Tool or Topic?


Which comes first: tool or topic? This question has loomed large over our first week of methodology workshops. As I see it, the work we did followed two distinct strands this week:

1.) The craft of archival research: how to ask researchable questions of archival materials, how to navigate collections and databases, how to be imaginative and far-reaching in our research and question-forming practices.

2.) The (wild) world of digital methodologies: how to use and navigate digital tools, how to evaluate digital scholarship, how to assess which tools might be useful and which less so given a research question/data set.

Currently, these still feel like two fairly separate tracks—we jump into a digital methodology workshop for a few hours here, spend a few hours deciphering nineteenth century correspondences there—but soon, very soon, we’re going to have to weave the work we’re doing on both fronts into one (hopefully) coherent, insightful work of scholarship. I return, then, to my first question—which comes first, tool or topic? I’m still not sure.

Dramatic renditioning of me in the archives, puzzling over all the possible ways I might formulate a research question... (Albrecht Dürer's 1514 engraving "Melencolia I")
Dramatic renditioning of me in the archives, puzzling over all the possible ways I might formulate a research question…
(Albrecht Dürer’s 1514 engraving “Melencolia I”)

Trevor Owens’s blog post “Where to Start? On Research Questions in the Digital Humanities” provides some comfort in the face of this uncertainty. Owens’s characterization of DH research as an exploratory process, with many potential starting points depending on a project’s objectives, speaks to how I’ve felt over the past few days, as I’ve begun to get a better sense of what is (and is not) possible given our research collections, tool access, and collective skill set. 

In the past, when I’ve approached a major research project, I’ve done so with a particular set of images or objects in mind…my art historical brain is drawn first to the visual or material subject matter, from which my research questions inevitably develop and multiply. Here, instead, I find myself drawn to more vast groups of materials, and to content and questions that I wouldn’t usually tackle with my toolbox of traditional humanities scholarship methods.

A recent idea I had comes to mind: the Archives and Special Collections at Amherst has preserved the volumes that comprised original library of the college, and to this day, they remain together in the special collections stacks. The archives also houses the library catalogues of the two early literary societies, which were hugely popular amongst students in the early years of the college. Especially as a few of us are interested in considering student-directed learning vs. faculty-directed learning practices in this early period, I think that comparing the types of books students were collecting versus the types of books the faculty were collecting could be particularly illuminating, and perhaps would be a good candidate for some kind of data visualization technique…

However, we still have so much more to learn, and I can’t be sure where a new batch of tools and methods might direct my thinking next week…  Either way, though, I’m learning to embrace the uncertainty and the interplay between our tool-motivated ideas and our topic-motivated ideas going forward.

4 thoughts on “Tool or Topic?”

  1. I too have been thinking a lot about the “uncertainty and interplay” between tool and topic. It is quite possible, like you suggest, that we’re at too early a stage to truly reconcile the two– only more exploration will help us reconcile the two.

    And, yes, I love the idea of comparing the library contents! It is, perhaps, a sizable undertaking, but one to which I’d be more than willing to contribute.

  2. Emma – You have such an interesting visual approach to tackling research given your background in art history. I like how you recognize that an alternative approach, however, may be more fitting as directed by the nature of your interest in looking at early student and faculty libraries. I look forward to seeing what your research yields!

  3. I just have to say–I really appreciate your inclusion of the Dürer engraving, and chaos felt within it has often led me to compare it with myself as I sit surrounded by ideas, books, papers, questions, and confusions!

    Your “book collection” project ideas sounds wonderful! I can’t even imagine how many new discoveries and inferences we would be able to make about the history of Amherst College, its people, and things like the social, political, and cultural climates of Amherst (or even the Eastern U.S.) of the time. Yay books!

  4. love the engraving and its caption! I’m going to think of this as I do my pre-digitization assessments down in archives and think about how to describe All The Things

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