Reassignment project: Early Modern Digital Agendas (presentation)

reassignment project: emdaPresentation given November 12, 2013 at LaGuardia Community College as part of the Grace-Ellen McCrann Memorial Lecture, sponsored by LACUNY.

The theme of the lecture, which featured four other CUNY librarians, focused on the research we did with professional reassignment time. As librarians and CUNY faculty, we are entitled to five weeks of reassignment time per year to relieve us of our librarianly duties while we pursue research projects. I felt very lucky to be able to attend Early Modern Digital Agendas and was happy to share some of the highlights of the three weeks I spent at the Folger.

Slides (PDF, 2 MB)

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Presentation outline:

  • What’s EMDA?
  • Curriculum highlights
    • Critical approaches to digital tools
    • Frictionless digital environments
    • Addressable digital environments
    • The million-volume view
  • What’s next?

Notes:

I had the good fortune to attend Early Modern Digital Agendas (EMDA), a three-week research institute held at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, in July 2013. The program “explored the robust set of digital tools with period-specific challenges and limitations [available to] early modern literary scholars of English” (emdigitalagendas.folger.edu). I was one of 20 scholars who had the chance to participate in daily discussions and workshops led by rotating all-star visiting faculty. The program, as I explained to my friends, was the summer camp of all my wildest dreams come true. If this were a Venn diagram of Shakespeare geeks and technology nerds, EMDA would be squarely—jubilantly—in the middle.

The program was sponsored by a NEH grant for Institutes for Advanced Topics in the Digital Humanities. As an instructor at CUNY, I obtained professional reassignment time to attend. I found it very worth my time and travel.

The institute was an incredible opportunity for budding and veteran scholars to explore digital humanities projects, trends, and methods with likeminded researchers. That is what I expected. But I did not foresee how much I would value the long period of time we had been granted to meditate carefully on digital issues. Here, I don’t mean project management tips, but rather a deeply critical look at what it means to build something digital, the political implications of scholarly projects, the fore- and afterlives of digital endeavors, and the long history and future of textual remediations.

One topic that struck me during our discussions was the idea of the library as a folded space, as proposed by Michael Witmore, the Director of the Folger. We can’t see all of the texts at once in the physical library, because we have folded them into a manageable size—otherwise the surface area of the pages would cover miles of land. Similarly, the folding-in of a library’s online book images creates a condensing of a user’s experience of digital collections. What one looks for online is folded—hidden—under the search box. But even in physical collections, looking down the long shelves of heavy books lends a weightiness and depth to the patron’s experience of the collection. We don’t have an equivalent way of representing large collections online, of feeling the mass of a thick scanned volume or seeing the far-off edges of what we can access. It is a question of scope: digitally, we should be able to get a 30,000-mile view and a 30-nanometer view of digital collections online. But at this point, the most we can usually do for online libraries is to cite numbers (e.g., 500,000 ebooks!) and list hundreds of facets as access points. I believe the best example of providing macro- and micro-representation of a large online collection is the beautiful visualization of the Historical Thesaurus of the English Language, presented at EMDA by its personable creator, Marc Alexander. Talking through his data and visualization decisions was very useful for me, both as creative inspiration and practical consideration—the John Jay Library is building its Digital Collections site, to be launched in spring 2014.

I’m an emerging technologies librarian, and I like to make and build things as quickly and easily as I can. But increasingly, I see part of my charge to be critiquing the technological systems I (we) rely on daily—and those I build for others. Fellow faculty, especially fellow technologists, I encourage you to find the time to pause and critique, too.

See Amy Ballmer’s write-up of my presentation on LACUNY News »

My notes were also published in an abbreviated form in Lloyd Sealy Library’s Classified Information biannual newsletter, fall 2013 (PDF).

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