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.
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.