Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Economics and Cultural Encoding: Milena Dobreva and Medieval Slavic Manuscript Studies in Bulgaria

I have been writing my keynote, "DH Futures: Conflict, Power and Public Knowledge," for the upcoming CSDH/SCHN and ACH Conference in Ottawa and have been thinking about some of the key tensions within our current digital humanities moment. One of the crucial issues that I am discussing is the importance of thinking through dh within national and cultural contexts. While some have criticized digital humanities for a lack of awareness to this issue, there are pioneer digital humanists who have pushed the field to engage with such concerns since the 1990s.

Today I would like to highlight Milena Dobreva's presentation, "Overview of Computer Supported Medieval Slavic Manuscript Studies in Bulgaria," from the 1999 ACH-ALLC Digital Humanities conference. Dobreva is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Library Information and Archive Sciences at the University of Malta.

In her presentation abstract Dobreva points to the robust and rich heritage of medieval Slavic manuscripts, but bemoans the limitations hampering digitization efforts. Dobreva highlights two crucial issues with which we in digital humanities continue to struggle:

  1. Encoding standards that are narrow in cultural interpretation
  2. The inequitable funding of digitization projects, particularly in developing countries
Dobreva writes:

"The difficulties in creating widely accepted encoding standard are caused by several reasons:

  1. The sets of graphemes appearing in different manuscripts are different. In some cases the difference of graphemes represents character differences; in other cases these were variants of the same character. 
  2. The encoding of specific textual features (e.g. superscript, subscript, inscript letters and abbreviations) is still debatable. Some of the specialists insist on encoding normalized texts where all these features disappear. For others, the encoding of the text in a form, which represents the original as close as possible, is a must. But even if we have a satisfactory encoding standard, we will need to build tools enabling search within encoded texts. The 'normalization' approach leads to better solution of the problem with text search, paying the price of data loss" (Overview).
The flattening in the treatment of cultural materials leads to what Dobreva rightly calls "data loss," the loss of the robustness of such materials. While we have continually expanded our treatment of encoding Dobreva's 1999 argument remains relevant. How do we represent a complex cultural heritage within the binary of computer code?

Dobreva ends her abstract by noting, "Real digitization work [of Bulgarian manuscripts] is still not undertaken. This can be explained with the economic difficulties of the Bulgarian institutions working in the field of medieval manuscript heritage" (Overview). Unfortunately we have not found a way to resolve or even minimize the discrepancies in funding that drive certain cultural heritages to be underrepresented in digital collections. Dobreva's prescient concerns remain central to the work we must continue to undertake in digital humanities. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

History of the Native Web

I checked twitter this morning and saw this:

I'm so excited to see a scholar document important early digital work in Native studies. The first blog entry from Siobhan Senier is available:

 It is sad that many of these important digital projects are not being updated and that some were created by scholars who have since passed away. This is our current preservation conundrum. We really need to think about how to preserve this important early work.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Border Crossings, 1998

Border Crossings is a project that was launched in 1998 by Karla Tonella of the University of Iowa.

Described as a hypertext project, Border Crossings riffs off of Gloria Anzaldua's Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987). Collecting links to various webpages that highlight divergent contested borders under the subtopics of Cyborgs, Gender, LesBiGay, Diaspora, La Frontera, Border Incidents, and Other Borders, Tonella creates a digital political art piece.

The opening page highlights the various identities and concepts the project explores. As you move through the webpages, the web design and fonts interpret the categories.

La Frontera:


Border Incidents:

Each page collects a diverse and often contradictory list of identities: gender, sexuality, nation, geography, class, race, and ethnicity.

Tonella uses design and collection to interpret Anzaldua's claim of the impact of invisible borders on oppositional identities. By positioning links to German anti-immigrant Far Right Music against links to Music from Africa and the African diaspora, Tonella's work forces us to confront the dialectics that Anzaldua explores in Borderlands/La Frontera and her call for the new mestiza.

What strikes me as particularly interesting about Border Crossings is that never does Tonella provide a theoretical or methodological explanation of her work. Hers is an art piece digitally constructed with html and interface.  In some ways, this project is an early enactment of what in current digital humanities we talk about as the scholarship in the code. The argument formed by the interface and the construction of the webpage is related to the intellectual process of theorizing, or, as Ramsay and Rockwell note: “If the quality of the interventions that occur as a result of building are as interesting as those that are typically established through writing, then that activity is, for all intents and purposes, scholarship.” (1)

Certainly Tonella's Border Crossings is a crucial forerunner to current digital humanities work.

Unfortunately the project has come to the same end as many early dh projects:

1. Stephen Ramsay and Geoffrey Rockwell, “Developing Things:  Notes Toward an Epistemology of Building in the Digital Humanities,” in Debates in the Digital Humanities, ed. Matthew K. Gold (U Minnesota P, 2011) 75-84, 83.

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Online Archive of Nineteenth-Century U.S. Women's Writings

Glynis Carr’s The Online Archive of Nineteenth-Century U.S. Women’s Writing, constructed from 1997-2001, is an important early digital humanities and digital pedagogy project. Carefully edited to meet the standards of MLA's "Guidelines for Editors of Scholarly Editions," the project has been included within the MLA International Bibliography.

The archive includes texts from eight women writers: Lydia Maria Child, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Harriet Prescott Spofford, Sarah Orne Jewett, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Victoria Earle Matthews, Willa Cather, and Zitkala-Sa (Gertrude Bonnin). Some of these texts, such as Aunt Lindy by former slave Victoria Earle Matthews, are not available in any other digital format and have been out of print since their original publication.

Carr also includes three Zitkala-Sa articles that were published in The Atlantic Monthly. 

Carr's editing of Lydia Maria Child's stories, plays and poems originally published in The Liberty Bell remain our best contemporary edition. Some of the digital texts, such as "The Quadroons" and "Slavery's Pleasant Homes," are available as pieces of Stephen Railton's Uncle Tom's Cabin & American Culture, others, in the Emory Women Writers Resource Project. Some texts that Carr includes, such as "The Black Saxons," are reprinted in Carolyn Karcher's 1997 A Lydia Maria Child Reader (Duke UP). However, Carr adds texts unavailable in digital or print format including "Jan and Zaida" or "The Emancipated Slaveholders" as well as a gallery of Liberty Bell illustrations. 

The Online Archive of Nineteenth-Century U.S. Women's Writing is carefully edited, as documented by the Textual Notes and Editorial Practices statements. In fact, I would argue that Carr's digital project is as well edited as any university press published text and should remain our definitive edition of many of the included women writers'  works.

Glynis Carr produced the project with a small number of undergraduate students, without a digital humanities center or library support, and published the project on her personal faculty page at Bucknell University. Student contributors include Jon C. Adams, Kate Barmak, Courtney Curzi, Jacob H. Frechette, Katey Kuhns Castellano, Jennifer L. Ciotta, Kathy Davis, and Jacob H. Frechette.

Carr described the project "as a laboratory for teaching students at Bucknell University the principles and practices of textual editing. In addition to developing the familiar skills of literary research and criticism, students contributing to The Archive learn about the processes by which publishers prepare texts for readers and thus gained valuable professional skills, including some technological ones that normally make but a shadowy appearance in the literature curriculum" (Preface).  This description sounds very similar to how those of us who work with digital pedagogy projects describe our contemporary projects, a reminder of Carr's important position within digital humanities and digital pedagogy.

If you have additional information about The Online Archive of Nineteenth-Century U.S. Women's Writings, please let me know. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Digital Diversity 2015 Wrap Up

I am back from Edmonton, Canada and am still processing the Digital Diversity conference ( I want to thank Susan Brown and Kathryn Holland for putting together an amazing conference. I caught up with long time friends and made some great new ones. Susan organized a lunch time shoe shopping trip (my very first Fluevogs....). I had a great dinner at Wildflower. But the papers and the people.....

I've been a bit downhearted about the state of digital humanities over the last few years. There is infighting and continued attacks from the larger profession. I suppose we are not any different than any other academic field, but it is frustrating that people must spend their valuable time defending themselves rather than working. This conference and the attendees, though, made me feel hopeful.

I was reminded of the centrality of the early digital projects that grew out of women's literature and history including Orlando, The Women Writer's Project and the Dickinson Electronic Archive. The conference was launched to commemorate 20 years of the Orlando project, but the project is far from finished. I attended a pre-conference workshop titled Orlando 2.0: Diversifying Literary History Online led by Susan Brown, Isobel Grundy and Kathryn Holland. I was most impressed with the development of a system that allows  tags that overlap. In digital work we often run up against the limitations of technology in defining complex cultural materials. The Orlando approach to tags allows us to tag individuals in multiple ways. One might tag how an individual defines her race or ethnicity while also tagging how the same such categories were applied to the individual by, say, national organizations. This approach resists the binary of identification often found in technology systems.

The conference papers and keynotes highlighted the far ranging new work of digital humanities. From Wendy Hui Kyong Chun's "Post-Recovery: Shadowy Absences and 'Found Collectivity" to Moya Bailey's "#transform(ing)dh Writing and Research: An Autoethnography of Digital Humanities Feminist Ethics," from Whitney Peoples' "Whose Cartographies Do we Believe?" Mapping Women's Reproductive Health On and Off Line" to Jo-Ann Episkenew's "Indigenous Youths' Relational Wellbeing in the Digital Age," the amazing panel I chaired (which, as I tweeted, rocked), and many more papers, I am now confident that digital diversity work is growing and expanding.

At the end of the conference, organizers launched the Digital Diversity Timeline/Map.

The organizers are soliciting events to add to the timeline, so be sure you contribute your piece of digital diversity history:

Again, I thank the conference organizers. I left Edmonton feeling connected to a long history of diverse digital projects and hopeful for the future of the endeavor.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Day 2: Digital Diversity Conference

We are in the midst of day 2 of the Digital Diversity conference in Edmonton. Just a few observations about what is turning out to be one of the best conferences I have attended. Like ever. Thank you so much to the conference organizers. Thank you to all who are participating.

1. Women. White Women. This is one of the few conferences--dh or literature--that is overwhelmingly attended by women. 90% women. Yet it is also important to note that the attendees are primarily white women. It's like I am in a second wave feminist retreat. I say this not to blame anyone, but to make us think about what this means, how we can expand our community. Or maybe recenter our community?

2. We still have a long way to go. It is clear that there remain crucial issues in terms of gender/sexuality/race/class/etc. that we need to address. What makes me hopeful, in this conference, is that participants seem well aware that work on diversity issues must happen in and out of the academy. I also appreciate that the participants seem aware that issues in dh are really larger issues--of academia and society.

Be sure you are following along on twitter: #digdiv2015

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Current Diverse DH: Digital Diversity 2015 Conference

For the next few days I will be in Edmonton, Canada for the Digital Diversity 2015 conference. (Snow and a low of 28 degrees is predicted, so think happy thoughts. I've lived in Texas for more than 20 years and am not hardy....)

The conference celebrates crucial feminist work in digital humanities and is in honor of 20 years of the Orlando Project. I want to encourage you to follow along with the twitter hashtag #digdiv2015. 

The conference program reads like a who's who of those involved with early and current work of diverse dh. Susan Brown, Julia Flanders and Martha Nell Smith are presenting on their groundbreaking early projects Orlando, the Women Writer's Project, and the Dickinson Electronic Archives.

Keynotes will be given by Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, “Post-Recovery: Shadowy Absences and 'Found Collectivity'”), Marie-Louise Coolahan (“The Digital Turn and Early Modern Women’s Writing” and one of the founders of the Perdita project that I featured last week),  and Jo-Ann Episkenew (“Indigenous Youths' Relational Wellbeing in the Digital Era”).

I'm chairing a session on "Diverse Communities in Digital Studies" that features Constance Crompton, ("Researching Lesbian and Gay Liberation in Canada"), Alex Gil, ("Critical Reflections on GO::DH"), Padmini Ray Murray, ("Locating the digital humanities in India: internationalisation, globalisation and localisation" and Angel David Nieves, "Apartheid Heritage(s): Virtualizing the Apartheid Archive through 3D.

I'm looking forward to hearing amazing papers by Karen Bourrier ("Universal Design and Disability: Building a Digital Victorian Archive"), Elizabeth Maddock Dillon ("The Early Caribbean Digital Archive"), Aimée Morrison, University of Waterloo ("New media, same problems: marginalized voices online and off"),  Roopika Risam, Salem State University ("Subaltern Citizenship in/and Digital Humanities"), and Jacqueline Wernimont ("Staging Silences and Whispers in Literary History") among many, many others. 

Me? I'm giving a talk on “American literature digital and print canonicity: A data driven model." I'm arguing for a small scale data modeling approach that grounds the critique of digital humanities within historical practice.

I will be asking folks at the conference for suggestions about early dh work that I might feature on the blog. I'm particularly interested in locating projects outside of the North American/European matrix. I will be updating from the conference, so stay tuned! 

Monday, May 4, 2015

Before the Web: SASIALIT mailing list: Literature of South Asia and the Indian diaspora

In my forthcoming book, Traces of the Old, Uses of the New (Michigan), I trace the theoretical approaches from which current digital humanities emerged. A similar book could be written about the technologies from which digital humanities emerged, of which the LISTSERV is foundational. The mailing list provided a way to develop a community of scholarship, discuss issues pertinent to scholarship, and share resources. 

SASIALIT mailing list: Literature of South Asia and the Indian diaspora was originally launched at Rice University in 1996 and remains an active list. Prentiss Riddle, former webmaster of Rice University, managed the active list. I have not been able to locate the founders of the listserv, so if you know of those involved please comment below. 


The archives reveal that at the height of SASIALIT's use, the listserv users were exchanging hundreds of emails each month. Users were sharing articles and books, translating materials for circulation, and engaging in heated debate over scholarship and political issues. The listserv launched a reading circle, effectively a book of the month club, reading literature from Salman Rushdie, Bapsi Sidhwa, Jhumpa Lahiri, Raj Karmal Jha, and many others.  The discussions in the archive reveal users were actively engaged in shaping of the field of South Asia Literature.

While we often talk about projects or tools in contemporary digital humanities, we must remember that the use of the early listserv constitutes a foundational tool to our field. Many of the early listservs would go on to develop some sort of web presence, as did the SASIALIT who developed a hyperlinked list of materials:

Many of the early listservs have been replaced with other forms of digital communication, such as twitter and blogs, but the archives of such early lists provide a view into how scholarly communities began to use digital tools and of the important scholarship nurtured by the listserv.

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Perdita Project: Women's Manuscript Culture, Brought Digital

Thank you to Margaret Ezell for suggesting the Perdita Project, a project for which she served as an advisory board member.

Launched in 1997, The Perdita Project is a crucial early project that collects and documents "over two hundred and thirty manuscripts from 15 libraries and archives in the UK and North America" (Overview). The manuscripts are drawn from a microfilm collection of the British Isles and include "poetry, religious writing, autobiographical material, cookery and medical recipes, and accounts" (Project). One of several such groundbreaking early digital projects to examine women writers and manuscript culture, the Perdita Project was launched by Elizabeth Clarke and Martyn Bennett at Nottingham Trent University. Victoria Burke, Marie-Louise Coolahan, and John Ford were also founding participants in the project. Current editors of the project are Elizabeth Clarke, Jill S. Millman, Victoria Burke, and Jonathan Gibson.

Many of the early dh projects didn't construct archives of their work, which makes an accurate understanding of the history of digital humanities difficult. Our most valuable tool in constructing the history of this period is the Wayback Machine. Without Brewster Kahle and Bruce Gilliat, who launched the Wayback Machine in 1996, we would have a very scant record of the history of such early work. While incredibly useful, however, the Wayback Machine did not consistently store snapshots of every internet page (an impossible task, especially for a non-profit group working with a tiny budget and volunteer force). The first archived page from the Perdita Project is from January 30, 1998. Images are missing (see the blue ? boxes), as they were not archived.

The project coordinators originally viewed the digital project as a side piece of their larger database project. Jill Seal writes in 2000, "Our website as it stands is where we provide updated information about the project. It is not an internet service. The sample extracts (which are not full entries) provide text through HTML, without any search capacity. We will be redesigning the website early this year to include more of our research, publications, and links to other sites of interest" (Report).

The project has, accordingly, expanded over time. A later version of the project is housed at the University of Warwick where co-founder Elizabeth Clarke currently serves as Professor.

The current Perdita Project is published by Adam Matthew, a digital publisher, with the support of numerous participating libraries including the Beinecke, the British Library, and the Folger. The Adam Matthew version expands the original website with the inclusion of digital facsimiles of the manuscripts.

The funding mechanisms employed by the Perdita Project reveal how such an early project was able to negotiate financial challenges. Staunchly open source throughout its existence, the project was launched with three years of funding by Nottingham Trent University with the support of the Oxford University's Centre for Humanities Computing.  The project has received deep financial support through an A.H.R.B. Project Grant Award (1999-2001) and an AHRC Resource Enhancement Award (2003-2005). The decision to publish a for subscription, expanded project with Adam Matthew ensures project sustainability while allowing the project to maintain a separate access for all site, quite an accomplishment and fairly unique among such early digital humanities projects.