The Digital Archive and the Digital Textbook

The Valley of the Shadow got me thinking about the archival turn in the humanities, where concerns of cataloguing, preserving, and digitally marking-up texts represent the overarching questions being asked, and making information readily available – for free – is the primary agenda. Northeastern’s Women Writers Project and the Early Caribbean Digital Archive seek to do similar tasks. This kind of digital humanities work doesn’t communicate an argument about their subject matter, rather it emphasizes the role of play and encourages readers to chart their own narrative through the archive and look at aspects that are germane to their own specific interests. The digital publication in the case isn’t an argument or a theory, rather it is a curated space within which humanistic questions can be addressed and debated.

The issue that I have with this project is that it doesn’t have any curated exhibitions that guide the lay reader towards exciting and revelatory documents to showcase intriguing items in this archive. Furthermore, there aren’t any forums or blog sections in this website, where the scholarship arising from this archive is discussed. The archive exists on the internet completely devoid from the discourse that it has facilitated.

Dan Cohen’s article in Debates in the Digital Humanities represents a very different kind of digital academic publication, when compared to The Valley of the Shadow. I don’t think that this series deviates significantly from the traditional academic textbook or edited volume. The difference between an analogue book and Debates seems to be merely aesthetic. However, the biggest difference between this publication and its analogue ancestors is that Debates also encourages and records participation from its readers. In this sense, Debates in Digital Humanities is very similar to Amanda Visconti’s Infinite Ulysses project because both these projects share the impetus is to disseminate knowledge via digital platforms and encourage readers to markup the text and engage in a social reading process, where everybody can read each other’s comments and collectively learn more about the text.

The problem with such social reading experiments is that we usually don’t know who all are engaging in the mark-up process. The views of a seasoned professor with many publications under her/his belt might be juxtaposed next to an undergraduate’s observations who is marking up the text as part of an assignment in the course. Exactly whose opinions are being represented is unclear.

Upon further reflection, I realize that The Valley of the Shadow and Debates in the Digital Humanities represent polar opposites in the larger field of digital academic publishing. The Valley of the Shadow only reflects documents from a particular older spatial and temporal context. It doesn’t discuss any scholarship, rather it acts as a window into the past, allowing us to engage with texts and documents from a past era. Debates in the Digital Humanities, on the other hand, is a living collection that thrives on user participation and is built to catalogue discourse on the digital humanities which will take place in the future. 


I'm a first year English MA student interested in the digital humanities, critical and cultural theory, and postcolonial studies. Follow me @paramajmera

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