks on a bottom shelf to a specific philosophy of preservation and presentation, a philosophy that Kate Theimer explains eloquently.

But even more directly in the realm of DH scholarship and work, “archive” serves multiple meanings and plays off similar terms, like “database” or “collection” in different ways. More generally, it seems to serves as both repository and tool. In other words, it is a place to  preserve texts and contexts, drawing from a variety of sources, like the Walt Whitman Archive, but it also must present this information through coding, interfaces, and an effective use of metadata.

In particular, the potential that this presentation allows distinguishes DH archives from more traditional archives, in that it brings in both human and nonhuman participants into rather intimate, hybrid contact. Done effectively, it echoes the sort of “ice-skater’s dance” that Alan Liu describes in “The Meaning of the Digital Humanities,” in which human and machine can co-construct and co-discover knowledge  together. But done poorly, a digital archive is rather like a grandparent’s attic, filled with a wealth of fascinating odds and ends, but buried and scattered.

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