About Me

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I am Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Glasgow and Theme Leader Fellow for the 'Digital Transformations' strategic theme of the Arts and Humanities Research Council. I tweet as @ajprescott.

This blog is a riff on digital humanities. A riff is a repeated phrase in music, used by analogy to describe a improvisation or commentary. In the 16th century, the word 'riff' meant a rift; Speed describes riffs in the earth shooting out flames. The poet Jeffrey Robinson points out that riff perhaps derives from riffle, to make rough.

Maybe we need to explore these other meanings of riff in thinking about digital humanities, and seek out rough and broken ground in the digital terrain.

24 September 2015

Acts of Reading, Redux

Contribution to a panel at a British Library 'Digital Conversation', 24 September 2015

Six months ago, at Bronwen Thomas’s suggestion, I submitted a guest entry to the blog of the Digital Reading Network, which I called ‘My Acts of Reading’. In the entry, I tried to describe my relationship at different points of my life with reading. The importance of reading as a social and cultural activity is illustrated by the way in which so many of our memories are bound up with it. I am sure many of us remember our parents reading to us or the excitement of first gradually mastering how to decipher a book. One of my most vivid memories of Christmas is of a bitterly cold day in the 1960s - opening my presents, finding a book there, and going back to the warmth of my bed to read the book. For most of us, reading is bound up with our very personality. By changing the nature of our engagement with reading and writing, digital technologies are transforming some of the most fundamental and distinctive features of human behaviour.

Another vivid reading memory is from 1993, when I was shown the World Wide Web for the first time by Tim Hadlow, the remarkable Systems Administrator here in the British Library. The way in which the web combined text and image in new configurations made it obvious that here was something that was going to change much of my intellectual and cultural world. I was very pleased to be part of the team which, under the leadership of another remarkable librarian, Graham Jefcoate, helped put together the British Library’s first website ‘Portico’. I became involved in a number of projects for digitisation of manuscripts, particularly the Electronic Beowulf. In those early years, digital images and text were a specialist tool that one used at work for formal research. This began to change as JSTOR arrived and more academic journals became available online. From about 2000, I began to notice how more and more of my reading was taking place online and increasingly this online activity was not just simply at work. The point, in about 2006, when printed newspapers became a weekend indulgence was a significant landmark.   

However, I held out for a long time against reading books online. Although one of the strategies I adopted as a librarian at Lampeter in west Wales to deal with high levels of student demand for particular books was to buy e-books, for my own reading, both academic and leisure, I tended to prefer an old-fashioned printed book, notwithstanding many friends urging the virtues of a kindle upon me. The change occurred for me last year when I was reading Mark Ormrod’s monumental biography of Edward III. Mark’s book is a wonderful piece of historical writing, but Edward III lived for a very long time and this biography is a very big book. Carrying the large book around was beginning to give me a backache. I really couldn’t face carrying the printed volume around any more, and purchased the e-book to read on my ipad. It was a revelation. I found I got much more pleasure from reading the e-book than from reading the printed volume. This wasn’t simply due to the convenience and simplicity of the e-book - something about the backlighting of the text and the physical nature of the tablet seemed to encourage me to read more. My reading became rebooted.

So, my blog entry for Bronwen describing my late conversion to e-books was six months ago. How have things changed?  Do I still feel that the e-book has transformed my acts of reading? 

Certainly, my e-reading enthusiasm continues unabated. My home is in a remote part of west Wales, but the rural buses have recently installed wi-fi, and it is wonderful that, if I finish my book during a bus ride, I can download another. But I suppose, after six months, I do have other more critical reflections on my e-reading.

1. There are limits to my e-reading. I described in my original blog how I find I still need to transcribe medieval documents if I am to use them effectively in my research. For my leisure reading, I find that poetry still seems for me to work better in print - maybe because like whisky it needs to be sipped. 

2. Although most of my everyday reading is now electronic, my academic research is mixed medium. Some of the books are use aren’t available digitally, but the biggest barrier to my more extended use of e-books in research is that academic books are so tremendously expensive, no matter whether they are printed or electronic, so any extended research means consulting books in a library. Although librarians have been experimenting with e-books for many years now, we still have not worked out how to best make e-books available. Our e-book collection to Lampeter was always very cumbersome to use, and the digital rights management in packages like Adobe Digital Editions makes the borrowing of e-books very fiddly. We need an academic book equivalent of iPlayer, which would enable me to be able to borrow academic books as easily as I can download a biography from Amazon on my Welsh bus. 

3. Likewise, I find it frustrating that I can’t so easily share books I am enthusiastic about with my friends if the books are in electronic form. Amazon has a mechanism for lending e-books to friends, but I must admit I haven’t yet used it, and not all my friends are as keen on e-reading as I am. 

4. Although older books are readily available in electronic form through the Internet archive or Project Gutenberg, I must say that since I became an e-reading convert, I think I read many more recently published books - not necessarily a good thing, I think. 

However, much as I enjoy my e-reading, I am increasingly struck by how untransformative it is. I use my phone or tablet very happily for activities I did before using a variety of devices: listening to the radio, checking e-mail, watching movies, hearing music, taking photographs, reading. But I don’t use my phone for anything that I didn’t do before.

This leads to my final reflection. Pleased though I am with e-books, they are very boring products. You just get an html presentation of the book’s text. The illustrations are tucked away at the end - there aren’t even any hyperlinks from the text to the illustrations. I recently bought an e-book in which the illustrations are left out. But part of the exciting thing about the digital medium is the opportunity to have much more richly illustrated texts. When I read about medieval manuscripts I want lots of pictures of them. But, all too often, my e-book is just bare text - the Thames and Hudson paperback on The Medieval Papacy that I bought in 1974 was much more richly illustrated than my e-book.

One of my dystopian fears for our digital future is that it will turn out to be populated by pdfs of journal articles. All the potential richness of the digital medium will have been ignored in favour of producing homogenised factory production line scholarship. And, while I retain my e-book enthusiasm, what I want is more books like that being currently produced by Tim Hitchcock and Bob Shoemaker, based on their work on the Old Bailey Proceedings, which will allow the reader access to the records and documents on which the book is based. I understand that the production process for this book has been difficult and protracted, but it is precisely the possibility of presenting books in a different way that makes a digital environment exciting, and I hope that the future of e-books will be more media rich and varied than the plain and frankly crude html wrappers with which we are presented at the moment.


  • Barbara Williams Ellertson says:
    19 January 2016 at 19:32

    Applause on these reflections, from a retired book designer, one who struggled over the last decade to help find ways to make electronic texts as beautiful and multivalent as they can be. It takes so much time to plan and program for all the platforms and devices, not to mention having to navigate permissions for electronic image reproduction, that there doesn't seem to be a feasible business model for truly excellent electronic editions. Yet. In my own research work now, I sometimes use _both_ a printed and an electronic version of a text. The letter is for ease of citing and note-taking; the print edition for graphics/images, and for layout of text with images. Maybe, in our lifetime, the technical dust will settle enough for electronic editions to be feasible in all their complexity and multi-modal capabilities. I'll remain hopeful, but meanwhile, grateful for the richness of books both old and new. Barbara Williams Ellertson

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