Creating Digital Resources: the Work of Many Hands

John Unsworth

Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities

Delivered at Digital Resources for the Humanities, September 14th, 1997, Oxford, England

This panel brings together representatives of several large, collaborative humanities computing projects, for a discussion of their experiences in creating digital resources. The projects range in disciplinary focus from British and American literature to architecture, and the collaborations involved have been both on-site and networked.

The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia is home to the projects represented here, though most of the panelists are networked fellows of the Institute; after an introduction to the participants and the subject of collaboration, each panelist will briefly describe his or her project, with particular attention to the collaborative aspects of digital resource development, and will summarize the experience of collaboration in that project. Each of these segments will run not more than fifteen minutes, leaving at least half an hour for a larger discussion with the audience.

Representing the Blake Archive, Morris Eaves, Chair of the English Department, University of Rochester, New York. The Blake Archive is a three-year project funded by the Getty Fund, Sun Microsystems, and Inso Corporation, and it aims to produce electronic editions of all of William Blake's illuminated books, and many of his other works, in facsimile images and SGML.

Representing the Design Resources Center, Ken Schwartz, professor and former Chair of the Department of Architecture at the University of Virginia. The Design Resources Center is collecting and digitizing historical, architectural, and urban-design resources that will serve as the basis for a collaborative design process involving citizens, developers, and public officials in Charlottesville.

Representing the Dickinson Electronic Archive, Martha Nell Smith, Dept. of English, University of Maryland. The Dickinson Archive is the project of the Dickinson Editing Collective, and it aims to completely re-edit all of Emily Dickinson's writings outside her fascicles (or manuscript books)--i.e., poems, letters, letter-poems, as well as fair copies, drafts, and fragments found among her unbound sheets--in digital images and diplomatic transcriptions.

Representing the Walt Whitman Hypertext Archive, Ken Price, Dept. of English, College of William and Mary. The overall goal of the Whitman Archive is to collect, digitize, transcribe, encode, and present in a hypertext environment all aspects of Whitman's work and a rich array of contextual material as well. Ed Folsom (University of Iowa) co-directs the project with Ken Price, and the project has recently received Federal funding, jointly with the Emily Dickinson Archive, to produce a Dickinson/Whitman educational CD and Web site.

A few words about collaboration:

The character of academic work in the humanities is already in the process of shifting from a cooperative to a collaborative model. In the cooperative model, the individual produces scholarship that refers to and draws on the work of other individuals. In the collaborative model, one works in conjunction with others, jointly producing scholarship that cannot be attributed to a single author. This will happen, and is already happening, because of computers and computer networks. Many of us already cooperate, on networked discussion groups and in private email, in the research of others: we answer questions, provide references for citations, engage in discussion. From here, it's a small step to collaboration, using those same channels as a way to overcome geographical dispersion, the difference in time zones, and the limitations of our own knowledge.

There is another reason, more compelling than the ease of communication, for predicting that computers will make us work collaboratively. Computers make it possible to pose questions, to frame research problems, that would otherwise be impossible to imagine. The computer provides us with the ability to keep track of enormous amounts of information, to sort and select that information rapidly and in many different ways, and to uncover in reams of mute data the aesthetically and intellectually apprehensible patterns on which understanding depends. But in order to take advantage of these capabilities, we first have to gather and structure the data: this requires collaboration of two sorts. First, because of the sheer size of the undertaking, it requires collaboration with colleagues in one's discipline: it takes many hands to assemble the enormous quantities of raw data on which this kind of research depends. Second, it requires collaboration with professionals of another sort, namely computer professionals. It may be the case, at some point in the utopian future, that computers will understand people; for now, we need to do this work in conjunction with people who understand computers, and who can help us to make them do what we want them to.

Collaboration may well make us uncomfortable, since it implies dependence on others and the consequent loss of autonomy. In exchange, though, we get a vastly expanded territory of intellectual inquiry: instead of concentrating on major events, historians can examine and compare the lives of individuals; instead of establishing a single text, editors can present the whole layered history of composition and dissemination; instead of opening for the reader a single path through a thicket of text, the critic can provide her with a map and a machete. This is not an abdication of the responsibility to educate or illuminate: on the contrary, it engages the reader, the user, as a third kind of collaborator, a collaborator in the construction of meaning. This third kind of collaboration is, I want to emphasize, a game with a net: the reader's participation is bounded by the perspective of the researchers and the availability of information; the result can be an understanding of the practice of the discipline, on the part of the reader, that is experiential rather than received; it can also be a conclusion unforseen by the researchers yet supported by the data. I'd go even further and argue that it is our responsibility, not only to provide the opportunity for this kind of collaboration in our research, but to teach our students to work collaboratively with one another in our classes: this will be the way they work when they leave the university, even if they enter our profession.

Copyright 1997 by John Unsworth, all rights reserved
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