Digital Scholarship Incubator Reflections: Rachel Ernst

This post is part of a series of reflections from 2017 Digital Scholarship Incubator participants.

Rachel Ernst: For this project, I am planning on tracking and visually representing mentions of women’s clothing in nineteenth-century sensation novels. The ostensible goal is to develop a visual representation of the data as well as a timeline to help track historical and cultural patterns; the larger goals that I hope will eventually emerge from this beginning is a way to conceptualize patterns of circulation and resurgence within the shared worlds of nineteenth-century literature and nineteenth-century fashion and dress history. Someday I would even like to develop partnerships with museums and archives to create an interactive database that connects fictional objects with similar artifacts worldwide. My interest in ideas of materiality and agency in fictional objects inform the ideological focus of the project but, from a practical standpoint, I am looking forward to having a significant body of tangible data to supplement the more subjective argumentative side of my research. Writing about things that do not actually matter (in the scientific sense of the word) is often a challenging prospect, so being able to provide different ways for readers to visualize and interact with fictional objects will help open up these questions of mattering and materiality. I find this project very exciting especially when I consider the ways in which it could grow over time and different groups of texts.

Considering what I do and do not know is helping to focus the project in important ways. While I know that I want to consider nineteenth-century sensation novels, I am finding that it is difficult to establish a comprehensive list of what texts should be included. With this question in mind, I am interested in reaching out to fellow Victorianists to see what texts they might be interested in seeing studied in this way. By making a project that engages with texts of interest to the larger field of Victorian studies, I hope to build a project that will be both accessible and useful for students and faculty. I am still working out the logistics of what texts are available digitally and whether they are in a form that can be manipulated or mined in the ways I will need them to be. This brings me back to what I do not know, which includes what software and/or digital tools will be necessary to track, gather, and present the data in question. Once I have established the core texts I will be examining, I am looking forward to exploring the different ways in which I can work with the novels I have chosen.

As with any new project, the barriers and constraints seem to change every time I think through the project. Two constants are my own lack of digital scholarship experience and the limitations such a specific dataset may cause. I plan on continuing to ask questions about the project’s usefulness and accessibility as I develop it, as well as considering ways in which my project model might be adapted or expanded beyond my own interest in literary clothing. A successful project will not only provide a visual representation of the presence of women’s clothing in sensation novels as well as a timeline that tracks patterns of occurrence, but it will also provide a workable model for other projects interested in textual patterns of historical and cultural significance. A less successful, though perhaps not fully failed, version of the project will provide me with the data I am interested in for my research but perhaps either not represent the patterns of circulation and resurgence that I am expecting, or not provide a workable model for this type of digital analysis.