This week’s readings concerned the question of scholarship in the digital realm. Specifically, what is digital scholarship, and how is it evaluated?
As the semester has gone on, we’ve learned how the digital makes a difference in format. As Lev Manovich discussed in last week’s reading, The Language of New Media, the rectangular computer screen forces a different language upon us. To make full use of the power of the digital, we must adapt our forms to its forms. This means that, while there is a place for the traditional monograph and article model of historical scholarship, we must think in new ways for the digital–not just replicating the old means on a screen.
What might digital scholarship consist of? The University of Nebraska’s Bill Thomas discusses one of the many possibilities in his article “Writing A Digital History Journal Article from Scratch: An Account.” He discusses his experience with an article that he and Edward Ayers of the University of Virginia wrote. This article was published in the American Historical Review print edition, and also online. In the print edition the scholars followed the traditional format. In the online edition, though, they experimented with new ways of making their argument. As they detail, some of these ways worked, some did not–in part, depending upon the audience. For me, the most interesting part of this article was its conclusion–where Ayers and Thomas challenged us to think outside of our usual paradigms–breaking down categories of archives, exhibits, etc.
As it is becoming clear, “digital scholarship” can mean many things. The fascinating Our Cultural Commonwealth, produced by the American Council of Learned Societies, offered as its starting point five categories worth quoting in full:
a) Building a digital collection of information for further study and analysis
b) Creating appropriate tools for collection-building
c) Creating appropriate tools for the analysis and study of collections
d) Using digital collections and analytical tools to generate new intellectual products
e) Creating authoring tools for these new intellectual products, either in traditional forms or in digital
As the report notes, only category (d) has been considered scholarship. As we have discussed in class, though, there are currently debates about inclusion of those other activities as scholarship. I’d like to see this discussion continued and expanded.
I found the Council for Library and Information Resources’ “Working Together or Working Apart: Promoting the Next Generation of Digital Scholarship” particularly valuable for its argument in favor of including the other aforementioned categories in the realm of scholarship. The portion that resonated most with me was Caroline Levander’s “The Changing Landscape of American Studies in a Global Era” (pages 27-33). First of all, being someone who gets on my high horse about how small the Rio Grande is physically, and yet how there seems to be more scholarship about transoceanic connections than connections across that little desert stream, I found myself saying “amen” when she gave a hemispheric definition of American Studies (I also wished I had looked at this report and quoted parts in my project proposal!). More to the point, though, she argues that the very content of an archive, and how it is formed, helps shape the questions that can be asked of it. Thus, she and her colleagues creating the Our Americas Archive Project–a collaboration of Rice University, the University of Maryland, and the Instituto Mora in Mexico City–are bringing together primary sources from throughout the Americas, as a way to bring about new questions. In this case, the formation of the archive–what to include, what to exclude, and how to search it–is the argument.
So if digital scholarship can mean many things beyond producing the traditional article or monograph, how is it evaluated? The evaluation of history produced in formats beyond those is not a new question, as the report and white paper of the Working Group on Evaluating Public History Scholarship make clear. Both of these–it’s worth reading the white paper and not just the final report–discuss how history departments can evaluate public history work. Their recommendations–that public history work be valued not just as service or teaching but as scholarship–carry over into the digital realm. Most importantly, they see scholarship as a process, not just the end product.
So in the end, what is “digital scholarship”? As I wrote this post, I noted that I skirted actually defining it–the closest I got was quoting Our Cultural Commonwealth. Based on these readings, it seems we can define digital scholarship as peer-reviewed, intellectually rigorous research and dissemination of that research using digital means. In other words, it is scholarship whose form is specifically digital. For example, although one can more easily read a traditional article or monograph on an electronic device like a Kindle or iPad–and even produce a “Kindle single”–I would not classify those as digital formats because they do not depend on the existence of the digital for their format. One could print them out and have the same.
Is that a satisfactory definition, or am I excluding too much by arguing that the form needs to be digital? Do we even want to define the term, or would that preclude too much? As my colleague Megan points out, public history doesn’t have a rigorous definition. What do others think?