Final Digital Scholarship Incubator Reflections: Rachel Ernst

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

Rachel Ernst: Designing a digital humanities project is a much more collaborative undertaking than I was aware of when I first applied to join this digital incubator. While my more traditional humanities scholarship is created with the help of advisors and committees, much of the work is solitary. I am engaging with the work of other scholars and thinkers, but this engagement is done through the pages of their writing, rather than face to face. While working on my digital humanities project I realized the need this project had for more involvement with other people: the incubator, digital librarians, my eventual audience, other faculty and graduate students, and, someday, archivists, curators, and special collections librarians. Working digitally, especially for me as a material culturist who is increasingly spending time with the concrete and the material, also has more flexibility or fluidity than working with more traditional materials: gloves are not necessary, the pieces of the project are always just a click of a mouse away, and there is no need for a specialized, climate-controlled environment. But even as these characteristics make working on the project simpler in some ways, I do still feel frustrated by the inability to physically manipulate the data I am working with in tangible ways.

Working on this project has helped me to see how the database I am building may be of use to other nineteenth-century scholars; this idea of “use value” has been a helpful rubric for making decisions about content and where to focus my attention to best serve the needs of the community of Victorian scholars. At the same time, the lack of the type of work that I am proposing in this project has made the need for it that much more imperative. My interest in the objects of the nineteenth century, specifically women’s clothing, provides a unique lens through which to examine literature while forging relationships with museums and archives.

I think digital humanities projects need to be critiqued or evaluated at several different levels: the personal, the communal, and the professional. One of the questions we considered during the incubator was what could be considered a successful project? I think the first parameter for success is whether the project ultimately did what the author wanted. Whether or not the project succeeds with the public or with a professional community is also important but, fundamentally, the first critique should be at the level of the personal goal for the project. The next two levels of evaluation should examine how the project works within the community it was designed to reach. Is it accessible? Is it effective? Does it further work in its particular field? I think the last piece is what I am calling, for lack of a better term, the “professional” level; by this I mean not the field in which the project engages but the field of digital studies. Is this project a successful use of digital tools? Could it be structured differently or more effectively through other digital means? How does it expand the field of digital humanities? While it may be difficult to build a systematic approach to critique or evaluation of digital projects given the diversity of the work being done and the range of platforms being used, I believe having certain standards or areas of questions may be a useful way to critique digital humanities projects.