How and What Do We Keep (and What Do We Lose) in the Digital Age?

My grandmother used to clip and save everything; it wasn’t a successful reading session if she hadn’t marked off at least two pictures she wanted to eventually paint and clipped an article that she thought one of her daughters, grandchildren, or friends would be interested in reading. When I went away to university, I used to get letters from her that contained articles that mentioned my old high school, my old swim team, or future job possibilities, among other things. I always loved getting those letters. 

I also have very clear memories of my grandmother wanting to show me an article or picture she had found and being completely unable to find it among the piles and piles of magazines and newspapers. She was in no way “drowning” in her magazines and papers; she recycled out what she didn’t need or want every week. And once she had showed you what she wanted you to see, out it would go. But my grandmother used to get so frustrated when she knew exactly what she was looking for but could not for the life of her find it.

I wonder sometimes how my grandmother would be in this more digital age; would she be emailing me links, bookmarking page upon page in Delicious? Would she still get overwhelmed, even without the physically piles and pages, and lose what it is she is looking for? I’m not very good at bookmarking links, marking tweets as favorites, or starring emails; I tend to get overwhelmed and purge frequently. I also figure that if I need it, I can google it. And then, I, like my grandmother, couldn’t find an article I knew existed. I knew what site it from (, and I knew what it was about (the university of the future), but I didn’t have the right keywords in order to find it (kept searching university and future, rather than Academic things to come).

Thank goodness for Twitter.

An article about teaching students about how much the internet remember about them and the value of erasing parts of ourselves from the net got me thinking about how much is gained and lost, remembered and forgotten, in this digital age. I’ve worked with archives for my dissertation research, and the idea that these letters and manuscripts could be more readily and easily available both excites and dismays me. I’m excited because, hey, we all like easy access and dismays because I loved being able to hold the letters in my hand and read not just what I needed but also what was there. Having things easily indexed and searchable may be faster, but sometimes the joy is in the journey. What could be lost is something extraordinary that you weren’t necessarily looking for.

I also lament the potential loss of future archival materials because we no longer write physical letters; I know that gmail now archives EVERYTHING, but my old university email addresses did not; I’ve lost poems, important and meaningful letters, and fantastic conversations because I didn’t realize that my emails weren’t being automatically archived on the server. As I’ve already written about, I save everything I can when it comes to my informal writing; losing these emails actually bother me. I don’t think that they’ll be worth anything to any future scholar, but how many future subjects of interest’s letters have been lost because they didn’t realize that they messages weren’t automatically archived?

We also, for a time, have lost the ability to see the evolution of a piece of writing; unless you purposefully saved versions of the same draft, or the version with the feedback/Track Changes, then all we have left much of the time is the final version. Part of my research involved watching how a translation came to be, looking at various drafts, edits, and feedback the translator did and received. Google documents could allow us to watch a document be shaped and evolve, but unless we consciously save the steps, then the process will be lost.

Digitally, I’ve lost my wedding pictures when my husband’s computer’s hard drive was replaced without them first asking if he wanted a back-up of the old one. I lost all of my poetry from a period of five years because I accidentally left my diskette (yes, it was that long ago) behind in the computer lab; I don’t actually have a complete hard copy of them all, and, at the time, I didn’t have my own computer to back them up on. We have learned the hard way that ebooks can be taken away quite quickly and easily, making it hard to predict when our notes and annotations could be unceremoniously ripped from us.

Then again, I’ve had my “office” broken into when I was a PhD student (just before my final comprehensive exam) and all of my books stolen; pictures and documents can just as easily be lost in a fire, flood, or other disaster; and an irresponsible, careless, or oblivious person can just as easily throw out a physical letter as they could delete an email. My own research has gaping holes because a flood wiped out almost all of the personal papers of the author I was studying. And I also know first hand how fantastic it is to physically find something you might not have been looking for but because you had to search through everything.

As academics, whether you are a digital humanist or not, we need to pay attention and rethink how and what it is we keep and what might be lost.  

On The Outside Looking In on the Digital Humanities

*I wrote this about a month ago and it was meant for the University of Venus. But given the “debate” going on at this year’s MLA Conference (specifically the panel #openprof and #newtools, and in particular the post on the Chronicle Brainstorm blog), I thought I would share my own perspective as an “outside” looking in (and trying to figure out how I fit in).
When I started my PhD, there was a new program just getting started, called Humanities Computing. Students in the program pursued Masters degrees, taking a mixture of HuCo (as it was called) classes and classes from their “home” humanities department. There were a few students in Comparative Literature who were pursuing a Masters in HuCo. The rest of us had come from traditional literature departments, and we viewed our HuCo classmates with curiosity. What, exactly, are you doing?
One student analyzed a short story according to how many times certain words occurred in the story and at what points. He proudly showed us the graphs he plotted and showed that the graph exactly pinpointed the climax of the story. We all nodded impressively, but wondered to ourselves if you couldn’t figure it out with a good close reading. We also wondered how this could possibly compare to the complex theoretical readings we were doing, which was obviously more intellectually strenuous.
One thing stuck with me, though. When I asked the HuCo student what he could do with his degree, he told me that he had already received a number of lucrative job offered. The technological and analytical skills he was acquiring was in high demand. So much for our intellectual superiority.
There has been an explosion in interest in the digital humanities. Say what you will about the decline in traditional print media, but it still stands to reason that when the old Grey Lady, the New York Times, features something, it means it has hit the mainstream. And so it would seem that the digital humanities have hit the big time, such as it is. (And yes, I do see the irony in this).
Despite my initial condescension towards (one) idea of what digital humanities is, my own dissertation benefited from the increased digital availability of electronic archival resources. I would never had known about the various archives I visited, in which I found never-before analyzed letters and drafts, had it not been for the electronic availability of searchable archive databases (and Google). And, while I loved going through the old letters and manuscripts, if the materials had been completely digitized, I would have been able to avoid taking out a $10,000 line-of-credit in order to pay for the travel to the archives so I could complete my research.
But some skepticism still remains. Recently, a video made the rounds, questioning the sanity of any student who would look to do a PhD in Political Science. The student wants to study politics; the professor warns that the student will spend his days doing “regression discontinuity.”  My husband has a PhD in Political Science and I know first-hand the pressure he faced to do more quantitative research, rather than the qualitative work that he loves. I worry that this is the direction that the digital humanities will take all of the humanities.
I love the idea of making documents (aka data) of all kinds more accessible to interested parties (and not just “scholars”), as well as discovering more innovative ways of presenting the data. But I hope that we haven’t moved into a “post-theoretical age” in that we go back to a time where simply making an observation was good enough, even with the help of a computer.  We still need the theorists to help us interpret the increasing amount of “data” we are able to access and reorganize.  As was asked here on Inside Higher Ed, where are the humanities in the digital humanities?
Finally, I worry that there will be an even larger generation of “lost scholars” than there already is. We know the number of tenure-track jobs in the humanities is dwindling. What happens to academics whose traditional academic training has left them entirely ill equipped to compete for the new (if still tiny) number of jobs that are available. Do we go and get another PhD?  Try to radically reframe our research interests to fit a rapidly evolving field? Or just give up?
For me, I have the luxury of being able to try to adapt. Can I create a website/database that allows readers and researchers to more fully explore the inter- and intra-textual references that an author has across their writing and other artistic output, one that is crowdsoured? I have no idea. I am still on the outside of the digital humanities, trying to hack my way in (haha). But I have some stability in order to explore the theoretical questions and technical aspects of the project. What of the adjunct teaching an overload of classes at multiple institutions? I hope there’s space for all of us at the increasingly small table.