Using Digital Primary Resources to Produce Scholarship in Print


John Unsworth

The questions this paper seeks to raise, and that I hope to discuss with you, are these:

What new opportunities for traditional scholarship have been created by the conversion of primary resources to digital form, or by the creation of new, born-digital resources, or by the availability of tools designed to be used with these digital materials? Do digital resources make possible new answers to old research questions? Do they make possible entirely new kinds of research questions? Do they open the way for new paradigms of humanities research?  And can they do all these things in print?

That last question might seem somewhat retrograde, especially in the context of a panel on "Literary Studies in Cyberspace," but I think it's an important question to ask--because, no matter what happens in cyberspace, scholarship and criticism will continue to be published in print, at least for the forseeable future, and because it is at least possible, given the slow pace and incremental nature of institutional change, that the most important near-term effect of "literary studies in cyberspace" might actually be a change in literary studies in print.

In addressing my opening questions, I will give a few examples of a range of digital primary resources relevant to humanities research--from rare materials, to material and popular culture, to electronic journals and scholarly editions, to tools for comparison and analysis--and then consider what difference, if any, these make for the practice of humanities scholarship in print. But first, I want to unpack the emphasis on digital primary resources, distinguishing these from digital secondary resources, and noting that most digital primary resources are digitized from physical objects, but lumping them together, nonetheless, with the smaller number of born-digital resources.

What are "digital primary resources" (and what is their value)?

At present, any scholarship involves the use of some digital resources--for example, a library catalogue like the University of Virginia's OPAC (or online catalogue system), called Virgo. Furthermore, certain resources you might find through Virgo, in the course of your research, might themselves be available (for example, under the "internet" button in this page of search results) as full-text electronic resources--for example, New Literary History, through Project Muse, at Johns Hopkins University Press.

But unless the subject of your research is scholarly publishing, New Literary History is probably a secondary resource. There are, of course, primary resources in digital form on the web, too--for example, the Renaissance Texts from Perseus, where you could find a text-and-image digital version of Antony and Cleopatra, from the Brandeis First Folio, along with secondary resources like C.T. Onions, A Shakespeare Glossary. You could go and see the Brandeis First Folio, of course (time, funds, and the archivist permitting), and you could find "A Shakespeare Glossary" on the shelf in the reference room your own university library, so perhaps these digital resources, primary and secondary, are are only significant as conveniences.

But surely there is more than convenience value to born-digital resources--those things that no longer exist in another form (for example, reconstructions like IATH's computer model of  The Crystal Palace or the recreated Prokudin-Gorskii color photos from pre-revolutionary Russia), or those things that never existed in another form, like digital art, simulations, etc..

In fact, although individual objects of our attention might be categorized as digital or analog, scholarship itself now operates on a continuum where all everything falls somewhere between those two points, and almost nothing is completely non-digital or completely non-analog.

What new opportunities for scholarship are presented by the existence of digital primary resources?

So, back to the original question: what new opportunities for scholarship are presented by the existence of digital primary resources? Our habits of research in the humanities, and particularly in literary study, can be affected--sometimes renovated, sometimes mooted--by several kinds of novelty:

New materials for research

Digital primary resources are already quite interesting in the first way--the digitization of cultural heritage materials in the US and elsewhere has made many rare materials much more available, and has brought new attention to many underutilized materials as well--for example, rare historical maps, or diaries of daily life in earlier times (e.g., "California as I saw it"). There are many in my home department at the University of Virginia who have embarked on digital research projects in the past ten years and have faced the problem of having to create their own digital primary resources first, in order to do enable scholarship, but that situation is really changing now--not everything (by a very long shot) is available in digital form, but there are now some substantial collections of primary materials that were, in their predigital form, difficult to find, difficult to get to, or difficult to use. These collections offer valuable new materials for research--usually not because those materials were never available before, but rather because the expense and impracticality of consulting them made it extremely unlikely that research would be done on them. In this category--new materials for research--I would put The Making of America ("a digital library of primary sources in American social history from the antebellum period through reconstruction. The collection currently contains approximately 8,500 books and 50,000 journal articles with 19th century imprints") and the Library of Congress's American Memory project ("a gateway to rich primary source materials relating to the history and culture of the United States. The site offers more than 7 million digital items from more than 100 historical collections").  All of this opens new possibilities for archival research projects, especially for graduate students, who may lack travel budgets. In fact, when we consider the enormous investments that have been required to make these collections of digital primary resources available, it is a little odd that there is not a prize or some other incentive program associated with the collections, to reward researchers for taking the risk, taking the plunge, and demonstrating the usefulness of these newly digital, web-accessible, previously ignored or underused materials.

New perspectives on familiar materials

New perspectives on familiar materials are also available, as a result of the creation of digital primary resources. As an example here, I would offer The William Blake Archive, which presents full-color images, newly transcribed texts, and editorial description and commentary, on all of Blake's illuminated books, with non-illuminated materials (manuscript materials, individual plates and paintings, commercial engravings, etc.) now coming on line. The Blake Archive makes it practical to approach Blake as a visual artist, by the simple fact of the economics of image reproduction on the web, and this is a fundamental change from the way I was introduced to Blake, through Erdman's text-only synthetic edition (which is also, by the way, available on the site). Other examples of this sort might include Peter Robinson's SGML and facsimile edition of all the manuscript witnesses to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, or, at the other end of the chronological scale, Bob Kolker's book-plus-CD-ROM Film, Form, and Culture, which uses digital media to decompose the process of film-making into its constituent elements, along with commentary and critical apparatus.

Certainly, each of these offers new ways of teaching familiar material; arguably, in exactly the same way, each opens new avenues of research, or at least lowers the barriers to a research methodology that is based on close examination of primary resources. In literary studies, that would indeed be a significant shift from the emphasis, over the last twenty years, on theoretical investigations in which the primary resource--if it was present at all--was treated as an abstraction, without a particular embodiment and provenance. In short, these new digital presentations of primary resources might bring scholarship and criticism back into the archives, and bring archival research back into scholarship and criticism.

New methods or tools

To return to the example of the Blake Archive, we can see here some good examples of new kinds of tools that could provoke new scholarship in print. Used in conjunction with the newly accessible digital primary resources, the plate comparison tool might provide new answers to old research questions, and the image search tool might enable us to ask entirely new kinds of questions, ones that we wouldn't have formulated in the pre-digital environment because the difficulty of answering them would have been too great.

Finally, some new possiblities for print scholarship are presented by born-digital information and the tools one uses with that information—to take just one example, consider geographic information systems. The recently published Past Time, Past Place: GIS for History includes contributions from scholars in history, religious studies, and other humanities disciplines, all of which exhibit the new modes of analysis and argument, and new kinds of conclusions available as a result of computer techniques that map all kinds of social information onto geographic space.  Surely, these same demographic tools and techniques can be applied in literary-historical research: in fact, the chair of my own department, Michael Levenson, has taken some steps in that direction in his Victorian London project), and certainly there are other applications for GIS, beyond the demographic, in literary criticism (think of Faulkner’s geography, for example), in bibliography (articles have already been written mapping the evolution of print technology), and in cultural studies (where--paradoxically, for this discussion--GIS might offer a way to cut the Gordian knot of copyright restriction on primary sources that so severely inhibits digital research on 20th-century materials, by allowing us to work around the text in interesting ways).

Other tools and techniques are also available—electronic scholarly editions (like Dug Duggan’s Piers Plowman or Jerome McGann’s Rossetti Archive) enable new kinds of literary criticism; text-analysis tools, though still clumsy and offputting for the layman, are turning a corner with the advent of XML, and we can expect interesting things here in the next few years; and spatial modeling of textual features (as, for example, in Deborah Parker’s interactive 3D model of Dante’s Inferno or Bradford Paley's TextArc) suggests all sorts of possibilities for the discovery of patterns of almost any sort in literary texts.  All of these resources and methods can and should be part of the future of literary study—even if, in that future, we choose to publish the results of our studies in print.