What’s the Word?

In an evolving field such as DH, it’s apparent that pinning down terms and choosing right semantics is of utmost importance. As the Beardstair group moves forward in understanding our goals, we need to learn more about the type of work that’s out there to understand where our ‘project’ fits in. One of my favorite quotes from the readings this week is from an essay by Kenneth N Price, “What’s in a Name?”, where he pokes a little fun at the cumbersome discussion regarding how digital scholars should define their work. In defining projects, he writes, “’Project’ can describe everything from fixing a broken window on the back of a house to the Human Genome Project.” It becomes clear, we need to be specific in defining our work.

From this essay, I gather that our work in Beardstair fits best with the term ‘digital thematic collection’. We plan to share our materials mostly by digital means. I’m confident we’ll settle on a theme of focus soon enough. Our material stuffs don’t reach near archive status because we don’t have a gross amount of material in a genre, period, or by a specific author so we are reduced to collection. Fair enough. While he writes that, though the term itself is not particularly sexy (in fact it’s a bit clunky) the dynamic nature of these collections are, in fact attractive. Due to the short nature of this course, I think we can all appreciate the idea that Beardstair work will continue to evolve even after some of us have met with graduation.

So if we need a more stimulating term to define our work, (but not something that will certainly irritate archivists such as Kate Theimer I suggest ‘Scholarly Edition.’ For one, it make us sound very smart and two, we plan to perform extensive research on various aspects of our physical materials and share our research through edits or annotations in a digital medium rather than just upload a bunch of images and go home.

Price writes, “Successful scholarly editions yield a text established on explicitly stated principles by a person or a group with specialized knowledge about textual scholarship and the writer or writers involved. What makes the edition scholarly, of course, is the rigor with which the text is reproduced or altered and the expertise deployed in the offering of suitable introductions, notes, and textual apparatus.”

In fact, I believe we’ll end up doing something similar to the Blake Archive. Their introduction states, “Though ‘archive’ is the term we have fallen back on, in fact we envision a unique resource unlike any other currently available for the study of Blake—a hybrid all-in-one edition, catalogue, database, and set of scholarly tools capable of taking full advantage of the opportunities offered by new information technology.”

The fear is however, that we’ll tread on uncommon grounds, and do something like Theimer warns against. Certainly, our group does not want to be classified in this way: “But today, as we have previously discussed, just as you are curating your snack collection when you pull those Doritos off the supermarket shelf, any collection or assemblage of copies of original materials gets called ‘an archive.’”

As we move forward we consider these questions and more. In this growing field, it pays to slow down, consider our options and goals, and move forward slowly, with care to ensure our work is respected and approved of by our leadership and mentors. Still, the subject is open for discussion, which makes disapproval fun too.

3 thoughts on “What’s the Word?

  1. You may regret that sentiment! Was the article I wrote for the Journal of Digital Humanities (“Archives in Context and as Context” http://journalofdigitalhumanities.org/1-2/archives-in-context-and-as-context-by-kate-theimer/) assigned for the class, or just the blog posts? As you might expect the article gives a more complete explanation of why I think expanding the usage of the word “archive” is problematic. I ask this because I am confused by this statement from the post:

    “Our material stuffs don’t reach near archive status because we don’t have a gross amount of material in a genre, period, or by a specific author so we are reduced to collection.”

    As you will see if you read the article, achieving “archive status” has nothing to do with the size of a group of materials. It has everything to do with the context of the materials (and usually of the original materials, rather than digital copies of them). I am not a literary scholar, but for this project is also seems to be important to consider both what you have (which I think are digital copies of books) and what you intend to do with them. The questions you are asking about the added value your project will bring to the originals make it seem to me as if “Scholarly Edition” is appropriate.

    On the other hand, sounding smart is always important. And we all like to use words that make our work sound important. The widespread appropriation of “curate” is good evidence of this, I think. People use it because it makes them sound smarter. And I suspect that the same has happened with “archive.” Using it brings in impressive connotations and expectations, at least in the digital world. As opposed to the physical world. Based on what we see in virtually every media story that involves archives people seem to be unable to use the word “archives” with having the word “dust” somewhere nearby. If using “archive” about digital collections brought conjured up images of “musty and dusty” I’m not sure it would have taken off.

    But I digress. ;) The original blog post certainly did stir things up and it served its purpose in at least interjecting some archival perspective into digital humanities discussions. I appreciate the care that you are taking in thinking about how to frame, and name, your project.


    • Hi Kate, thanks for commenting. I think the point you make about the nostalgia of physical materials being represented it the digital world in interesting. In the digital world it becomes important to represent the physical materials as well as possible. Personally, I find it fascinating that new programs are being developed all the time to make digital materials more life like. I think it says something about people and their strong emotional ties to physical materials. I think that points to the value of Archivists like yourself who are trained in protecting and making available valuable cultural artifacts. Also, I think that making those artifacts widely available in digital editions is important to the preservation of their history and place in culture. Digital scholarly editions like ours (I think we’ve settled on that term) then become about representing the primary documents and secondary resources in such a way that digitally they find their own value and place in culture.

      Regarding some of your questions about being too hard on us, remember we’re grad students, and maybe after collecting ourselves in Facebook conversations, we can take it, so feel free to keep the challenging questions coming.


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