22 November 2009

Shakespeare Quartos, Shifting Digital Archives

[Cross-posted at HASTAC under the title "The Digital Reading Room -- er, Archive".]

Amidst all the exciting news in the digital humanities world this week, the Shakespeare Quartos Archive was quietly launched. This is big news for early modern book nerds and digital humanists alike. Promising "at least one copy of every edition of William Shakespeare's plays printed in quarto before the theatres closed in 1642," SQA* substantially expands the British Library's Shakespeare in Quarto project and includes an interactive interface that allows for side-by-side image comparison, text overlays, exhibits, tagging and user annotation.

I spent some time browsing the Hamlet prototype this afternoon, and am impressed with the site's basic functionality. The quartos -- which are scans of full openings, not just single pages sliced from their codex context -- open into a clean workspace that acts more like an application, allowing the user to open, close and manipulate multiple panels. It seems easy to jot down notes on a particular line or segment, and the annotation overlays are customizable and unobtrusive. Oh, and how great is this: you can easily change the opacity of a page to compare it against another! Exploiting the potential of digital materials, huzzah!

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about the difference archiving digital materials, digital archives, and digitally-active archivists. Archiving born-digital materials remains a problem, and is being worked over relentlessly by people much smarter than me; digitally-active archivists simply (I "simply" like it's a simple thing -- I only mean to indicate a contrast) use new tools to disseminate old materials; while digital archives are much stickier of a wicket. Does the term refer to a repository of digitized, or born-digital, materials? Must they be institutionally-run, or can blogs, wikis and personal sites constitute a "digital archive"? What makes an archive digital, and what makes a collection of digital materials an archive?

For most of the term's life, it's referred to a traditional print/paper archive gone digital, like the Rossetti Archive or the William Blake Archive. Sometimes, though, a "digital archive" is a more amorphous collection, a kind of memory bank put together through user contributions. The September 11 Digital Archive out of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason is a prime example of this, allowing users to upload images and documents or type in their own stories. Although produced for different ends, both of these kinds of digital archives are driven by access: the user, much like the scholar paging a book from special collections, is encouraged to browse and view materials, but any special manipulation must be done on the individual's machine after download.

More and more, though, digital archives are providing spaces and tools for taking notes, collecting materials and collaboration. No longer just a digital paging desk, new archival sites are attempting to provide a kind of "digital reading room" -- as well as a magnifying glass, a pair of gloves, and a few other scholars to help you with your work. On the one hand, these new tools are exciting -- I geeked out over the opacity feature on the Shakespeare Quartos site, dropping images over one another to find the subtle differences in printing -- and they are, of course, helping us see old materials in a new light while providing new models for collaborative, collectivist scholarship. On the other hand, no matter how awesome an opacity feature is, it will never be Photoshop; no matter how slick an authoring or notetaking tool may be, it will never beat whatever word processing software one already uses. Part of the reason the buy-in is so difficult for digital humanities communities is that, for all we gain in terms of collaboration, we lose just as much in ease of use, variety of features, and portability of one's own research materials. Here, the analogy of the reading room -- a space of archival containment, where one must view the materials under the watchful eyes of the archon, using only pre-approved tools provided by the library -- is eerily apt.

Damn! Once again, I started off positive and ended up cranky. How does that always happen? I'm genuinely excited by Shakespeare Quartos, and want to see more digital archives move in this direction. But I'm also a trouble-making contrarian that would enjoy a more frank discussion around the pros and cons of these shifts toward all-inclusive, one-stop-shop archival communities. After all, unless we can get folks using them, they're just fancier repositories.

*Funded by the NEH and JISC, the project is a joint collaboration between the Bodleian Library of Oxford, the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities.

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