Tuesday, April 1, 2008

April (and May) Open Thread

Comments and questions about the book. No foolin'.


Ben said...

Professor Kirschenbaum, I emailed you recently to request some of your work for a paper I am writing on textual scholarship in the digital age, and you directed me to this book. I wanted to respond, but thought you might appreciate me doing so in this open thread you've created.

First of all, I was aware of this book, but had not realized it was focused on humanities scholarship. I'm juggling a great many ideas and writers on this project, and had never looked past the title.

What strikes me about the literature related to my essay topic is the almost complete focus on the ends of electronic textual scholarship - the hypertext scholarly editions. Your work seems to be unique in focusing on the means, especially in relation to born-digital text. Hancher, as you mention in chapter one, is concerned about the level of technical expertise needed to authenticate electronic texts (Tanselle, in what seems to be his typical response, thinks this is overstated). I have also sought more writing on textual studies and forensics and found an article by Greetham which illustrates the difficulty of placing the profession in the family of "hard" sciences. This was written in the mid-90s when electronic culture was established, but hardly as developed as it is now. What I am wondering is how prepared textual scholars are for the kind of forensics you describe in the book.

I am coming to this issue from a library background. Librarianship is, unfortunately, a profession still struggling to come to grips with technology, so the ability/willingness of scholars to adapt to these technological issues is a topic that resonates with me.

Matt said...

Hi Ben,

Thanks for this, and for posting it here. I'm glad you found the book. The main title, Mechanisms, was what I wanted from day one. But I wrestled a lot with the subtitle, working through every conceivable variation and permutation of my key terms. In the end I couldn't find a way to work "textual" in there, though the book was called "New Media and Forensic Textuality" until fairly close to the end.

One piece of work that I hope the (very generous) blurbs do is clearly signal the book's import for a humanities audience. (Btw, the Library of Congress initially classified it as a TK--Engineering--book, but that's a tale for another day).

To answer your question about how prepared I think textual scholars are for the kind of forensic work I discuss in the book: not very. But that's to be expected. It's not realistic to expect people going through English departments these days to receive training in the use of hex editors, let alone electron microscopes. Actually doing that kind of work will always be a sub-speciality of a sub-speciality. But more important, is that textual scholars (and humanists more generally) understand something about the basic properties of computational media. Too often the machine is a black box; but it needn't be. So if the book does nothing else I hope it demonstrates that it's possible to crack the lid open.

One of the projects I've begun since finishing the book (which is funded by a small start up grant from NEH) involves working with born-digital literary acquisitions at several prominent research libraries. What happens, in other words, when our most important authors start turning over laptops and diskettes as well as papers and journals to the archives for safe keeping. This will be an opportunity for me to address the textual studies audience more directly.

Ben said...

I heard about your grant. That sounds like an exciting project. I was talking to a couple of librarians in my university's Special Collections today - trying to get an internship - and I asked them if they've ever had someone donate computers as part of their personal archives. The answer was no, and astoundingly, I was told that if that ever happened they would try to lift what they could then discard the computer. They just don't have the knowledge or resources to do much of anything in such situations. You have much work to do!

Matt said...

Yikes. Much work to do indeed. ;-)