Using Digital Primary Resources to Produce Scholarship in Print


John Unsworth

delivered as part of "The Future of Literary Studies," a conference of the English Department at the University of Virginia, April 5-6, 2002.

The questions this paper seeks to raise, with not enough time to answer, are these:

What new opportunities for traditional scholarship have been created by the conversion of primary resources to digital form, or by the creation of new, born-digital resources, or by the availability of tools designed to be used with these digital materials? Do digital resources make possible new answers to old research questions? Do they make possible entirely new kinds of research questions? Do they open the way for new paradigms of humanities research?  And can they do all these things in print?

I will give a few examples of a range of digital primary resources relevant to humanities research--from rare materials, to material and popular culture, to electronic journals and scholarly editions, to tools for comparison and analysis--and then consider what difference, if any, these make for the practice of humanities scholarship in print.

First, though, I want to unpack the emphasis on digital primary resources, distinguishing these from digital secondary resources, and noting that most digital primary resources are digitized from physical objects, but lumping them together, nonetheless, with the smaller number of born-digital resources. At present, any scholarship involves the use of some digital resources--for example, a library catalogue like Virgo. Furthermore, certain resources you might find through Virgo, in the course of your research, might themselves be available (under that "internet" button) as full-text electronic resources--for example, New Literary History, through Project Muse, at Johns Hopkins University Press. But unless the subject of your research is scholarly publishing, New Literary History is probably a secondary resource. There are, of course, primary resources in digital form on the web, too--for example, the Renaissance Texts from Perseus, where you could find a text-and-image digital version of Antony and Cleopatra, from the Brandeis First Folio, along with secondary resources like C.T. Onions, A Shakespeare Glossary. You could go and see the Brandeis First Folio, of course, and you could find "A Shakespeare Glossary" on the shelf in the reference room in Alderman (or in the 30-day stacks in Clemons). That's not the case with born-digital resources--things that don't now exist in another form (for example, reconstructions like the the computer model of  The Crystal Palace or the recreated Prokudin-Gorskii color photos from pre-revolutionary Russia), or things that never existed in another form, like digital art, simulations, etc..

In fact, although individual objects of our attention might be categorized as digital or analog, scholarship itself is now a continuum, in which all activity falls somewhere between those two points, and almost nothing is completely non-digital, or non-analog.

So, back to the original question: what new opportunities for scholarship are presented by the existence of digital primary resources? Our habits of research in the humanities, and particularly in literary study, can be affected--sometimes renovated, sometimes mooted--by several kinds of novelty:

Digital primary resources are already quite interesting in the first way--the digitization of cultural heritage materials in the US and elsewhere has made much more available many rare materials, and many underutilized materials as well--for example, rare historical maps, or diaries of daily life in earlier times (e.g., "California as I saw it"). There are many in this department who have embarked on digital research projects in the past ten years and have faced the problem of having to create their own digital primary resources first, in order to do enable scholarship, but that situation is really changing now--not everything (by a very long shot) is available in digital form, but there are now some substantial collections of primary materials that were, in their predigital form, difficult to find, difficult to get to, or difficult to use. These collections offer valuable new materials for research--usually not because those materials were never available before, but rather because the expense and impracticality of consulting them made it extremely unlikely that research would be done on them. In this category--new materials for research--I would put The Making of America ("a digital library of primary sources in American social history from the antebellum period through reconstruction. The collection currently contains approximately 8,500 books and 50,000 journal articles with 19th century imprints") and the Library of Congress's American Memory project ("a gateway to rich primary source materials relating to the history and culture of the United States. The site offers more than 7 million digital items from more than 100 historical collections").  All of this opens new possibilities for archival research projects, especially for graduate students, who may lack travel budgets.

New perspectives on familiar materials are also available, as a result of the creation of digital primary resources. As an example here, I would offer The William Blake Archive, which presents full-color images, newly transcribed texts, and editorial description and commentary, on all of Blake's illuminated books, with non-illuminated materials (manuscript materials, individual plates and paintings, commercial engravings, etc.) now coming on line. The Blake Archive makes it practical to teach Blake as a visual artist, by the simple fact of the economics of image reproduction on the web, and this is a fundamental change from the way I was taught Blake, through Erdman's text-only synthetic edition (which is also, by the way, available on the site). The Blake Archive also offers some good examples of new tools that could provoke new scholarship in print--for example, the image search and plate comparison features.

Finally, some new possiblities for print scholarship are presented by born-digital information and the tools one uses with that information—for example, geographic information systems. See the just-published Past Time, Past Place: GIS for History, which includes contributions from some of our colleagues in neighboring departments, history and religious studies, and which concerns the new modes of analysis, new arguments, and new conclusions available as a result of computer techniques that map all kinds of social information onto geographic space.  Surely, these same tools and techniques can be applied in literary-historical research (and in fact, Michael Levenson has taken some steps in that direction in his Victorian London project), in literary criticism (I hear rumors that Steve Railton has a new project involving Faulkner’s geography), in bibliography and in cultural studies.  Other tools and techniques are also available—electronic scholarly editions (like Dug Duggan’s Piers Plowman or Jerome McGann’s Rossetti Archive) enable new kinds of literary criticism; text-analysis tools, though still clumsy and offputting for the layman, are turning a corner with the advent of XML, and we can expect interesting things here in the next few years; and spatial modeling of textual features (as, for example, in Deborah Parker’s interactive 3D model of Dante’s Inferno) suggests all sorts of possibilities for the discovery of patterns of almost any sort in literary texts.  All of these resources and methods can and should be part of the future of literary study—even if, in that future, we choose to publish the results of our studies in print.