[Revised 7/18/11]

After a fine 3 days of tweeting, conferencing, and questioning, the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing kicked off their final plenary with a panel of Digital Humanists — tool builders and theorists alike: Matthew Kirschenbaum (MITH & the Deena Larson Collection), Brian Geiger & Ben Pauley (ESTC re-design), and Simon Burrows & Mark Curran (French Book Trade Project). SHARP conference organizer, Eleanor Shevlin, pulled me in to be a respondent to the final Digital Humanities plenary after some discussion about my role as editor of E-Resources for the SHARP Newsletter. I also organized a digital poster session with 5 projects demonstrated the day before to a crowded room.

The very active Twitterstream was filled with interesting commentary and sage reporting about most of the panels – a very helpful tool to make the conference open for even those who couldn’t attend. It also served me for some of my responses to the final plenary speakers, a sounding board of sorts guiding me to the areas of tension among the panelists’ projects and thoughts.

[The plenary began to run way over time so I posted my hastily sketched remarks and distributed them on Twitter just before the final speaker was to take the podium. We moved back the general meeting instead of cutting the Q&A and my remarks. There was some dismay expressed over Twitter that the only woman on the panel would be cut, but this was not to be so.] We’re in the plenary now. Due to some time issues, I probably won’t get to deliver these remarks. I’m much more interested in hearing questions from the audience and their ideas (as is evidenced already from the very active Twitter backchannel).

So, here are my hastily sketched ideas that were intended for the Response; I’ll return later to clean it up & revise for a better idea about our discussions:

Respondent’s Remarks:

Thank you to Eleanor for asking me to act as a respondent for today’s plenary and our esteemed panelists. As anyone knows who’s taken on the fool-hearty work of a digital project or archive, it’s frustratingly never complete because the technology possibilities are limitless. My job here today is to incite some argument; the boxing gloves will be handed out during the Q&A.

At last year’s Modern Language Association annual convention, there was much kerfuffle about the role and definitions of Digital Humanities. After the dust settled a few months later, we returned to the same conclusion as before: everyone is welcome, even those who eschew the title of Digital Humanist (and who buy the first round).

On our panel today, we experienced a wide variety of digital theorizing, tools, databases, and projects – a variety that symbolizes the inclusiveness of Digital Humanities. Book Historians, bibliographers and textual scholars have been at the forefront of testing new kinds of technology (lest we forget about our friends doing paleography). SHARP has been welcoming to digital inflections before the MLA kerfuffle, even if surreptitiously.

As a play on Matt’s title, we are often faced with “Future of the hysteria about the disappearance of the book” – even appearing in today’s New York Times opinion about using archival material vs. a digital facsimile. We all know in this room that the codex will not disappear. Instead, the methodologies that we use now on the physical artifact will, as Matt has so aptly demonstrated, serve us in considering the collection, preservation & study of software, hardware, and most importantly data. Matt also asks us to consider that we as scholars have to contend with the fact that the primary record can no longer be assumed to exist as a physical object. Matt describes MITH as a “safe harbor” for these materials, collections, archives – a place where intellectual inquiry into the history and hardware of computing is available. By archiving the Deena Larson Collection, we have to ask what’s really being archived, especially since Deena Larson is curating her own collection? And what questions will researchers ask in 20, 30 or 40 years? WE have to be comfortable with not knowing right now. And, book historians, bibliographers, and textual scholars are comfortable with this.

Brian follows Matt by discussing the value of metadata and digital archives and Google Books (the elephant in the room, someone has already tweeted). ESTC bibliographical entries would be wed to full text existing in Google Books and other digital surrogates (in various other digital projects as well). Brian points out that ESTC has to consider its users and is thinking about crowd-sourcing, really, this work or amending, editing and correcting the ESTC. We’ve been talking a lot about dynamic scholarly editions these days – indeed at the Digital Humanities conference back in June, there was quite an uproar about using the masses to coalesce authoritative information. Brian, with the help of a recent Mellon grant and seemingly as a rogue cowboy without the imprimatur of his planning committee, shows us a user curation overview complete with stick figures. And also proposes an editorial review organizational structure – it’s most interesting to me that ESTC is moving in the direction that scholarly editors of digital projects are pushing.

Ben pre-empts our questions about the existing issues with the Book Tracker (which George Williams reviewed for the latest issues of the SHARP newsletter section on e-resources). Ben highlights the Digital Humanities dictum: STOP REINVENTING THE WHEEL. And declares that the new ESTC Book Tracker will be more interesting for everyone, not just him. Isn’t that how we all convince ourselves to get into the long-suffering work of a digital project? “I know someone else will be interested in this!” I jest, but it’s true; there are many, many others who are interested in your/our work. Ben also continues this idea of crowd-sourcing collections.

Simon and Mark take us through what Simon called a “smaller” project, certainly not in importance, but in historical scope. They conclude our panel with discussion of a content-driven project that holds the “stuff,” a request I heard often at this year’s Modern Language Association panel – where’s the stuff? The French Book Trade Project is an intellectual project that demonstrates the history of the book trade along with the strength and vigor of all the latest digital tools to collate, visualize, compare, or map information and data.

As George Williams just tweeted, perhaps we can open up discussion post haste to play with ideas such as mashing up ESTC re-design with the French Book Trade Project.

[The Q&A then opened up with this very question. I also took liberty to ask Matt Kirschenbaum a question about the role of performance in 1) using digital tools, 2) in curating archival collections. And, Matt took the question to discuss this idea that the performance of using the tools is also valuable for intellectual inquiry to combat the final words by Mark that the book or the article is the final output — and many disagreed that this final product should be the final product.]