Why digital humanities is already a basic skill, not just a specialist niche–Matthew Kirschenbaum

Sometimes I think we humanists “of a certain age,” to put the issue politely, imagine digital humanities as an optional activity that will be filled by an interesting niche of young professors who take their place in the academy as yet another niche sub-discipline, something that research universities hire for and small colleges struggle hopelessly to replicate.  It may be indeed that small colleges will struggle to integrate digital humanities in to their own infrastructures, but I think the general picture of Digital Humanities as an optional sub-discipline will simply be unsustainable.  The argument smells a little of the idea that e-books are a nice sub-genre of texts, but not something the average humanist has to worry that much about.  I think, to the contrary, that digital humanities and the multitude of techniques that it entails, will become deeply integrated in a fundament way with the basic methodologies of how we go about doing business, akin to knowing how to do close reading or how to maneuver our way through libraries.

Although pointing out this fact is not his main point, Matthew Kirschenbaum–already a Digital Humanities patron saint in many respects–has an essay in The Chronicle that points to this fact.  Kirschenbaum is currently interested in how we preserve digital material, and the problems are just as complex if not moreso than the general question of how and when to save print materials.  Moreso to the degree that we cannot be sure that the current forms in which we place our digital intelligence will actually be usable five years from now.  The consequences for humanities research and writing are profound and must be considered. From Kirschenbaum:

Digital preservation is the sort of problem we like to assume others are thinking about. Surely someone, somewhere, is on the job. And, in lots of ways, that is true. Dire warnings of an approaching “digital dark ages” appear periodically in the media: Comparisons are often made to the early years of cinema—roughly half of the films made before 1950 have been lost because of neglect. 

But the fact is that enormous resources—government, industry, and academic—are being marshaled to attack the problem. In the United States, for example, the Library of Congress has been proactive through its National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program. Archivists of all stripes now routinely receive training in not only appraisal and conservation of digital materials but also metadata (documentation and description) and even digital forensics, through which we can stabilize and authenticate electronic records. (I now help teach such a course at the University of Virginia’s renowned Rare Book School.) Because of the skills of digital archivists, you can read former presidents’ e-mail messages and examine at Emory University Libraries a virtual recreation of Salman Rushdie’s first computer. Jason Scott’s Archive Team, meanwhile, working without institutional support, leaps into action to download and redistribute imperiled Web content.

What this suggests is that Rushdie’s biographers will have to not so much know how to sift through piles of letters, but how to recreate digital archives that authors themselves may not be interested in preserving.  Biographers of the present and surely the future, will have to be Digital technicians, as well as close readers of the digital archives they are able to recover.

Kirschenbaum goes on to suggest that most of us must do this work on our own, and must do this work for ourselves, in preserving our own archives.

But despite those heroic efforts, most individuals must still be their own digital caretakers. You and I must take responsibility for our own personal digital legacy. There are no drive-through windows (like the old photo kiosks) where you can drop off your old floppies and pick up fresh files a day or two later. What commercial services are available tend to assume data are being recovered from more recent technology (like hard drives), and these also can be prohibitively expensive for average consumers. (Organizations like the Library of Congress occasionally sponsor public-information sessions and workshops to teach people how to retrieve data from old machines, but those are obviously catch as catch can.)

Research shows that many of us just put our old disks, CD’s, and whatnot into shoeboxes and hope that if we need them again, we’ll figure out how to retrieve the data they contain when the time comes. (In fact, researchers such as Cathy Marshall, at Microsoft Research, have found that some people are not averse to data loss—that the mishaps of digital life provide arbitrary and not entirely unwelcome opportunities for starting over with clean slates.)

This last, of course, is an interesting problem.  Authors have often been notoriously averse to having their mail probed and prodded for signs of the conflicts and confessions, preferring that the “work” stand on its own. Stories of authors burning their letters and manuscripts are legion, nightmarishly so for  the literary scholar.   Such literary self-immolations are both harder and easier in a digital world.  My drafts and emails can disappear at the touch of a button.  On the other hand, I am told that a hard drive is never actually erased for those who are really in the know.  Then again, the task of scholar who sees a writers computer as his archive is in some ways vastly more difficult than that of the writer who was an assiduous collector of his type-written drafts.  Does every deletion and spell correct count as a revision.  What should we trace as an important change, and what should we disregard as detritus.  These are, of course, the standard archival questions, but it seems to me they are exponentially more complicated in a digital archive where a text may change a multitude of times in a single sitting, something not so possible in a typewritten world.
Well, these are the kinds of things Kirschenbaum takes up.  And having the tools to apply to such questions will be the task for every humanist in the future, not a narrow coterie.

2 thoughts on “Why digital humanities is already a basic skill, not just a specialist niche–Matthew Kirschenbaum

  1. Pingback: Why digital humanities is already a basic skill, not just a specialist niche | The Humanities Workshop

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