The C Word

It’s my first week or so as an intern with the digital scholarship program and I’m already confused. And it’s not just because I’m still learning how digitization software works, or what exactly that mysterious word metadata means, or even how I’m supposed to answer the question what is the digital humanities? Maybe more so than confused, I’m conflicted. I’m conflicted because of the position that I’m in, at the time that I’m in it.

Word cloud of digital scholarship terms


I should probably back up for a second to say that I love archives. I really love working in them, the experience of doing archival research, the idea of archives (yes, we need that old piece of envelope because Emily Dickinson wrote a note to herself about a poem on it). Even the physical space of an archive is great, isn’t it? It’s quiet, well lit space with little pieces of history in a box.

I’m also into technology, specifically as it relates to its current and potential applications for scholarly work. I’m excited about this internship because there is so much technical know-how that goes into making a digital project and the fun of it is being able to produce something, to see the effort and applied knowledge come to fruition.

I think that digital projects like what the program’s working on is especially interesting for the same reason that digital humanities in general is, to me at least. It’s all about collaboration, communication, connection. Digital scholarship projects are to me portals to a vast wealth of information, information that for many people was previously inaccessible or otherwise unknown. And when the digital tools open these archival or scholarly sources up, the potential for and access to knowledge grows exponentially.

So then, why am I conflicted, you ask? It’s because I see the digital and the humanities (broadly) as having the potential for a wonderfully symbiotic relationship and an entirely incompatible one. I just wrote some of what I think digital humanities and archives have going for them.

At the same time, when the digital world and the archival world collide for example, I feel like something might be lost when you start to put the pieces back together to make something new. I guess I’m talking about the emotional or intellectual experience of discovery that comes from visiting a physical library or archival collection. To be clear, I’ve had the privilege of an education that’s allowed me to visit and spend a good amount of time in those environments, I’m talking about getting funding and support for weeks of archival research.  I mention this because I realize this is a privilege that many people won’t have.  And on the one hand, that’s what I feel the digital humanities has the potential to improve, to make things more accessible to more people and to make different things accessible to more people.

And yet what I also hope would be more accessible to people is that sense of exploration that I’ve enjoyed and been inspired by. This is because, in a way, exploration of a physical archive as I’ve described it and something like a digital archive are counter to each other. The best webpages bring the information to you as quickly and easily as possible. That’s partially what we mean by accessibility. Generally, you don’t want to spend two hours on a digital archive site trying to find the right document you need. And if an online archive does make it take that long, then it’s the worst digital archive ever.

And so my concern is that as more and more work is done to bring the digital into archives and the humanities, the more I might feel we could be replacing that sense of exploration with the need to get information quickly. In a way, I feel like I’m going to sound like the stereotypical old person- Back in my day, you had to go to the library to see the archives you wanted, and you got to touch a lot of the stuff too! And like a stereotypical old person, I’m starting to ramble- At the end of this, I’m left with some questions, ones that hopefully I’ll begin to be able to answer this semester.

How do you make digital archives and collections more than a replacement for physical collections?

How do you capture the experience of exploration on screen in a natural way yet intuitive way?

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