But Can the Unicorn Publish? Digital Humanities and Museum Publishing

One of the nice things about being a digital pack rat is that you never know what you’re going to find in the “stuff to read later” in your Dropbox. As one of my Arbitrary Calendar Change Day’s resolutions was “read stuff from ‘stuff to read later’ folder,” the first item I clicked on was an open access PDF called “Digital Humanities,” a white paper by Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner, and Jeffrey Schnapp. After attending the Museum Computer Network conference for the first time, this seemed as a good as time as any to address this topic.

And Digital Humanities has a unicorn, who has his own twitter feed! ‘Nuff said.

Digital Humanities is one of those things that people who aren’t already in the field stumble into and are surprised to find a huge discussion about it already underway. DH is a multi-disciplinary approach to using technology to improve humanities research, but it’s more than just a description: as technology opens up more avenues of research, the possibilities of said research grow exponentially. Any good perusal of a DH website will find articles on both the results of the research and the techniques used in generating that research. Many times, the same article will have explorations of the findings and the techniques, which opens up multiple avenues of engaging the reader, colleagues, the field. Like all good applied uses of technology, it comes with its own feedback loop.

What DH isn’t is brand new. I took a class in statistical methods of political science twenty-five a bunch of years ago using a VAX mini-computer and some hare-brained ideas about explaining national development in Africa based on … who knows. (It was sophomore year. I was listening to the Koyaanisqatsi soundtrack until I wore out the cassette tape. ‘Nuff said.) There have always been technologists in the humanities, but now there’s a widespread effort to build new tools and share them (like Omeka and Arduino, just to name two, and the list of open-source DH tools is endless), yet another feedback loop that is making the field a very promising not-for-profit analogue of the app-driven Silicon (V)Alley.

As a museum publisher, DH brings two questions to mind. First, how will museum publishing departments react to the ability of their more DH-minded curators to publish in their field in ways beyond the monograph? Should publishers be getting in on the act and helping their curators reach a broader audience with digital tools (and perhaps vice versa)?

Second, does DH change the potential publishing workflow? Now that there are so many open-source tools which mimic, at small scales, a content management system, will the task of getting content out of museum-wide CMS’s into an editable and then publishable format become easier? Are museum publishers, like some of their traditional publishing colleagues (Wiley and its XML-first workflow comes to mind), be ready to handle non-traditional publishing patterns?

The Getty Foundation’s Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative (OSCI) has the express aim of creating new publishing possibilities for museums. The resulting prototypes from a host of institutions are only the beginning, and whether they represent interesting hybrids or the last best attempt to make dense exhibition and collection catalogues work in a digital setting remains to be seen.

To me, the biggest hurdles in a relationship between DH and museum publishing are the same ones that have made working in both print and digital such a challenge: the drastic difference in time frames and the willingness to publish in iterative steps. How do you coordinate the one-to-two-year lifecycle of a significant exhibition catalogue and the fast-as-you-can-type publishing of a blog page? The iteration-and-prototyping issue may be even more of a problem. Print publishers aren’t keen to beta-test a book, and making available in some digital format the content of a book before printing opens up all sorts of thorny intellectual property problems.

But, as I’ve often said about willpower and money in a museum setting, there’s never enough of either. Until there is.

I can see real potential here for curators to become more active participants in the publishing process, with the help of digital departments in the institution. DH opens up possibilities for curators to “design” the expression of their research in ways that have a publishing aspect. Can publications designers help with this expression? Can a publication department create templates to allow for quicker expression of research? These are the interesting conversations that I hope the rise of DH will create.

And if publishers are concerned about being asked to learn new skills, consider this passage from the Digital Humanities report:

“The field of Digital Humanities may see the emergence of polymaths who can ‘do it all’: who can research, write, shoot, edit, code, model, design, network, and dialogue with users. But there is also ample room for specialization and, particularly, for collaboration. The generation now cursed with the label ‘digital natives’ will surely develop the capacity to become comprehensive digital humanists. The fact that digital projects of any substantial scale benefit from and, indeed, often require team-based approaches troubles traditional concepts of authorship in the humanities, which are still fixated, by and large, on single-authored achievements.” (15)

The authors of this paper are less concerned with specific technologies than with the overall approach inspired by digital possibilities. They know that research skill and digital wizardry are not the same thing for researchers. Neither should they be for publishers.

I won’t go into their entire analysis here. They build a useful progression from a first layer of computation, followed by processing, and the importance of analogue activities like classification and description (metadata may be digital but figuring out what tags are important is very much analog, as the debate about the creation of indexes in ebooks has revealed). Higher-level activities like curation, analysis, editing, and modeling can be expressed digitally but still require a great deal of people skill and thoughtful aesthetics.

To me, the essences of DH are prototyping, versioning, and failure. It’s the rapidity that scares both the traditional humanities and print publishing, and that’s the most important behavior we need to inculcate. The challenge will be working this into our curricula AND social-science workplaces, our curatorial departments AND our publication departments. Perhaps we’ll be better served if we think of it as Digital humanities or digital Humanities, but not see both as being equally capitalized.

The first part of the PDF is well worth a read for those who don’t know what DH is. I’ll address the report’s second part, “Emerging Messages and Genres,” in a future post.

Here are a few resources on DH:

(Thanks to Joan Fragaszy Troyano of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University for her insights into DH.)

2 thoughts on “But Can the Unicorn Publish? Digital Humanities and Museum Publishing”

  1. Robert – thanks for this great run-down of DH. As I am working on a DH project at the Getty that started as pure research, and which we are now developing into a publication, I want to say enthusiastically “Yes! The unicorn can publish!” (But check back with me in a few months to see if we pulled it off.) I do think that DH has the potential to change the publishing workflow, depending on what the publications we are creating look like. The traditional publication model probably won’t go away – it will produce a certain type of product. But we’re also going to create new models for publishing in order to communicate new kinds of information. And creating new products in any field requires iterating, prototyping, testing, and failure. As Johanna Drucker has argued, the process of developing these new forms of presentation is itself an intellectual pursuit. So yes, curators and scholars must be involved!

    I do think publishers have a role here as well, on a collaborative team that includes web developers, curators, digital designers, and editors. The trick, as you imply here, is for us all to get on the same conceptual page as far as the production cycle is concerned. Easier said than done, for some reason.

    Here’s a link to the presentation I gave with my colleague Will Lanni at MCN in November about the project we’re working on with the Getty Research Institute to develop a DH publication from a DH project. Our experience with this project has definitely echoes with your analysis of DH here! http://www.slideshare.net/jolifanta/getty-scholars-workspace-online-tools-for-collaborative-scholarly-collaboration-and-publishing

  2. As a postscript, someone helpfully pointed out to me Joanna Drucker’s recent article in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Pixel Dust: Illusions of Innovation in Scholarly Publishing. It seems at first a strong, even defiant counterpoint to the very optimism raised by Drucker and her co-authors in the Digital Humanities paper which was the inspiration for this post, but a more nuanced reading reveals that Drucker is countering the belief that digital is a replacement for print in scholarly publishing; more specifically, that digital enhancements are a substitute for good (and exhaustive) scholarship. She’s right that some institutions have historically fixated on the siren call of cost savings in pursuing digital alternatives to print-format research, which can be a Trojan horse for reducing headcounts and budgets. Read her article, and then go back and see how strongly the Digital Humanities paper supports human-driven research, where digital tools enable and supplement quality scholarship. If anything, DH is a response to the inherent problems of scholarly journal-based research in a society that doesn’t always value it, not the cause of said problems.

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