“Ain’t digital great”

The Past’s Digital Presence: Database, Archive, and Knowledge Work in the Humanities, a conference at Yale. 

On Saturday, February 20, 2010, I attended part of a professional conference which, though held at ancient Yale University, dealt with a very modern topic- possibly too modern, actually.  Both speakers and attendees alike seemed eager and excited about the future of digitalization, yet there seemed to be an ironic undercurrent of uncertainty present throughout the sessions regarding this new wave of technology.  At a conference where the benefits of going digital took center stage, there still lingered below the surface a love for the old, boring, paper book.

Stuffed inside a small room which resembled a barn in the Whitney Humanities Center, a discussion on “the material object in digital culture” drew a capacity crowd which was forced to spill into the hallway.  The first speaker, Heather Ball of the City University of New York, fondly spoke of the pleasures of viewing an original Medieval manuscript in person, rather than online.  Evidently preaching to the choir, many others in the audience echoed Ball’s sentiments during the question and answer segment, which actually became more like a discussion as everyone by that point had become quite intimate with each other on account of the tight confines of the overcrowded room.  Behind the light tapping of laptop keys which provided background noise for the room, many of the old scholars present asked how undergraduates could possibly understand a manuscript if they couldn’t smell it.

The second speaker, Jessica Weare, of Stanford, sparked a lively debate on Google books.  She told of a time when an untrained Google Books digitizer removed a glued piece of paper from a book from the early twentieth century, which was “censuring” a passage.  The story nearly brought some in the audience to tears.  Many were critical of Google’s methods and its capitalistic tendency for quantity over quality; others, though, thought the scheme had benefits if properly conducted.  Google, after all doesn’t digitize a book’s smell.

For the second session, I attended a panel in the Whitney Humanities Center’s large auditorium.  In contrast to the previous crowded session, the auditorium was only about half full.  Everyone spread out, with some congregated into small groups, and others sitting alone, sometimes in their own personal row.  About a quarter present had laptops out, while the majority used old-fashioned paper to jot down notes on this new digital technology.  Dull sunlight peaked through big stained-glass windows, and the figurine of a medieval monk peered down below from the high ceiling.

A massive projector screen on stage allowed the presenters to show off their novel databases and computerized charts which were related to the session’s theme, “mapping history.”  A professor and graduate student from Stanford went through the Papers of Benjamin Franklin to map out where his personal, social, and official correspondence originated or arrived in the eighteenth century world.  Scott Nesbit, of the University of Virginia, used maps to create interesting charts, and Simon Wiles discussed the technicalities of database formation, yet both were a little slow to start on account of minor technical difficulties.

When all the presenters were done demonstrating their spectacular uses of digital history, the moderator, John Mack Faragher of Yale, decided to say a few words and ask these proponents of digitalization some very critical questions.  Reminiscent of the end of a comic roast, when the roastee was given a chance to fire back and have the last laugh, Faragher questioned the practical uses of some of these elaborate charts and databases.  He complained that many databases lacked permanence and could often be difficult to use.  It was as if the book wanted to have a chance to read its own eulogy at an event which increasingly looked like the funeral for a dead medium.

Considering this was a conference on digital history, though, Faragher also prepared a short digital presentation on the geography of Los Angeles, which included some photographs.  Having difficulties getting things started, he sarcastically told the audience “ain’t digital great.”  In his final remarks, he wanted to give some advice to a new generation of digital historians, warning of the importance to not sit at a computer all day.  To really understand history, particularly of landscapes and people, you must get outside and explore.  “Get off your ass,” he cried, “turn off your computer.”  With that, my limited time at the conference came to an end.

Conference website: http://digitalhumanities.yale.edu/pdp/

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