26 Jul 2011

A response to - "Online is fine, but history is best hands on"

By Carrie Smith and Lisa Stead

We appreciate that we are a little late coming to the party on this one, but we have just come across this article in the Guardian - Online is fine, but history is best hands on (via the excellent http://archivesinfo.blogspot.com/). The article discusses the importance of seeing the original document over an online version. Although it makes some sensible points, points which have been made frequently on this blog, for example that during research in an archive:

 “Perhaps another document will come up in the same batch, perhaps some marginalia or even the leaf of another text inserted as a bookmark”.

 The author calls this the “serendipity” of research and certainly there is an element of unexpected discovery when undertaking archive work, however, the argument for seeing the original can be put in more concrete terms than the “mystery” being lost in online versions. What can be lost are slight differences in shades of ink colour, watermarks, water stains even etc – the genetic makeup of the document can be lessened. That said, the problem with Hunts argument, aside from its slightly melodramatic reverence of the ‘original’, is its unpleasant derision of the non-scholar, he writes:

“Why sit in an archive leafing through impenetrable prose when you can slurp frappucino while scrolling down Edmund Burke documents?”

The unpleasantness of this statement, even on the level of a physical shudder at the noisy, uncouth “slurp” of the person on the street, is offensive. It is the underlying message about access, however, that is worse. Although Hunt refers to the British Library, which is a public library, Hunt is unhappy with the public access search engines provide, he writes:

the arrival of search engines has transformed our ability to sift and surf the past. What once would have required days trawling through an index, hunting down a footnote or finding a misfiled library book can now be done in an instant”

One commentator picks up on this and responds:
Thus making this information accessible to people who aren't full-time academics and/or living in London. God forbid, eh?”

There also seems to be an element in the Hunt-esque argument of a sense of unfairness in the ease of access for the new generation of scholars, researchers and (again, god forbid) non-affiliated ‘ordinary’ interested people. As if, because the archive was formerly often something difficult to access, something that required travel grants, networking, extensive planning and a big investment of valuable time for the individual, it should equally represent a right of passage for the next generation. With this element of difficulty removed, the argument seems to suggest that ease of access somehow automatically will equate to lazy scholarship, idly flicking through sacred manuscripts on Iphone apps. The view that location and context for access fundamentally impacts upon ‘proper’ academic contemplation seems a difficult one to support, however, especially since there seems to be no consideration of any negative consequences that the hushed environment of the archive in which the academic seemingly sits in reverence, ‘leafing through impenetrable prose’ (all worthy scholarship should deal with this sort of prose, obviously) might have upon interpretation. Is it not possible that aura inspires a reverence that’s perhaps not always deserved, or that the sheer difficulty of access and the time/money/effort that goes into many archive research trips encourages the researcher to make links, connections and observations that aren’t always justified by the material, simply to make the effort worthwhile? 

Although some of the reactions to this article were political, regarding Tristram Hunt’s position in the labour party, many were simply unsettled by Hunts preference to limit access to important documents to those who have the travel grants/geographical or scholarly access. Although seeing the original document is an important enterprise, the widening access new technologies allow and also the protection for fragile documents is of equal importance.  

25 Jul 2011

Does digital writing leave fingerprints?

THIS New York Times article discusses whether emails can linguistically analysed in the same manner manuscripts are to test for fakes. Do we have linguistic ticks that reveal our authorship or is this obscured by spell check and the device on which we are writing? As more and more archives contain 'Born Digital' material these questions become increasingly important. Especially if you're Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. A multi-billion dollar lawsuit is being fought along these linguistic lines to determine the provenance of a set of emails saved as a word document, thus stripping them of the usual identifying data. So the question being asked is, does digital writing leave fingerprints?

Decoding Your E-mail Personality by Ben Zimmer

"IMAGINE, if you will, a young Mark Zuckerberg circa 2003, tapping out e-mail messages from his Harvard dorm room. It’s a safe bet he never would have guessed that eight years later a multibillion-dollar lawsuit might hinge on whether he capitalized the word “Internet,” or whether he spelled “cannot” as one word or two.
But that is exactly the kind of stylistic minutiae being analyzed in a lawsuit filed by Paul Ceglia, owner of a wood-pellet fuel company in upstate New York. Mr. Ceglia says that a work-for-hire contract he arranged with Mr. Zuckerberg, then an 18-year-old Harvard freshman, entitles him to half of the Facebook fortune. He has backed up his claim with e-mails purported to be from Mr. Zuckerberg, but Facebook’s lawyers argue that the e-mail exchanges are fabrications.
When legal teams need to prove or disprove the authorship of key texts, they call in the forensic linguists. Scholars in the field have tackled the disputed origins of some prestigious works, from Shakespearean sonnets to the Federalist Papers. But how reliably can linguistic experts establish that Person A wrote Document X when Document X is an e-mail — or worse, a terse note sent by instant message or Twitter? After all, e-mails and their ilk give us a much more limited purchase on an author’s idiosyncrasies than an extended work of literature. ..."

Read the rest of the article - http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/24/opinion/sunday/24gray.html?_r=2

24 Jul 2011

Push to digitize archive reveals hidden Yeats play

An interesting find at Boston College as a result of new digitization initiatives...

Thanks to Librarian Tom Wall’s efforts to bring the institution's archives into the digital era, an unpublished treasure has been discovered—Yeats’ very first play, “Love and Death”. Written in 1884 when Yeats was 18, the little known piece was uncovered amidst boxes of journals and correspondence purchased by the institution from the poet’s son in the early nineties.

Wall’s creation of a committee to search the archives for high impact materials to be digitized resulted in this rare find, and has led to its new access online for a global audience.

The uncovering of the play obviously boasts a major positive for new digital initiatives, both in encouraging archivists and librarians to re-evaluate what institutions contain and in enabling exciting (re)discoveries to be made accessible to researchers and readers the world over.

Yet the digitization process is not without careful attention to attempting to maintain some sense of the aura of the manuscript itself; in bringing the play to digital access, the Boston College website includes high-res photographic images of the handwritten pages to accompany the transcribed text. Burn’s Library conservator Barbara Adams Hebard says of the digitization project, “We definitely wanted to present the whole object as if you could hold it in your hands”.

Wall aims to bring 5% of Boston College’s archive collections online in the future, stating that while “Digital is not a replacement . . . it will be interesting to see what our Web hits look like in a year.”

The play can be accessed the BC website.

Click here a detailed article from The Boston Globe with response from Boston Yeats specialist Marjorie Hawes.