A modest plea for digital project critique

This morning, this popped into my twitter timeline: “Digits: A New Unit of Publication.” It’s an interesting presentation, and I’m looking forward to seeing what comes out of this work. This is not necessarily a response to the specifics of that piece, but it got me thinking.

For a long time I have felt that what we are missing in digital humanities scholarship vis à vis “digital projects” is not just the curatorial apparatus—indicated in these conversations by talk of prestige conferred through a publication—but an infrastructure of scholarly critique. Why? In the absence of purchasing/distributing mechanisms for digital projects, libraries don’t have the usual supports to rely on when evaluating materials. Selectors use shortcuts; we don’t read all the books to decide what should be added to our collections. So how do publishers get their monographs in front of us for consideration? One way is through reviews. Kirkus, Choice, Publisher’s Weekly, NY Times Book Review. All of these help us gauge whether something is worth purchasing. The problem is, in the absence of actual funds needing to be allocated somewhere there is little incentive to pay attention to which digital projects have real scholarly merit. And if we’re not paying attention, who will?

When people talk about discoverability, it’s generally about indexing, cataloging, and search. But there are other ways that folks discover materials for their research. Bibliographies, review essays, encyclopedias—tertiary sources that not so long ago were the domain of reference librarians and subject specialists are surprisingly lacking for “web-first” content in academia. Why is this?

I have a theory that we were so busy trying to “reskill” librarians to be able to create digital projects that no one focused on extending conventional library reference resources to include freely available, web-based scholarly works. Or maybe I have a chip on my shoulder. But in all honesty we really need folks who understand the creation of digital projects in order to critically evaluate them, and we need them to share their evaluations somewhere.

This semester, I’m teaching the introductory DH course at Pratt’s School of Information. Much of the course was modeled off of my predecessor’s syllabus, along with inspiration from several other colleagues who generously shared their course materials with me. One of the learning objectives for my course is to “critically discuss digital humanities in light of current theories and methods,” which I am trying to ground with a foundation of digital project critique. The course follows a grad seminar format, with some hands-on tutorials interspersed with methods readings. (NB: in the spirit of critical pedagogy, the students are collaboratively designing the hands-on piece, so the syllabus linked above is more of a reading list than a detailed breakdown of what we’ll cover each session.)

I tried to scaffold assignments that would build towards a critical evaluation of DH projects, culminating with a scholarly project review. To aid students, I’ve provided examples throughout the semester by assigning readings that discuss projects in depth—rather than simply asking them to “explore” a project before class. So, for example, in two weeks we’ll be reading “Make It Useful: The Modernist Journals Project and Medium Data,” in order guide our exploration of the Modernist Journals Project. Later, we’ll read Sarah Patterson’s “Toward Meaning-Making in the Digital Age: Black Women, Black Data, and Colored Conventions” before turning to the Colored Conventions Project.

Mid-way through the semester, students will select a DH project and build a scholarly dossier of contextual materials. This assignment came specifically from an undergrad course I’d taken on the social problem film of the 1930s. Our research project was scaffolded into two parts: building a dossier of primary and secondary sources related to the film and it’s social contexts, followed by writing up a research paper based on that research. (For the curious: I looked at Ida Lupino’s Not Wanted, and compiled a dossier all about the stigma of out-of-wedlock pregnancy.) We needed to understand the contemporary contexts of a film in addition to being able to discuss techniques and aesthetics. Similarly, I want my digital humanities students to be able to find, evaluate, and interpret digital humanities projects, to be able to situate them in their disciplinary and methodological contexts as a way of thinking critically about shifting modes of knowledge production. This, to me, is an essential role for librarians and information professionals in the digital humanities that goes beyond learning how to use digital tools themselves.

There was a time when DH folks talked a lot about “post-publication filtering” (do they still?) yet somehow this idea of scholarly communication transformation seemed to be aimed at blog posts and grey literature rather than discovery of the kind of web-first content that’s described in the Digits piece. I’m not convinced that proliferating overlay journals will solve the discoverability problem, but what do I know? At this point, I see a greater need for professionally-created reference works and indexes of digital projects; not just directories (or the dreaded “registry”), but collected critical evaluations. There’s been some movement in academic journals to allocate space to digital project reviews, like in American Historical Review and American Quarterly. That’s a good start. Let’s also get to work as librarians building out an infrastructure of digital project critique.

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