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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.

17 August 2013

How the Web Can Make Books Vanish

I have recently (in the odd moments allowed to me by that anti-intellectual managerialist nightmare with the Orwellian Newspeak name, the Research Excellence Framework) been preparing for publication my keynote talk at the first Sheffield Digital Humanities Congress last year, Made in Sheffield: Industrial Perspectives on the Digital Humanities. This considers how looking at the history of the Industrial Revolution can help us understand current digital transformations. Among recent scholarly publications on the industrial revolution, I particularly enjoyed Emma Griffin’s Liberty’s Dawn: A People’s History of the Industrial Revolution (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013).  Griffin uses autobiographies by working men and women to reexamine the debate about the effects of the Industrial Revolution on the standard of living and quality of life. Griffin’s introduction discusses the use of quantification in academic discussion of the effects of the Industrial Revolution on the life of ordinary people, reminding us of Sir John Clapham’s trenchant dismissal of ‘historians who neglect quantities’ and E. P. Thomson’s riposte that ‘it is quite possible for statistical averages and human experiences to run in opposite directions’.

Griffin’s emphasis on the importance of quantification in the historiography of the Industrial Revolution is itself very pertinent to current discussion of the role of quantification in humanities research (and particularly as part of the digital humanities). Griffin reminds us that sophisticated quantitative techniques have been used by historians writing about the Industrial Revolution since the 1920s. The impression is sometimes given by enthusiasts for quantification in the digital humanities that it offers an escape route from the thickets of theory and will create more authoritative conclusions. A moment’s glance at the use of statistics in studying the Industrial Revolution will quickly dispel any such thoughts. The apparently authoritative statistics on British economic growth prepared by Deane and Cole, which provided the basis for Rostow’s theory that there were set conditions for ‘lift off’ into economic growth, were undermined by Crafts, who questioned the methods used by Deane and Cole and produced statistics which suggested that it was very difficult to measure substantial economic growth in Britain in the late eighteenth century, indicating that the early effects of the Industrial Revolution were limited to particular industries and localities. The literature about British economic growth rates in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries suggests that quantification isn’t a route to clarity but rather a means of creating greater uncertainty and complexity.

Griffin laments the current stress on quantification among historians working on the Industrial Revolution: ‘Producing graphs and tables is more in vogue than asking how workers felt’ (p. 15). Moreover, Griffin suggests that the picture produced by such measurements is rather monochrome: ‘However living standards are measured, historians report stagnation or decline. Evidence of modest rises is gloomily dismissed as a paltry recompense for the labouring families that had done the most to create the substantial economic growth that occurred over the period …Today’s intellectuals understand the industrial revolution in much the same way as the educate elites who lived through it’ (p. 17).  In Griffin’s view, if one looks at the autobiographies by ordinary men and (sometimes) women which began to appear in increasing quantities from the beginning of the nineteenth century, a different impression emerges. Griffin uses these autobiographies to question some of the accepted criticisms of industrialization. She finds that, for many people, factory work might offer an escape from the misery and uncertainty of a subsistence life in the countryside. She suggests that the growth in child labour had more complex roots than ruthless economic exploitation. Griffin uses these autobiographical recollections to reconstruct working class lives as more than economic abstractions and considers the importance of (for example) sex, religion and education in making up the quality of life.

Griffin expresses amazement that more use has not previously been made of these autobiographies: ‘It is surely surprising that in spite of the ongoing interest in how the industrial revolution was experienced by the poor, no one has opened the pages of the books and notebooks where the poor wrote about just that. Historians have measured wages and working hours with meticulous care, yet none have sought to listen to, or make sense of, the messy tales that the workers left behind … If we listen rather than count, we shall start to see the industrial revolution in a very different light’ (p. 16). There are obvious issues about the autobiographies used by Griffin as a corpus of evidence, and she is very conscious of these (e.g. p. 25).  Griffin uses just over 350 autobiographies – a slender sample with which to investigate such a complex phenomenon as industrialization, although it is remarkable that so many memoirs by ordinary men and women survive. The sample is dominated overwhelmingly by men – Griffin reports cases in which the idea that a woman’s life could ever be worth describing was dismissed as ludicrous. Many of these men had made good as teachers, preachers, poets, engineers or politicians, or wanted to tell us how they had succeeded, perhaps as a result of the virtues of temperance. The authors may have had experience of working class life, but they were rarely simply ordinary people – these memoirs are not the voice of the poor, by any stretch of the imagination.

Yet these autobiographies are fascinating and compelling documents. I cannot possibly do justice to them here – I can only recommend that you read Emma Griffin’s book. Griffin describes how ‘Most of the autobiographies that have survived appeared in print during or soon after the author’s lifetime. A few were even commercial successes. James Dawson Burn’s Autobiography was published in 1855, and by the end of the decade had gone into its fourth edition. Others were published in small numbers by obscure provincial printers, more for the writer’s satisfaction than in response to any public demand. John Robinson’s Short Account of the Life of John Robinson was as short as its title promised – just one page long. Robinson was a printer and probably published his short account himself. It seems likely that the copy held by Torquay Central Library is the only one now in existence’ (p. 5).  

The lack of a digital dimension to Griffin’s research is striking. The process she describes is one of finding forgotten items in dusty archives. Yet the period she discusses – the first half of the nineteenth century – is one where we assume that digital online coverage of published books is quite good. These are books which don't present many copyright problems, and it seems reasonable to assume that many of them will have been covered already by the mass digitisaton programmes of Google, Microsoft et al., and be accessible via Google Books, the Internet Archive and so on. Indeed, perhaps it would be feasible to assemble enough online versions of these working class autobiographies to use some quantification techniques on the text, and see how the results compare with Griffin’s qualitative explorations. What type of language was used in discussing factory work? How were conditions in towns described? Maybe we could even envisage some sentiment analysis of these texts. The potential of these documents for quantatitive analysis has already been demonstrated by Jane Humphries, who has used them in this way in her study of Childhood and Childhood Labour in the Industrial Revolution (2010).  By mining the digital versions of these autobiographies, perhaps we can dissolve the quantification / qualitative polarities in the historiography of the Industrial Revolution, and develop a new type of discourse about the effects of industrialization. But the practicability of such an approach would be dependent on the extent to which our autobiographies are available in digital form.

A key tool in Griffin’s research was a monumental annotated critical bibliography of The Autobiography of the Working Class edited by John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall, which was published in three volumes from 1984-9 and lists over two thousand autobiographies by people of working class origin produced between 1790 and 1945. Griffin notes that many more items have come to light since these volumes were prepared (p. 248), but they are nevertheless the starting point in attempting to appraise digital coverage of this material. Many of the items described by Burnett et al are in manuscript or typescript form, but a very large proportion are published, and we can hope that many of the earlier items are available online. (On Burnett's Bibliography, see further the archive kept at Brunel University.)

Prior to 1800, the English Short Title Catalogue, representing decades of intensive bibliographic research, provides an authoritative record of the printed output of the English-speaking world, and the ESTC underpins the digital libraries of Early English Books Online and Eighteenth Century Collections Online (although even the ESTC is not comprehensive. Between 1788 and 1793, Thomas Johnson, an influential designer, carver and gilder, published an anthology called Summer Productions; or, Progressive Miscellanies, which contains at the end of the sixth volume an account of his life. The ESTC only notes the first volume, which is in the British Library. In 2003, Jacob Simon pointed out that there were copies of the remaining five volumes in the Library and Museum of Freemasonry, and published Johnson's Autobiography in Furniture History 39, pp. 1-64) . But most of the printed autobiographies in which we are interested were produced after 1800. Burnett’s bibliography only covers items produced after 1790, and only three items in it were printed before 1800  (Vol. 1, nos. 15, 472, 507).  Griffin, going back to 1700, adds a further six items, giving us nine recorded working-class autobiographies between 1700 and 1800. By contrast, the Bibliography records over 80 working class autobiographies produced between 1800 and 1849, which (as Griffin observes) itself tells us a great deal about changes in working class literacy and access to means of communication.

The nine eighteenth-century autobiographies are all carefully recorded in the ESTC and as a result duly appear in Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Here are the ESTC entries in chronological order, with links to the ECCO facsimile. Where only one edition of the work appears in ECCO, I have given the entry for that edition.  Where copies are available via Google Books or the Internet Archive, I have also given a link.

Tryon, Thomas, 1634-1703.  Some memoirs of the life of Mr. Tho. Tryon, late of London, merchant: Written by himself: together with some rules, and orders, proper to be observed by all such as would train up and govern, either familes, or societies, in cleanness, temperance, and innocency. (London : Printed, by T. Sowle, in White-Hart-Court, in Gracious-Street, 1705.) ECCO copy.
Chubb, Thomas, 1679-1747.  The posthumous works of Mr. Thomas Chubb: containing, I. Remarks on the Scriptures. II. Observations on the Reverend Mr. Warburton's Divine Legation of Moses. III. The author's farewel to his Readers; comprehending a Variety of Tracts, on the most important Subjects of Religion. With an appendix, including a postscript to his four last Dissertations, more particularly relative to that on the History of Melchizedek. To the whole is prefixed, some account of the author : written by himself. In two volumes. ... (London : printed for R. Baldwin, jun. at the Rose in Pater-Noster-Row; and sold by E. Easton, in Silver-Street, Sarum, M.DCC.XLVIII. [1748]). ECCO copy. HATHI Trust copy. Google Books copy.
Bewley, George, 1683 or 4-1749.  A narrative of the Christian experiences of George Bewley, late of the City of Corke, deceased. Written by himself: And Published with the Approbation, and by Order of the National Half-Year's Meeting, held in Dublin in the third Month, 1750. (Dublin : printed by I. Jackson at the Globe in Meath-Street, 1750.)  ECCO copy.
Bangs, Benjamin, 1652-1741.  Memoirs of the life and convincement of that worthy Friend, Benjamin Bangs, late of Stockport in Cheshire, deceased; mostly taken from his own mouth, by Joseph Hobson. (London : printed and sold by Luke Hinde at the Bible in George-Yard, Lombard-Street, [1757]). ECCO copy.
Barker, Robert, b. 1729.  The unfortunate shipwright: Or, Cruel captain. Being a faithful narrative of the unparallel'd sufferings of Robert Barker, late carpenter on board the thetis snow of Bristol, in a voyage to the coast of Guinea and Antigua. (London : Printed for, and sold by the author, and may be had at Mr. Samuel Collins's, the sign of the Card-maker's Arms on Garlick Hill, London, and no where else, 1758.)  ECCO copy. [A copy of the 1759 edition is available via Google Books]. 
Barker, Robert, b. 1729.  Unfortunate shipwright. Part 2  (Published according to act of Parliament.) The second part of the unfortunate shipwright; or, The blind man's travels through many parts of England, in pursuit of his right: ([Dublin] : London, printed: and Dublin reprinted for Robert Barker, for his own benefit, in the year, 1766.) ECCO copy
MacDonald, John, b. 1741?.  Travels, in various parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa, during a series of thirty years and upwards. By John Macdonald, A Cadet of the Family of Keppoch in Inverness-Shire; who, After the Ruin of his Family in 1745, was thrown when a Child on the wide World; the Ways of which, with many curious, useful, and interesting Particulars he had occasion to observe, and has taken care, by Means of a regular Journal, to record, while he served, in various departments, a great number of Noblemen and Gentlemen, English, Scotch, Irish, Dutch, &c. &c. (London : printed for the author, and sold by J. Forbes, Covent-Garden, MDCCXC. [1790]). ECCO copy
Memoirs of a printer's devil; interspersed with pleasing recollections, local descriptions, and anecdotes. (Gainsborough : printed and sold by J. M. Mozley and Co. for the author: and sold by Messrs. Rivington, St. Paul's-Church-Yard, London, M.DCC.XCIII. [1793]) ECCO copy
McKaen, James, 1752 or 3-1797.  Genuine copy. The life of James M'Kaen, shoemaker in Glasgow, [w]ho was executed at the Cross of Glasgow, on Wednesday the 25th Jan. 1797. For the murder and robbery of James Buchanan, the Lanark carrier. [ Second edition.] (Glasgow : Printed for and sold by Brash and Reid, [1797]). ECCO copy
Anderson, Edward, 18th cent.  The sailor; a poem. Description of his going to sea, and through various scenes of life, ... with observations on the town of Liverpool. By Edward Anderson, ... (Newcastle : printed for and sold by the author. M. Angus and Son, Printers, Side, Newcastle, [1800?]) ECCO copy.  

So for books published before 1800, that remarkable bibliographic achievement, the ESTC, and the resoures derived from it such as ECCO, ensure that we can easily trace obscure voices like that of Robert Barker or Benjamin Bangs. It is worth noting in passing that humbler folk like these are not so well served by other initiatives such as Google Books or the HATHI Trust. While most (but not all) of these works feature as catalogue entries in Google Books, only one is reproduced in facsimile in the Googl;e library so far (which is also the only one to be picked up by the HATHI Trust, showing how the selectivity of these initiatives can become self-reinforcing).

From 1800, paradoxically, as working class autobiographies become more commonplace, they start to disappear from the web. This is partly because the bibliographical infrastructure is less comprehensive from 1800. As noted, to 1800 we have the ESTC which attempts to record every known publication from the English-speaking world. A Nineteenth-Century Short Title catalogue was produced in print and CD-ROM by Avero Publications between 1983 and 2003 and there is an online version which continures to be updated, but, even though this contains more than 1,275,000 items, it is based on the holdings of big league research libraries: the Bodleian Library, the British Library, Harvard University Library, the Library of Congress, the Library of Trinity College, Dublin, the National Library of Scotland and the University Libraries of Cambridge and Newcastle.That means a book that survives in a single copy in Torquay Public Library will not be mentioned. If a book was published in the nineteenth century (and likewise for much of the twentieth century), it needed to have had the social, intellectual or moral prestige to make it worthy of inclusion in one of the super-elite libraries of the English-speaking world. And, if it didn't make its way into these august collections, then it probably won't make it onto the web either, because the blinkered assumption of projects like Google Books and the HATHI Trust is that the sum of human knowledge and understanding is only to be found in elite top notch institutions, and not in Torquay Public Library.

Let us take as an illustration the autobiography found by Griffin in Torquay: A Short Account of the Life of John Robinson, printed by Robinson himself in Torquay in 1882. This does not appear in the Bibliography of Burnett et al., and Griffin speculates that the copy in Torquay Public Library is the only one surviving. Not surprisingly, it is not in the NSTC. A natural next port of call would be COPAC, which declares that 'In a single search you can discover the holdings of the UK’s national libraries (including the British Library), many University libraries, and specialist research libraries'. COPAC stands for 'CURL Online Public Access Catalogue'. CURL was the Consortium of University Libraries, a co-ordinating group for libraries as universities which regarded themselves as elite, now re-branded as Research Libraries UK. Broadly, the membership of RLUK is those elite universities which belong to what is called the Russell Group. There are one or two non-Russell Group universities in RLUK, but generally non-Russell Group universities such as Aberystwyth University, Bangor University, Hull University, Kent University and Sussex University, all of which have important and interesting research collections, are not deemed worthy of inclusion in the COPAC club. COPAC has recently been extending its coverage to other specialist collections, including some which are major resources for working class history such as the Bishopsgate Institute and the Humanist Library at Conway Hall, but no public library collections have so far passed the august portals of COPAC.

A better alternative in searching for this type of material is WorldCat, run by the world's biggest and most important library consortium, OCLC (Online Computer Library Center) which has developed from an association of Ohio Libraries and Colleges who wanted to share cataloguing and other resources. Many of the bibliographic products produced by OCLC are indispensable to running a large modern library service and virtually every major library service in the UK is a member and contributes its catalogue records to WorldCat. This includes the university libraries omitted from COPAC, as well as public library services such as Torbay Library Services. WorldCat altogether combines the catalogues of more than 10,000 libraries worldwide. However the size of WorldCat can be a hindrance if you are looking for specific items. In this case, the fact that 'short account life robinson' (and other similar search strategies) wil result in hundreds of hits on WotldCat. The single sheet in Torquay is probably somewhere, but it is searching for a needle in a haystack.

Annoyingly, WorldCat doesn't have an easy means of restricting searches to particular libraries. So the simplest thing to do is to go direct to the online catalogue for Torbay Library Services, where a search for 'robinson' as author and 'short' in the title produces the following very gnomic catalogue entry:

RCN - ISBN/ISSN/BNB          D02006836X
Personal Name          Robinson, J.
Main Title       A short account of the life of john robinson
Publication     As author
# TORQUAY LOCAL HISTORY          D929/ROB PAM        Not for loan    Local History/Studies
Part of the difficulty in locating this item in WorldCat was because this original catalogue information is so limited - an indication of place or approximate date of publication would have assisted in locating the information on WorldCat. It is sometimes suggested that catalogue information and formats are becoming irrelevant because of the power of Google as a search tool, but of course the quality of Google searches depend on the underlying information. WorldCat records have been ingested into Google Books, presumably to help direct future digitisation work, but the restricted information in this catalogue entry effectively obscures it. A Google search for 'john robinson torquay' doesn't retrieve the catalogue entry in the first ten hits. A search for "short account of the life of john robinson" does the job, but the lack of information in the original catalogue entry makes the Google Book entry virtually meaningless:

It will probably be a very long time before we see a digitised version of Robinson's account of his life in Google Books. It is ironic that it is through Emma Griffin's own reference to Robinson's little autobiography that this item is beginning to develop a footprint in Google (to which this blog entry will, of course, add). In selecting items for digitisation in Google Books and other mass digitisation projects, priority is given to such 'great libraries' as the Bodleian Library, Harvard University Library and the British Library. The assumption appears to be that the contents of these libraries embraces the whole of human knowledge and understanding. For the British partners, it is assumed that legal deposit under the terms of copyright legislation means that the libraries have a copy of every book ever printed in the UK. But in the British Library (for example) legal deposit was not systematically enforced until the late 1840s and it is unlikely that librarians at the British Museum before that date would have taken much interest in acquiring what would have been seen as such ephemeral material as the autobiographies used by Griffin. Moreover, many items received under legal deposit considered of ephemeral interest were not fully catalogued by the British Library but placed under generic 'dump' headings. The ESTC found that there were something like 50,000-60,000 forgotten items from the eighteenth century in the British Library. These have now been largely identified and catalogued for items up to 1800, but no such similar exercise has occurred for the nineteenth century, and there can be no doubt that many further working class autobiographies languish under such dump catalogue entries.

Although WorldCat and Google Books are wonderful resources, the problem is that they reinforce an assumption that by simply linking up the catalogues of major libraries gives us comprehensive coverage in a quick and painless process. As a result, we found ourselves silently and surreptitiously enmeshed in the world view and cultural assumptions which shaped those elite libraries. The problem is that, in working with resources like Google Books, we soon cease to have any sense of how these resources are silently constraining and altering our research. You can begin to get a sense of the perils of this process by looking more closely at the way which the digital representation of the working class autobiographies used by Emma Griffin is highly filtered, with a significant quantity of material disappearing from sight altogether.

Those writers of working class origins who had a success story to report, who had become distinguished statesmen, successful businessmen, religious leaders and so on, were able to find commercial publishers who were interested in their story. Writers whose life demonstrated the virtues of temperance, prudence and self-help were of course particularly favoured. Books published by major commercial publishers would be picked up by the legal deposit libraries in Britain, and might even excite interest across the Atlantic. As a result, it is these volumes which we tend to find in such resources as Google Books, the Internet Archive and the HATHI Trust. Here are some examples:

[Burnett et al., Vol. 1, No. 125]. [CAMPKIN, J.], The Struggles of a Village Lad (William Tweedie: London, 1859). Google Books copy (from The British Library).

[Burnett et al., Vol. 1, No. 241]. FLOCKHART, Robert. The Street Preacher, being the Autobiography of Robert Flockhart, late corporal 81st Regiment (Adam and Charles Black: Edinburgh, 1858). Google Books copy (from Harvard); HATHI Trust copy (also from Harvard).

[Burnett et al., Vol. 1, No. 331]. HILLOCKS, James Inches. My Life and Labours in London, a step nearer the mark (William Freeman: London, 1865). Cheap edn., Mission Life in London (London, 1865). Google Books copy of cheap edition (from Oxford), also available at Internet Archive.

[Burnett et al., Vol. 1, No. 632] [SMITH, Charles Manby], The Working Man's Way in the World, being the Autobiography of a Journeyman Printer (William and Frederick G. Cash: London [1853]). Google Books copy (from Harvard), also in Internet Archive and HATHI Trust (with additional copy in New York Public Library). 

[Burnett et al., Vol. 1, No. 675] ANON., Struggles for Life; or, the Autobiography of a Dissenting Minister (W. and F. G. Cash, London; John Menzies, Edinburgh: 1854 [1853]; new edn. The Book Society, Hamilton, Adams and Co., Jarrold and Sons: London, 1864). Google Books copy, from an American edition printed by Lindsay and Blakiston, Philadelphia, 1854, in Harvard Libraries, where a cataloguer has identified the author as William Leask. This copy also in HATHI Trust catalogue.

These autobiographies for one reason or the other caught the attention of librarians and collectors and made their way to the respectable havens of Harvard and the British Museum, where they have been picked up by Google, HATHI and so on. In comparing the contents of the bibliography compiled with Burnett et al. with Google Books, the surprising thing is the large number of the nineteenth century autobiographies, most of which present no copyright issues, are represented only by catalogue entries with no digitisation. This is a reminder of how far Google Books remains a very incomplete (indeed, barely started) enterprise, even for pre-1900 material. In some cases, digitised versions of autobiographies (derived from a microfilm edition of some items in the British Library from Burnett's Bibliography) are available via the Gale subscription resource, Nineteenth Century Collections Online (these electronic versions are picked up by COPAC). However, what is the most surprising and startling aspect of examining the digital presence of these working class autobiographies is the large number which escaped the bibliographical net altogether. As a result, these everyday voices have effectively vanished from the web, except where a modern scholar happens to have discussed them and this discussion has been picked up by Google. Let us examine a few cases to illustrate the process.

Edward Davis was born in Aston started working in a button factory at the age of six. He became a Quaker in 1858 and, having been apprenticed to a pearl button manufacturer and then built up a confectionery trade, eventually became a teacher. In 1898, the firm of White and Pike published a short pamphlet by Davis entitled Some Passages from My Life, Davis presumably paying for the publication. This is No. 204 in Vol. 1 of the Burnett bibliography, which states that there is a copy in Birmingham Reference Library. This is not on the online catalogue of Birmingham Libraries, presumably because it is only recorded on a card catalogue which has not been converted to an online form. Since the book is not recorded in the Birmingham catalogue, it is not in WorldCat. And as a result of this, there is no catalogue entry for Davis's little book in Google Books, the HATHI Trust, or The Open Library. Davis's book hasn't completely vanished from the web, however. A xerox of the copy in Birmingham was made at some point (presumably because of the entry in Burnett's bibliography) and deposited in Oxford University, so there is an entry for this photocopy on COPAC.
Other autobiographies have been more completely obscured by the way in which digitisation has proceeded. John Finney worked in the Potteries from the age of 13 and in 1902 published Sixty Years Recollection of an Etruscan (J. G. Fenn, Stoke-on-Trent, 1902), which is No. 57 in Vol. 3 of the Bibliography. The Bibliography records that there is a copy in the Horace Barks Reference Library in Hanley. In many cases, holdings of local history libraries and reference libraries remain as card catalogues, and the online catalogue for Stoke libraries does not refer to Finney's book. So, once again, it is absent from our major catalogues - no entry for Finney's book in WorldCat or COPAC. As a result, Google Books denies all knowedge of such a book. A general Google web search on 'John Finney Etruscan' will tell us that this is an engaging work, but we can find out nothing else about it or where to get it.

Another example: Benjamin North was born at Thame in Oxford in 1811, the 8th child of a labourer. He was a boy shepherd, bird-keeper, plough-boy, and groom, then trained as a paper-maker, but was made redundant by the introduction of new machinery. He eventually became a traveller for a chair-maker and set up a successful furniture business in High Wycombe. North's autobiography was published after his death by his son, and is No. 129 in Vol. 3 of the Bibliography: Autobiography of Benjamin North, with a preface by W.H., to which is appended a brief notice of his last moments, by his eldest son (Fred K. Samuels, Aylesbury, 1882). A copy is recorded in the Local Collection Reference Library in High Wycombe. The entry in the Buckinghamshire Libraries online catalogue states that the copy in High Wycombe is a photocopy. Buckinghamshire Libraries are members of OCLC, so perhaps it is because the High Wycombe copy is stated to be a photocopy that the entry for North's memoirs does not appear in WorldCat. Whatever the explanation, this is another book that the web has caused to vanish: no entry in WorldCat, nothing in COPAC, no report on Google Books. The only trace of its existence in Google is where it is cited by historians such as Emma Griffin or Jane Humphries in her book on Childhood and Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution.
We could continue to mount up examples of working class autobiographies listed in the Bibliography of Burnett, Vincent and Mayall which have vanished from our main online bibliographic resources such as WorldCat and Google Books and have in effect been suppressed by the web. Here is a random list made from first preliminary checks against the Bibliography:

[Burnett et al., Vol. 1, No. 26] Autobiographies of Industrial School Children (T. Nelson and Sons: London, 1865). Ten short narratives by boys and girls who attended industrial schools in Aberdeen. A copy is reported in Aberdeen Central Library.

[Burnett et al., Vol. 1, No. 41] BARBER, Mrs M. Five Score and Ten. A True Narrative of the Long Life and Many Hardships of M. Barber, taken down from her own dictation, a short time before her death and who died at the advanced age of nearly one hundred and eleven years (Penny and Makeig, Crewkerne, 1840). Copy reported in Bristol Central Library, the website for which explains clearly why this little book hasn't made its way onto the web: 'Much of the older reference stock from before 1985 will not be found on the online catalogue. These records are still held on card catalogue files in the Reference Library'.

[Burnett et al., Vol. 1, No. 47] BARNETT, Will. The Life Story of Will Barnett, better known as the ex-jockey. Written by himself (Spurgeon Memorial Press: Congleton, [1911?]). Copy in Horace Barks Reference Library, Hanley.

[Burnett et al., Vol. 1, No. 71] BLOW, John. The Autobiography of John Blow (J. Parrott: Leeds, 1870). Copy in Leeds Public Library.

[Burnett et al., Vol. 1, No. 213] DUKE, Robert Rippon. An Autobiography, 1817-1902 (Privately published: Buxton, 1902). Copy in Derbyshire County Library, Matlock. Duke, having been apprenticed to a caprenter at the age of 14, became an architect and was responsible for much of the development of Buxton, so there are published biographies and further information about him on the web, but the existence of this published autobiography is only mentioned in passing.

[Burnett et al., Vol. 1, No. 263] GIBBS, John. The Life and Experience of, and some traces of the Lord's gracious dealings towards the author, John Gibbs, Minister of the Gospel, at the Chapel of Saint John Street, Lewes (Printed for the author: Lewes, 1827). On this book. see now in addition the Annual Report of the East Sussex County Record Office 2008-9, p. 13.

[Burnett et al., Vol. 1, No. 299] HANBY, George. Autobiography of a Colliery Weighman (Brewin and Davis: Barnsley, 1874). Copy in Barnsley Public Library.

[Burnett et al., Vol. 1, No. 300] HANSON, William. The Life of William Hanson, written by himself (in his 80th year) and revised by a friend (Privately published: Halifax, 1883). Another edition was published by J. Walsh in Halifax in 1884. Copies in Halifax Public Library.

[Burnett et al., Vol. 1, No. 478]  McNAUGHTON, John Donkin. The Life and Happy Experience of John Donkin McNaughton. Written by Himself (H. Masterman: Thirsk, [1810?]). Burnett et al don't give a location for this item - presumably it is recorded only on a card catalogue somewhere in North Yorkshire County Libraries.

[Burnett et al., Vol. 1, No. 542] [OVERSBY, W. T.] A Life's Romance. By a Successful Insurance Man (Liverpool Daily Post: Liverpool, 1938). Copy in Blackburn Central Library.
[Burnett et al., Vol. 1, No. 568] RAGG, Thomas. God's Dealings with an Infidel: or, Grace Triumphant: being the Autobiography of Thomas Ragg, author of Creation's Testimony to its God' (Piper, Stephenson and Spence: London, 1858). Copy reported in Local Studies Department, Central Reference Library, Birmingham.

[Burnett et al., Vol. 1, No. 598] ROONEY, Ralph. The Story of My Life (Bury Times: Bury, 1947). 3 editions are reported in Burnett, all held by the Local Studies Collection in Preston, but none of them are apparently in WorldCat, Copac, Google Books, etc.

[Burnett et al., Vol. 1, No. 637] SMITH, George. An Autobiography of One of the People (Privately published, 1923). Copy in Local Studies Library, Redruth.

[Burnett et al., Vol. 1, No. 641] SMITH, William. The Life of William Smith, late Minister of the Baptist Chapel, Bedworth (E. C. Lewis: Coventry [1857?]). Copy in Nuneaton Library.

[Burnett et al., Vol. 1, No. 677] SUTTON, William. Multum in Parvo; or the Ups and Downs of a Village Gardener (Robertson and Gray: Kenilworth, 1903). Copy in Local Studies Library, Coventry.

[Burnett et al., Vol. 1, No. 687] TAYLOR, John. Autobiography of John Taylor (J. Francis: Bath, 1893). Copy in Bristol Central Library.

This is only the result of a very preliminary excursus into the Bibliography, and again the very action of publishing this blog entry (just as means of parking my notes for the time being) will give these books a web presence, in some cases for the first time. However, these lacunae of the web do raise important questions about how we are building up our digital libraries and the way in which we conduct research using them. For the period before 1800, the ESTC attempts (and largely succeeds) in documenting all printing in the English-speaking world, no matter where it is kept. After 1800, Google Books and other enterprises have decided to forgo the preliminary creation of such a detailed bibliographical infrastructure. Instead, they have assumed that national libraries and other major research libraries contain all that is needed, and have worked from there. The way in which the use of this ad hoc method distorts the online representation of post-1800 printing requires much further examination. I suspect the result is that the printed output of the provinces (particularly the newly industrialised areas of Northern England and the Midlands) is seriously underrepresented in corpora like Google Books. The extent to which there is an inherent class bias in enterprises like Google Books is also worth investigating (probably there was a bias in the British Museum against all sorts of biographical material which was apparently only of ephemeral value). These issues in themselves have ramifications for the research methods that we adopt in approaching collections like Google Books. 'Distant reading' has a great deal to offer in looking at  measuring shifts in the use of language and metaphor over long periods, but, if the sample on which the distant reading takes place is biased towards particular regions or social groups, this will significantly distort the results.

I hope to develop a more detailed analysis of these issues, but I suppose a preliminary conclusion is a plea to remember public libraries in developing digitisation programmes. Digitising the British Library and Harvard Libraries will never be enough; we also need the Horace Barks Reference Library, the Mitchell Library and the Minet Library. Our digitisation strategies need to take this into account.

Further Reading

J. Burnett (ed.) Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of Childhood, Education and Family from the 1820s to the 1920s (London: Allen Lane, 1982)
J. Burnett (ed.) Useful Toil: Autobiographies of Working People from the 1820s to the 1920s (London: Allen Lane, 1994)
J. Burnett, D. Vincent and D. Mayall (eds.), The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated Critical Bibliography 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1984-9)
E. Griffin, Liberty's Dawn: A People's History of the Industrial Revolution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013)
Jane Humphries, Childhood and Childhood Labour in the British Industrial Revolution  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010)
D. Vincent, Testaments of Radicalism: Memoirs of Working Class Politicians 1790-1885 (London: Europa, 1977)
D. Vincent, Bread, Knowledge and Freedom: A Study of Nineteenth-Century Working Class Autobiography (London: Europa, 1981)



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9 August 2013

"Start from Arts and Humanities"

Mark Weiser was the Chief Technology Officer at the Rank Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) from 1996-1999. PARC had of course during the 1960s and 1970s been the place where many of the features we associate with personal computing were developed. Weiser had a vision of something which went further - a world where we are surrounded by technollogical devices which help shape our life silently and without complex interactions. Weiser called this 'ubiquitous computing' and described his vision in an article 'The Computer for the 21st Century' in the Scientific American in 1991. And of course Weiser's vision is very much the world we see taking shape today - of mobile phones which are powerful small computers, domestic devices controlled by chips, self-navigating cars, an internet of things.

Weiser's work is described in the enthralling book by Phil Dourish and Genevieve Bell, Divining a Digital Future: Mess of Mythology in Ubiquitous Computing. Weiser sadly died on cancer in 1999 but his website www.ubiq.com provides a record of his ideas and personality - itself an interesting example of the need to preserve websites as historical documents.

Among the documents archived on Weiser's site are a series of slides (35mm. slides - these were the days before data projectors were commonplace) from a talk called 'Building Invisible Interfaces' given by him in 1994. The whole lecture is compelling, but perhaps particularly intriguing for those working in the digital humanities is Slide No. 10:

'start from arts and humanities' is a wonderful message. Weiser's message was, as described by Dourish and Bell, a heady one: 'Weiser hoped that future research in ubicomp would be thoroughly grounded in postmodern analysis and feminist critical theory'. (p. 16) Maybe Weiser's vision of computer science research which is framed by a powerful engagement with cultural theory anticipates what Digital Humanties is becoming.    

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22 July 2013

Riffs on McCarty

A recent highlight for the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College London was the award of the Roberto Busa prize, the major international award for lifetime achievement in the digital humanities, to Willard McCarty, one of the founding fathers of the Department. Matthew Jockers in introducing Willard’s Busa lecture memorably described him as the ‘Obi-Wan Kenobi of digital humanities’, a denomination which Willard relished.

Occasional lectures of this kind can often be damp squibs, but Willard’s Busa lecture was truly memorable, because it mapped out an intellectual manifesto for the future of the digital humanities which is ambitious, exciting and inspiring. The title illustrates the ambition of the lecture: 'Getting There from Here: Remembering the Future of the Digital Humanities'. Willard’s lecture was live-streamed, and I understand that the archive video will shortly be available online. We are arranging for Willard to repeat his lecture at King’s in the autumn, and it will be published.

Willard’s lecture was incredibly rich and intellectually challenging, so it might be worth starting the process of unpacking his message. Willard’s lecture will I am sure lead to as much discussion and debate as his 2005 book on Humanities Computing, and the lecture should be seen as the next move forward from what Willard describes as the ‘intellectually claustrophobic territory’ represented by his book. Among the key themes in Willard’s lecture to which I would draw particular attention are:

- ‘Failure is our most important product’. In describing his work to see how far tagging could capture aspects of Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’, Willard urges us to move away from our preoccupation with creating user-friendly online resources which will enable humanities scholars with low levels of computer literacy more easily to search and interrogate their primary materials. Willard urges a more experimental digital humanities which explores the limits and inadequacies of computing. I couldn’t agree more. For too long, we have seen ourselves as evangelists of technology, trying to convince humanities scholars that machines can be helpful. The risk now is that, as digital technologies become commonplace in the academy, we will assume that there is only one way of doing things, a series of methods and standards which have to be shared and disseminated. The result will be an evisceration of the possibilities of the digital humanities. The only way to avoid this is to embrace that sense of computing as an ‘ongoing, never ending experimental process’ described by Willard, but that means radically changing the type of things we assume that digital humanities should do – death to projects; more experiments, more tinkering, more just trying out.

- ‘Imaginative exploration’.  Willard picks up on Busa’s 1976 question ‘Why can the computer do so little?’ to criticize our assumption that computers simply enable us to reduce the drudgery of scholarship by performing routine tasks more quickly. Thinking of the computer as a ‘mere’ tool is a way of making it safe – it becomes from this perspective just a humdrum piece of technology which gets rid of the tedious aspects of research. Such thinking is a way of avoiding confronting the radical epistemological and phenomenological implications of computing. If we think of digital humanities as a series of ‘methods’ which can be ‘applied’, we are complicit in such denial of the radical implications of the computer. Digital humanities is not a series of methods which can be learnt or introduced but rather a field of exploration. We need to focus on imaginatively exploring the potential (and limitations) of computing rather than on creating ever more efficient scholarly data crunching.

- Learning from artists. Referring back to the 1968 Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, ‘at which artists and engineers experimented with ideas so far ahead of their time they remain mostly ahead of ours’, Willard urges those engaged in the digital humanities to create a stronger dialogue with technologically aware artists. This is a theme I have found echoed in my own work on the AHRC’s ‘Digital Transformations’ theme where it has become evident that the time is ripe for a stronger cross-over between the digital arts and the digital humanities. The kind of work with arduinos, conductive inks or mBed microcontrollers is precisely the field for that restless experimentation, the constant tinkering, that Willard urges us to engage in.

- ‘We need the technosciences just as much, more than many of us realize, more than some of us fear.’  Willard powerfully argues the need for the digital humanities to connect more closely with the sciences. At one level, this is simply because the discipline will wither and die if it loses its connection with its epistemological roots. At another, shared issues and concerns mean that scientists are people we can and should be talking to. One of the most fascinating events I attended recently was a multi-disciplinary workshop on theproblems of Big Data organized by the Large Hadron Collider community. The cross-connections and parallels across different disciplines were fascinating. We need more of that sort of dialogue – we won’t learn much new from talking to historians or classicists but talking to scientists will lead us into completely fresh pastures.

- Where is the criticism? Willard, taking up questions posed by Alan Liu and Fred Gibbs, emphasizes the importance of retaining a critical stance in exploring these areas. Indeed, one of the things which we as humanities scholars bring to the table in discussions with scientists and technologists are the remarkable theoretical tools which are among the great intellectual achievements of the past fifty years (and in turn have their roots in the scientific discoveries of men like Einstein, Heisenberg and Freud). The most fruitful areas of future development for the digital humanities will be at these intersections of science, art and criticism – as critical code studies are beginning to illustrate. A key element for this in Willard’s discussion is the importance of historicizing our understanding of an engagement with computing.

- Resonate with the humanities! Just as digital humanities wilts if it ignores its roots in computing science, likewise its roots in the humanities cannot be forgotten. Willard expresses the aim perfectly when he says that the results of our foraging across the sciences, technology, arts and culture should ‘resonate with the humanities’. The mix we produce from our hunter-gatherer expeditions will not necessarily fall into such easily recognizable categories as history, literature or archaeology, but what we find and express should have resonances across all these disciplines. Here, I think we can draw inspiration from disciplines such as bibliography or manuscript studies. To take an example from my own work, my study of the restoration of the burnt manuscripts of Sir Robert Cotton has, I believe, implications across a range of historical, literary and other studies, but I would find it difficult to categorise it as history or literature – I hope it has wider resonances, as our DH experiments should.      

Willard described in his Busa lecture a new type of digital humanities. This is a digital humanities which remembers its roots and traditions – indeed to some extent Busa’s 1976 question ‘Why can a computer do so little?’ provides the key epigram for the lecture. It is a digital humanities which is intellectually restless and exists in marginal lands: ‘I’ve imagined us as maritime explorers in an archipelago of disciplines, peripatetic, prowling the margins; I’ve imagined us with the novelist David Malouf, adventurous youth discovering life and death in a wild, dangerous acre of bush’. This area is defined by a triangulation between science, digital arts and making and cultural criticism. It is an area of experiment – of tinkering and playing with cross-connections. It is a zone of failure but also of restless intellectual energy.

At the end of his lecture, Willard commented how the digital photograph albums we increasingly produce in the name of improved access distort and oversimplify our understanding of the act of remembering. It is a tragedy how so much of what we do in the digital humanities denies the possibility of reinventing and changing the textual and other forms we have inherited. Our ‘digital scholarly editions’ are so conservatively conceived that they would be recognized and understood by the Grimm Brothers; we continue to use the calendar form, deeply bound up with print technology, to reproduce abridgements of historical documents; our collections of images are little more than photograph albums. Is the computer really no more than a digital photocopier? Does our digital humanities work explore whether it has greater potentiality? If we are to embrace Willard’s vision of a more intellectually restless and experimental digital humanities, we need to abandon many of the assumptions we have made about what we do in the digital humanities. Building endless numbers of unimaginative, repetitive, stereotyped and hidebound projects is not enough. As digital humanities develops, it is difficult to escape the suspicion that for many the routine creation of digital projects or the cutting and slicing of data provides a quiet peaceful haven, where we can code quietly without the risk of demanding intellectual challenges or complex theoretical considerations. Data is too often at the moment seen as a substitute for thought. Willard’s fundamental message is that digital humanities should be intellectually demanding and challenging, posing fundamental philosophical and theoretical questions at every turn. Willard describes here the intellectual constituency of the digital humanities, and it is the exploration and investigation of this constituency which should be our concern. We can discuss pointlessly and forever how big and what shape the text of the digital humanities should be (and what the labels on the door mean), but in the end it is only the conversations that take place within it which count. 

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5 May 2013

Small Worlds and Big Tents

The climax of David Lodge’s novel Small World, a burlesque on academic conferences in which scholars pursue each other around the world from conference to conference, occurs at that bizarre cultural manifestation, the Convention of the Modern Languages Association. The MLA Convention attracts thousands of American scholars every year who present hundreds of papers, but the main function of the event appears to be as a beauty parade for young scholars desperately seeking the shrinking number of academic posts available in North America. Intellectual exploration and excitement don’t figure very high in this revolting bloated piece of academic corporatism. I am conscious that MLA has over the years helped promote causes to which I am sympathetic, and has played an active part in breaking down conservative approaches to the study of literature. Nevertheless, I find it astonishing that the MLA Convention attracts so many different scholars but is nevertheless one of the most parochial and inward-looking academic gatherings on the planet, preoccupied with those tiresome internal debates that characterize American academic life. MLA is the smallest and most self-absorbed of worlds. The recent calls to Occupy MLA would be very attractive as a means of attacking this horrible institution, except that it would require one to go to MLA.

Much of the excitement about Digital Humanities as ‘the next big thing’ (in itself an absurd piece of hype, given that the type of research espoused by the Digital Humanities has been practiced for over fifty years) has been generated by internal debates within MLA. The progress of DH has been measured by its prominence on the MLA platforms (particularly through Mark Sample's excellent work - my illustration above is a wordcloud by Mark of tweets from the 2009 MLA). At the 2013 Convention, a roundtable on 'The Dark Side of Digital Humanities' suggested inter alia that DH has paved the way for such managerial initiatives in universities as the use of metrics or the rise of MOOCs (The roundtable was led by Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Richard Grusin, Patrick Jagoda and Rita Raley). This roundtable has generated the predictable large quantities of MLA hot air, and the blog debate around ‘The Dark Side of Digital Humanities’ is burgeoning. A recent and helpful addition to the debate by Stephen Ramsay proposes a distinction between what he calls DH Type 1, represented by such activities as the Perseus Digital Library, Rossetti Archive, TEI, etc., and DH Type 2, in which DH is used a shorthand for signifier ‘both for a very broad constellation of scholarly endeavors, and for a certain revolutionary disposition that had overtaken the academy’. The ‘big tent’ of DH Type 2, suggests Ramsay, reflects a looser definition of DH: ‘Media studies practitioners were digital humanists; people who had devoted several decades to digital pedagogy were digital humanists; cultural critics who were interested in Internet culture were digital humanists; and digital artists of a certain variety were digital humanists’. For Ramsay, much of the criticism of the dark side of the digital humanities is directed at DH Type 2  (although I can’t imagine those people he lists as representing DH Type 2 being any more enthusiastic about say MOOCs than DH Type 1). Ramsay seeks to reaffirm the identification of ‘true’ (one might almost say fundamentalist) DH with DH Type 1, and seems to suggest that the rhetoric suggesting that DH will reshape the academy should be given a rest.  In an interesting response to Ramsay’s post, Michael Kramer suggests that the emergence of ‘alt-ac’, promoting the idea that DH could be a way of offering alternative academic careers for unemployed Humanities PhDs could help explain the emergence of Ramsay’s DH Type 2.

The ‘alt-ac’ and tenure discussions are an illustration of the way in which local problems in the structure of higher education in the United States are somehow represented as an existential crisis for humanity. When attending any DH event in the United States, it appears to be a necessary and unavoidable ritual that at least 25% of the discussion time be devoted to hearing about the problems encountered by American scholars producing digital outputs in securing tenure. I’m extremely sympathetic to the difficulties faced by young scholars in America, and the casualization of American academic work through the growth of the adjunct system is undoubtedly scandalous, but I came from a country where university tenure was abolished in 1988 and it seems rather pointless to travel thousand of miles to hear complaints about something which, as far as Britain is concerned, is dead and buried. Again, I am deeply sympathetic to ‘alt-ac’ debates. In a country where most PhDs have for many years been unlikely to find employment as lecturers, the idea that careers like publishing, curatorship or research management provide equally valid means of professional academic engagement is necessarily a familiar one. I deliberately chose at first not to pursue a university career and went to the British Library. I have moved between librarianship and academic positions throughout my career. I have generally found librarianship to be a more creative, intellectually stimulating, fast-changing and satisfying activity than conventional academic work. So I am very much in favour of ‘alt-ac’, but the way in which this discussion has developed seems to me to have been derailed by its American advocates. The discussion has become focused on the failure of American universities to deliver the prizes of tenured faculty positions, the terms on which such prizes are awarded, and whether an alternate career path is an equally valid reward. I warm to the way in which ‘alt-ac’ discussions urge a rethinking of the academy, but I am aghast at the way in which it is assumed that changing the American tenure system in some way represents a new form of academic life. It isn’t – it is the United States belatedly and ineffectually trying to sort out messes in the structure of its higher education system which probably should have been reformed years ago.

Debates about American tenure devalue and distract from more fundamental issues about the way in which Digital Humanities might change the academy, which are only apparent if we try and develop a more genuinely international perspective.  In Europe, libraries and archives have been strong drivers of DH developments and the career paths of many DH professional have criss-crossed a variety of professions, including information professions and academic career paths. Many DH practitioners (like myself) relish this professional eclecticism and, while we would strongly defend the intellectual claims of Digital Humanities against more conventional disciplines, would nevertheless be horrified to end up as academics in traditional departments – I decided firmly in 1979 that I did not want to be a History Professor, and I still do not want to be a History Professor. In Britain, the increasing professionalization of higher education and the resulting insistence on particular career paths is threatening this kind of eclecticism (in 2008, I could be returned as a librarian under the British research assessment exercise; this will not be possible in 2013). In addition, there is the issue of the digital humanities developer – the person who wants to spend a career creating DH resources, not necessarily pursuing their own scholarly vision or analysing the digital reshaping of scholarship. The developer is a key part of DH, but no one has effectively worked out how good career paths of this sort can be provided in a DH department. In fact, we run a terrible risk in many DH units of imposing precisely the sort of academic/ professional apartheid that DH should be explicitly reacting against.There is an urgent need to think through the ways in which we provide career structures in DH for the highly gifted technical developer who does not want a Ph D or an academic career but is fascinated by DH, makes the most fundamental contribution and wants to spend their life absorbed in DH. DH cannot and never will be undertaken solely by tenured academic faculty supported by post-docs waiting in the wings for the tenured folk to keel over. The ad hoc methods developed so far to support such career structures are not fit for purpose. We need urgently to think through a completely new career and skill structure for DH.   

Alt-ac is, or should be, more than means of providing career advice to humanities doctoral students in a country where a sclerotic tenure system is seizing up. Alt-ac is about reconnecting the academy internationally with the vibrant intellectual and scholarly world of galleries, archives, libraries, museums and, increasingly in a digital sphere, private companies (I think a digital humanist could as legitimately have a career with Google or Facebook as with a university). It is also about creating new career structures in universities which accommodate different skills, interests and aspirations. DH is an example of a university activity where a range of skills beyond that of the conventional academic is required; further such areas will inevitably quickly follow (as robots become more ubiquitous, how will we absorb them into the academy?). The greatest threat to universities comes not from MOOCs but rather from the risk (likelihood) that universities will fail to create more flexible career and institutional structures which address wider social and economic changes. Libraries have completely reinvented themselves since I began work as a librarian in 1979, and universities will be called to do the same over the next 30 years. Whatever the resulting institutional structure in universities, the one thing that is certain is that it will not prove to be an American traditional system of tenured faculty.

DH began in Italy (if we see Roberto Busa as its founding father). Much of the most exciting and innovative work in DH has taken place in Europe through figures such as Manfred Thaller, Jan Christoph Meister, Lou Burnard, Espen Ore or Claudine Moulin. Initiatives such as openedition.org, substantially supported by French government research organisations, or the comprehensive digitisation projects undertaken in the Netherlands show a maturity of infrastructure beyond much to be seen in the United States (where the Digital Public Library of America seems to be relying on a piecemeal voluntary effort rather than the comprehensive and systematic state-funded interventions of various European governments). Yet, for all its internationalist, interdisciplinary and collaborationist pretensions, much of the available literature on DH is dominated by internal North American debates, driven by MLA. Matthew Gold’s recent Debates in the Digital Humanities consisted chiefly of very parochial North American discussions – as far as I can see, only two contributors (Patrik Svensson and Willard McCarty) held posts in universities outside North America. The contents of Gold’s book are dominated by the kind of agendas being generated from within MLA, and suggest that there is a danger that DH will become annexed to the vacuous and anal preoccupations of the MLA.

I think this is possibly the true dark side of the Digital Humanities – that there is a risk that DH becomes one of the means by which an Anglophone globalization of world culture is implemented. Domenico Fiormonte recently analysed the wider threats represented by the anglicisation of DH in his thought-provoking contribution to the Cologne Debates in the Digital Humanities (altogether a more rounded and profound collection than that assembled by Gold). Reading Fiormonte’s discussion, one realizes that Ramsay’s distinction between DH Type 1 and DH Type 2 is largely irrelevant. DH Type 1, grounded in international organizations such as ALLC, might seem to have a wider international outlook than DH Type 2, but as Fiormonte emphasizes, DH Type 1 is as firmly Anglophone as DH Type 2.  These tables from Fiormonte’s article are extremely eloquent:

In this context, I would suggest that the problem is not the distinction between DH Type 1 and DH Type 2, but rather the way in which the formal structures of DH have become so strongly Anglophone and in particular the way in which they have become hooked up with a view that seems to equate the academy with the small world of American subject associations such as MLA. This myopic approach appears to be shared by Ramsay when he seems to suggest that DH Type 1 had largely a literary approach, and suggests that digital history and digital archaeology (both key components of DH in Europe) had a more distant relationship from DH Type 1. My worry is that this MLA annexation of DH appears to proceeding apace, and again distinguishing between the different strains of DH doesn’t seem to help – they all seem to carry the lethal MLA bacillus. Tim Hitchcock in a recent Twitter exchange commented that ‘DH is a bit up itself, a bit self-absorbed, a bit over concerned to claim its place, rather than make a difference’. This anxiety that DH should claim a place is driven strongly by the internal debates in North American bodies like MLA. Scholars engaged with technology, having been very badly treated by those who in the 1960s and 1970s saw no role for technology in the study of the arts, have reacted by trying too hard to demonstrate in venues such as MLA, the intellectual credibility of their work. That shouldn’t be necessary. The important thing is to demonstrate the validity of the approach by the quality of the scholarship produced – whether through the creation of a digital object, a book or an article, a visualization, a mash-up, a map, apiece of 3D printing, a blog entry or a tweet – the format and the method don’t matter as long as the scholarship is outstanding, gives us new understandings and, as Tim Hitchcock put it, makes a difference.

PS Thanks to @joshhonn for pointing out Whitney Trettien's post after MLA 2013, which I think supplements some of my comments from another, and equally important angle.

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16 April 2013


Although I have now been travelling on London buses for more than fifty years, I still find that the upper deck of a London bus is one of the most entertaining and diverting places to be. Coming home on the bus this evening, the Strand was disrupted outside King's College by preparations for Lady Thatcher's funeral tomorrow. Seeing the notices for her funeral, I felt one phase of my life coming full circle. I was job hunting during the Winter of Discontent in 1979 and was appointed at the British Library just as Margaret Thatcher was coming to power, so the first period of my professional life coincided with her government. I remember an old-style civil servant at the British Library assuring me and others that governments come and go - some would privatise cleaning services, other would bring services back in-house, at the end of the day it wouldn't make much difference. I instinctively felt that such cosy bureaucratic complacency was misplaced, and I was right - Thatcher was very different to everything we had known before.

At that time, I was completing my doctoral thesis on the history of the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, as I was at that time, and the early days of Thatcher government provided an instructive and appropriate backdrop. On 11 April 1381, I gave my first public talk on the revolt of 1981 at the University of Kent in Canterbury. I afterwards used my memories of the day to introduce an article on the 1381 revolt:

Returning to London by train, I was astonished to see, as we passed through Brixton, cars and shops in flames and mobs running through the streets. It seemed as if the ghosts of 1381 had come back to take their revenge on modern society. But it was not; it was a riot provoked by heavy-handed police behaviour following a stabbing outside a mini-cab office the previous night. This was the prelude to a summer of riots which affected inner city areas of London, Liverpool, Manchester and elsewhere, eventually leading to disturbances even in peaceful country towns like Cirencester and Knaresborough. These riots marked the nadir of the early days of the Thatcher government. 

Shortly afterwards, I saw a group of rioters throw a burning car into the air at Clapham Junction station, close to where I then lived. These events were instructive for a historian of rebellion: the way in which rumours of disturbances circulated beforehand, for example,  illustrated the power of rumour in such events. I also discovered how it was possible to be in a house close to very violent events and be completely unaware of what was going on. Later, the parallels with 1381 became even stronger when Thatcher's reintroduced a poll tax. The resulting riots were again instructive for a historian of 1381. In Hackney, for example, rioters were very selective in their attacks, destroying shops owned by international conglomerates or singling out unpopular local figures - strong parallels to what happened in 1381. A puzzle in 1381 is how manorial courts sat during the revolt while officials were being attacked and manorial records were being burnt. Yet in 1990 while Trafalgar Square saw the riots which eventually precipitated Thatcher's departure from office,  I sat contentedly in a pub half a mile away, with no knowledge of any disturbances.

Two memories of Margaret Thatcher on the eve of her funeral. I was on the top of a 170 bus, going through Parliament Square, on my way to research the 1381 revolt at the Public Record Office in Chancery Lane. A small car (was it a British Leyland car?) cut up the bus, causing it to swerve. Sitting at the front of the bus, I realised it was driven by Margaret Thatcher, then a new Leader of the Opposition. The coiffure and dress suit made the driver instantly recognisable. Her indomitable driving, heading for the gates of the Palace of Westminster without much regard for anything else on the road, seemed to summarise her character perfectly.

In 1991, I attended the opening of an exhibition of English Silver Treasures feom the Kremlin at Sotheby's in London. It was one of the earliest displays of art treasures from Russia following the events of 1989, and the Chairman of Sotheby's at that time was Lord Gowrie, a former minister in Thatcher's cabinet. Rumours began to circulate in the reception that she herself would attend. And indeed after a while, she appeared, to the ecstatic delight of the Russian representatives at the reception. Gowrie showed her round. What was truly astonishing was the way that she looked like a parody of herself: layered in thick make-up, she looked and moved like a Thatcher doll - the exaggerated movements in slow motion were particularly striking.

These are just two images that run through my mind on the eve of Lady Thatcher's funeral. I lived of course at that time in Battersea, and frequently walked past the tiny Thatcher home in Flood Street. I remember my surprise when, after she was elected Leader of the Opposition, a policeman stoof outside the house. I suddenly also remember working on my thesis when I heard a huge explosion the other side of the river - the siege of the Iranian Embassy had been raised. But what have these trivial memories to do with the main theme of this blog, the digital and the changes our new digital world are bringing?  Thatcher, although she was a scientist and despite the fact that her government saw the PC beginning to be introduced into offices, is somehow not in my mind associated with technology - the supremely technological British government of the twentieth century will always to me (rightly or wrongly) be Harold Wilson's 1964-70 government.

The digital transformation here is not Thatcher herself, but the fact that I am inclined to write down and share these memories. I'm not a natural diary writer (too much self-discipline required) and I woild never have bothered to use pen and ink on these memories. But somehow its more tempting and convenient to capture thse thoughts and memories on a London bus in blog form.  I'm sure there are others who have done the same, in different ways and in different forms, following the death of Margaret Thatcher. If we can somehow locate and analyse all these various recollections of Margaret Thatcher, we will be able to create a very different picture of the impact and characteristics of her premiership than would be possible for (say) Gladstone or Disraeli, where we are restricted to what as written, drawn and printed. 

Blogs, Twitter, Facebook enable us to share shards of memory and recollection which are otherwise too easily lost to the historical record.



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